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How to Capture Color in Photographs

Many photographers plunk down the cash for expensive cameras, software and lenses but still find deep and vibrant color lacking in their images. While good equipment is certainly important, it’s not the only factor when it comes to producing beautiful imagery. A few simple tips and photo habits will ensure that you’re always getting the best from your camera.

by Ian Terry

Many photographers plunk down the cash for expensive cameras, software and lenses but still find deep and vibrant color lacking in their images. While good equipment is certainly important, it’s not the only factor when it comes to producing beautiful imagery. A few simple tips and photo habits will ensure that you’re always getting the best from your camera.

Beautiful pinks on the Washington coast. Photo by Ian Terry.

1

Light

Great light is the essence of powerful colors. But great light isn’t easy to find. Sometimes photographers make the mistake of assuming that brighter sources of light translate to better images. Of course, a certain amount of light is needed to properly expose a picture, but much more important is the type of light.

Photographing during the early morning and late evening hours of a sunny day is the easiest way to naturally boost the vibrancy of your pictures. During this time, sunlight takes on an orange and reddish glow. The resulting photographs are often rich in color because of this unique light. Other opportunities for interesting light come just before the sun rises and just after it goes down. At this time, the light is soft and diffused—perfect for separating and defining the subtle differences of greens in the forest or the dark navy and aqua tones of an alpine lake.

2

Exposure

Even the most promising picture taken in the best light conditions, though, can be ruined with an improper exposure. Automatic camera modes continue to improve, but these settings will never be as reliable as learning to properly set your exposure manually. The easiest tip to dramatically improve the quality of color in your images is to err on the side of underexposure. Overexposure leads to “washed out” colors that lack depth and nuance. Lighter colors may even come out completely white.

To combat this, photographers can make sure to expose for the highlights (the brighter areas) of a scene as opposed to the shadows. Doing this can lead to a lack of detail in darker areas of a picture, as shadows remain black, but colors will appear deep and saturated. Of course, pictures that are heavily underexposed can take on a “muddy” look. To best capture color, a photographer needs to identify the specific tones of a scene that they’re interested in portraying and then carefully shoot so as to not overexpose them.

3

Concept

Rich tones are an important aspect of photography, but learning to combine and mix certain colors, while omitting others, is perhaps the real mark of a great photographer. Colors and composition work in concert to produce images that convey emotion. By manipulating the palette of colors visible in your pictures, you can give them certain moods. For example, an early-morning forest scene of greens and blues will have a different impact on the viewer than a high-desert trail full of oranges and reds.

Sometimes color can be used to highlight specific parts of a picture too. A sea of blue flowers is pretty, but finding an angle that shows off just one flower, amid otherwise drab surroundings, can really place an emphasis on the color.

Skyline Divide by Bryan Moore.jpgAlpenglow over Mount Baker. Photo by Bryan Moore.

Camera Tips

  • Filters: Some filters can provide benefits for capturing color. A polarizer will help cut down on reflections and give skies a deeper and darker blue tone.
  • Lenses: Unfortunately for your wallet, the quality of your lens makes a big impact on the color in your photos. As a rule of thumb, lenses make a greater impact on color quality than cameras and their internal sensors do.
  • Settings: Properly dialing in your camera’s settings is vital. Pay attention to your white balance, as this controls the “temperature” of your picture. A higher white balance will give a warmer, oranger look, while a lower white balance will provide a cooler, bluer look.
  • Tripod: A tripod can be a valuable tool. A motionless camera means you can shoot with a slower shutter speed and thus lower your camera’s ISO sensitivity adjustment. Lower ISO settings translate to better color, less grain and better image quality.
This article originally appeared in the Mar+Apr 2018 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.