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This tip article by Brian Dilg, comes to us courtesy of New York Film Academy Photography School, where he serves as the Chair of the New York Film Academy Photography Conservatory. Dilg is an internationally published and collected photographer and award-winning filmmaker with over 20 years of professional teaching experience around the world.
Many years ago, I found myself behind a video camera at a seminar for aspiring real estate agents. I remember absolutely nothing about the seminar except the speaker's main point: What are the three most important factors in the value of a piece of real estate? Answer: location, location, location!
I'd state the photographic equivalent of this as: simplify, simplify, simplify. The world is infinitely complex, detailed, colorful, and fascinating. To make a successful image of it, however, the most fundamental act you make is to exclude a good deal of it. While the act of framing your scene is the first and most important choice, how you orchestrate colors and tones is a crucial step to focus the viewer's attention.
I use the word "orchestrate" very deliberately, and in direct opposition to the myth of objectivity that has always haunted photography. The exact ways in which a camera "sees" differently than our eyes is a topic that would fill a book, but suffice to say that while photographers cannot control their eyes, they can and must choose how to render the world with their cameras.
What do we notice first when looking at a picture? We see recognizable objects, particularly faces, but with regard to tone and color, we're drawn to what's brightest and most colorful, as well as high-contrast edges. Colors have luminosity; yellow is the brightest, and blue feels the darkest. (It also happens to be the last color we can see before losing color sensitivity to the dark altogether.)
The challenge facing the outdoor photographer is that the natural world presents a deluge of colors, textures, dramatic light, and beauty. The temptation is to cram an image with as much of this visual impact as possible: all the colors, fully saturated, with dramatic contrast, and everything sharply focused. The problem is that when every part of a photo is equally "loud" and visually compelling, the overall effect is overwhelming to the eye. The image is exhausting to look at, as if every instrument in an orchestra were playing a great melody at the same time, fortissimo. Chaos, as witnessed by the glut of over-the-top, HDR-on-steroids style images so prevalent in the age of digital tools too often wielded without restraint.
There is a simple principle that can be applied to simplify the use of color and tone, one that has served artists well for hundreds of years. If we break color into saturation and the choice of hues, those plus luminosity gives us three components to juggle. If you choose a broad range in any one of these components, try limiting the other two to a medium and low level of intensity or differentiation.
For instance, the image of the kiteboarder and the person walking has a high level of contrast; however, it is essentially a one-color image, with one small highly saturated spot of complementary color. High contrast, low number of colors, medium saturation on average.
This image also illustrates another principle about colors: the more luminous a color, the smaller the area of that color can afford to be. A small spot of blue (a dark, heavy color) will not "pop," but a small spot of bright yellow, orange, or red catches the eye quite nicely (especially when contextualized by its opposite).
The image of the man walking in the field with Edinburgh Castle looming in the fog is low in saturation, has a modest range of related hues, and a full range of tones.
The image shot underneath the seed pods with the sky in the background uses what I'd call a medium level of contrast, fairly saturated colors, but only two of them.
Both color and exposure have an emotional component and can be as personal as content. The work of some photographers always lives in a brilliant world of high-key, desaturated tones; the images of others are always found in near-darkness.
The way you render color and tone consistently throughout your entire body of work will distinguish your ouvre from others. Even if your subject is "the natural world," I encourage you to personalize your palette so that your work is uniquely recognizable as yours and yours alone.