What About Selective Color and Alternative Color Methods?
Up to this point, we’ve talked mostly of an either/or end product, but what about cases where the final image is a combination of color and black and white? Selective color, the use of color only in specific areas of a black and white image, is both shamefully overused and surprisingly effective when used thoughtfully. It can be a perfect marriage of the two techniques or it can be their bastard.
You’re at risk of beating your audience over the head with your point if you take it the obvious route, but there’s a lot available in terms of choosing the level of saturation, color relationships within your selections, and the way those pops of color are composed within the image.
There’s also the matter of monochrome imagery, where the tints, shades, and tones of a single hue are used exclusively throughout a photo. Basically, a black and white image of that specific color. It’s hard to say if monochrome should be considered a subset of full color or of black and white photography, but it unquestionably combines their challenges. Like black and white photography, a monochrome work is left to draw the viewer’s eye using primarily composition and value while still navigating the questions color photography always raises: Which colors work with this concept? How do I use saturation as part of this composition?
Color Psychology and Photography
While color theory is a big deal in this discussion, we can’t really talk about whether it’s better or worse than non-color without touching on the psychology of it. Commercial photographers already know that color choice can impact how a viewer feels about the product as heavily as the marketing language. That’s why brands can be so fierce about using “their” colors, down to a specific pantone, for continuity across their promotional materials.
Take the food industry, for example: fast food restaurants in particular lean heavily toward the warm end of the spectrum, relying on saturated reds, oranges, and yellows because they can simulate feelings of hunger, urgency, or need. Though blue is stereotypically associated with calm or even sadness, it’s also often used to project non-threatening masculinity in marketing, while greens generally evoke feelings of balance and oneness with nature.
Whether these are due to social implications or a natural response is a different conversation (though we can probably all agree that it’s a little bit of both). It’s proof though, that color can add layers to your work when you use it wisely.
It’s a tool to be used with caution, since color carries certain cultural and social associations that can speak louder than your meaning. It’s not just on a global or regional scale, either. As we discussed earlier, everyone has their own individual experiences that they are drawing on when they observe your work, and you can’t account for every single viewer’s history in every photograph you make. Embrace these associations if you like or try to set them aside in favor of impartiality, but always be thoughtful when you are considering them.