Making Summer Color

In a season dominated by green, you can help the natural landscape with your camera, filters and the delicate use of Photoshop tools
Making Summer Cooler
Junk, Halong Bay, Vietnam. This image was shot on a dull, gray morning. Using the Tungsten setting in the camera’s White Balance options created an overall blue cast. Before digital, Benson would have used an 80A blue filter to achieve a similar effect. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II, Canon EF 16-35mm at 16mm, ISO 200

In the summer, hot on the heels of a season that positively bursts with varied hues, the color that most comes to mind is green. The landscape becomes a green carpet, and finding dramatic color combinations can be a daunting task. Sure, there still are flowers and blooms to work with, but compared to the explosion of spring colors, summer photography can be tough. To make summer color really pop, you can turn to some special equipment and technology.

Making Summer Cooler

Color Relativity
Whether you’re conscious of it or not, you make hundreds of color judgments daily, but they’re strictly relative to you and your perception. I have a red-green color deficiency in my vision. I’m not alone; approximately 10 percent of the male population has this minor color deficiency. If you’re curious about your own color perception, there are plenty of websites on the topic. As one example, visit www.toledo-bend.com/colorblind/Ishihara.html and test your color vision there (I can see the 25 and 56 clearly; the rest are a bunch of dots). The thing is, everything looks fine to me. I can’t tell that my perception of red is different from anyone else’s. Everyone has color biases and perception differences. Color is relative to the observer.

You’re probably familiar with the color wheel and how opposite colors on the wheel complement each other. For example, red and cyan, green and magenta or blue and yellow visually intensify one another if placed in close proximity. It’s not always possible to get those colors next to one another in the outdoors, but being aware of this effect will help you recognize and compose images to best take advantage of complementary colors.

Making Summer Cooler
John Day Fossil Beds, Oregon. High overcast clouds made for even light, but gave a bluish colorcast to everything. Digitally, Benson was able to select and restore red to layers in the hills and yellow to the rivers of wildflowers growing in the ravines. Pentax 645, Pentax 45mm, Fujichrome Velvia

Again, the whole thing is relative. The colors red and cyan next to one another may not visually intensify or complement one another for you the same way they do for someone else. Study your images and the work of other artists you admire. Try to find clues to what preferences or biases you may have. We all have different visual triggers, be they certain subjects, shapes, colors or patterns to which we respond. Understanding what they are will help you identify that something when you’re out shooting. I know I respond to almost any strong color—magenta being a favorite—and also to triangular shapes. I see them often in my own photography and in the work of others I admire. Know yourself, recognize what triggers your whoopee buttons. Both photography and life are a lot more fun when you know where these buttons are and how to get them pushed.

Filters

Filters used to be the most common way to add or control color in photography. I carried around more than 40 different filters in the attempt to control exposure and color. I used cooling filters (e.g., 80A) to produce a duskish blue cast, several types of warming filters (e.g., 85 orange) or sepia filters to replicate the look of old or aged prints. I used color-enhancing filters, combined with high-contrast films like Fujichrome Velvia to intensify colors, and numerous grads of varying intensity and color to help balance contrast and exposure.

 

Making Summer Cooler Monks at sunset, Angkor Thom, Bayon Temple, Cambodia. A Cokin Sunsoft filter added a warm cast and slightly diffused glow to the image. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II, Canon EF 100-400mm at 100mm, ISO 200, handheld with Image Stabilizer on

I now do most of these things digitally and have reduced my load of filters from 40 down to just five: 1) regular polarizer; 2) Singh-Ray Gold-N-Blue color polarizer; 3) Singh-Ray LB warming polarizer; 4) extreme, solid, neutral-density filter to generate long exposures in midday light; and 5) Cokin Sunsoft filter, which offers slight warming and slight diffusion. The effects of these filters are difficult to replicate digitally.

Whether you work digitally or with filters, one of the most important things to remember when playing with color is that the effect works best when you try to enhance colors or moods that to some extent already exist in the scene. It’s difficult to make high noon look like sunset simply by putting an orange filter over the lens. Humans are visual creatures, and while many viewers may not be able to point out that the shadows are wrong for a sunset, they will be aware that something is off, and the image will just read wrong.

Digital

Digital offers much more control over how you use color, from specifically changing one single hue to selecting several colors and enhancing or desaturating them all with total control. Filters are a crude way to apply color as they’re unselective and apply their effect to the entire scene. Sometimes this can be useful, for example, if you’re trying to mimic the look of dusk or night. Placing a strong blue filter (80A) over the lens and underexposing by a stop will give a wash of blue to both highlights and shadows, echoing the colorcast often seen when shooting at those times of day.

Making Summer Cooler
Sumac, near Quebec City, Quebec. A Singh-Ray Gold-N-Blue color polarizer was used to creatively intensify the colors in the scene. Pentax 645, Pentax 45mm, Fujichrome Velvia

However, even that effect has been replicated by using the color balance setting on digital cameras. By choosing the Tungsten setting in the White Balance options, the camera will purposefully give a dominant blue cast to the image (similar to the effect of an 80A filter). Conversely, you can set the camera white balance to the Shade setting (analogous to shooting on a clear day in open shade, when you’d normally get a blue cast to your images), and the camera will give a strong warm hue to the images.

These effects also can be done postshoot by using the White Balance controls in RAW processing software. The controls likely will show you the color temperature in Kelvin. The low numbers (2000-3200) are bluish and progress to a strong orange at the high end (5000-6000). It’s often fun just to play with these controls, working visually to see what creative effect they have on an image.

Making Summer Cooler
Young monks and stupas, Myanmar. A polarizing filter deepened the blue sky and created higher contrast that visually helped pop out the white stupas. In Photoshop, Benson took a bit of an unwanted green cast out of the highlights. Keeping neutral tones like white, gray and black clean of colorcasts helps punch the true colors in a scene. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II, Canon EF 16-35mm at 16mm, ISO 200

The best thing about working digitally with color is the ability to selectively isolate any hue or tonal value. I often use Color Range in Photoshop (Select > Color Range) to select only the Highlights or Shadows in an image and then neutralize any color bias. Often, by keeping the whites, grays and blacks neutral, the areas of true color will pop more vibrantly. For example, a blue sky will have a more brilliant blue if the clouds are neutral. If the clouds have a colorcast to them—blue or cyan, for example—the entire image will have a colorcast and the sky’s blue will be visually less intense. This also is true for shadows or areas of a scene that should be gray. Keep the neutral areas clean of colorcast, and all the true areas of color will appear stronger.

There are times when a colorcast is desired, however—an overall wash of orange at sunset or shades of blue at dusk and twilight, for example. Once you understand how color affects the scene, the viewer and the colors around it, you’re free to take advantage of those effects for creative purposes.

Less Color
There are many times when color gets in the way and desaturating or completely eliminating hue yields a stronger image than a color version of the scene. Again, digital has a working advantage here. In Photoshop’s Preferences, uncheck the Color Channels in Color box under Display and Cursors. Each RGB channel now will display in black-and-white, as if the scene was shot on black-and-white film through a red, green or blue filter. Toggle through them to see how different the image looks in each version. There are many creative ways to blend the preferred effect from each channel to create an image that looks very different from the color version or any single channel. I like to copy each channel onto a separate layer and then use a black or white paintbrush on layer masks to blend them together. Taking the leaves selectively from the green channel, the sky from the red channel and shadows from the blue channel all blended together can generate a look similar to black-and-white infrared. The look can be dramatic.

Making Summer Cooler
One of the easiest ways to boost the definition and color in your summer images is to use a UV filter. The Heliopan Digital filter blocks UV and IR rays to give you better reds and greens, improved separation between colors and overall cleaner colors. Contact: HP Marketing Corp., www.hpmarketingcorp.com

A longtime contributor to Outdoor Photographer, Daryl Benson is the author of many books and his work has appeared in many calendars. See more of his photography at www.darylbenson.com.

5 Comments

    Daryl Benson said:
    Everyone has color biases and perception differences.

    I’m sorry, Daryl, You have got a red-green color deficiency, not everyone.
    There are a lot of color phenomena most of the people are perceiving the same way, and I can become a bit angry, reading all the time the expression “Color Relativity”. It just hampers a good discussion about what we can say and waht we know about color, if everyone mutters, color is relative all the time.

    Each and everyone of us sees colour in our own way. Its all our own opinion in our own colour world regardless of whether we have “colour” deficiencies of not.

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    Yes colors are always relative to each other, of which invariable beauty is in the eye of the beholder:)Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us all.

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