The Trouble with Colour

Ever since I first held a camera, every photo I’ve taken has been in colour. The finished article may not stay that way, but my eyes see in colour, and my view through the viewfinder is always in colour.

People more qualified than me to talk about photography have said that, aesthetically, colour photography is more difficult to get right that black and white—that extra variable added into the mix of form, shape, line and texture can get us into trouble. Toy photographers have it harder than most.

Toys are, in general, not subtle when it comes to colour. Looking through my boxes of minifigs I can see mostly bright, bold primary and secondary colours—including complex figures with multiple contrasting coloured parts. It takes a very skillful eye to work with so many strong colours in the same image—I certainly can’t do it well.

I looked through my past photographs and there is a definite trend towards either neutral tones or a single big, bold colour. Very few images have made it out into the wild that I would call “garish”.

This came as a revelation to me. I hadn’t really though about how many major colours were used in my photos before, but now I have another tool to use when analysing my reaction to photographs (something I have been purposefully studying since we mentioned the possibility of critiquing photographs here on SiP). My personal preference, certainly in my own work, is for colour to perform the job of a graphic statement—it’s there for a reason—and not just that the figure or surroundings happen to be that particular colour.

Let’s rip some of my photos apart as examples. The following four images don’t work for me. Mostly because of the colour. Some of the ideas are terrible too, but let’s just focus on the colour rather than when on earth I was thinking at the time.

What an eye-hurting mess this is. Yoda is always a problem for me. Green orange and brown don’t go together naturally. Adding bright yellow does not make things better, it’s next to green on the colour wheel, so not a complementary colour, and really doesn’t go well with it here.
The golden light is meant to be the focus of this photo, but the multiple colours confuse the scene. The wall is yellow, the flowers are a mixture of red, yellow and white, the drink is orange, there are large areas of black and brown. It’s all too much. The mood of this photo calls for subtle, calm, muted shades.
That group of forget-me-nots in the background has no business being there. We’ve already got a strong colour with the reddish-brown hair. The blue just pops out and overwhelms everything in the photo. It’s a distraction. I vaguely remember adding it because I thought there should be something interesting in the background.
Poor R2, a mix of bold green and blue matched with the earthy tones of the flame, meat and barbeque. Neither natural-looking or graphic in nature, it’s a confused photo colour-wise. There’s also the odd angle of the fence, but we’re sticking to criticising the colour, so shush.


And now we can contrast those with some photos where colour plays a major part in why they work.

A very simple image, only two major colours. Red and cyan are complementary colours and the neutral white of the cat doesn’t add any extra colour noise.
An almost completely green background, Vader not adding any extra hues, and a big bold splash of complementary red to really draw attention to his fists.
More muted tones in this one. The chair has been slightly desaturated from the original to bring its tone more in line with that of the wooden floor. We have two halves of the scene, one white and neutral, and the bottom half warm and red.


I think this is why I love the LEGO stormtrooper so much! Simple black and white works pretty well with any other colour. Some of the figures I have trouble photographing—like Boba Fett, Yoda, the X-wing pilots—are bright multi-coloured figures that need a very careful choice of background. They’re quite easy to do as “hero” shots against a featureless backdrop—I’m certainly no stranger to that genre—but more difficult to weave into a more story-based shot without ending up in a colourful mess.

It’s a subject I’m reading more about as we speak, and I’m enjoying looking at photographs with a new colour-critical eye. Feel free to point me at photos whose colours do it for you in the comments.




5 Replies to “The Trouble with Colour”

  1. Mike,

    First let me tell you how much I enjoyed this post. It is a delightful read as well as instructive. As I was reading through two thoughts jumped into my head:

    1) Check out the Photographers Playbook’s assignment Composing in Color by Sara Terry. The assignment helps to train the eye to look for color trends. The quick and dirty is to take any view, flatten it like a photograph, pick a color and then find it repeated else where in your view. It is a way to start seeing color as another pattern, like lights and darks, that can help to guide the viewer around the image. I have been attempting to do this exercise when I am out and about, driving, walking etc.

    2) Did you notice that in your final three images, the only color that stands out is red? I can almost look at your images and imagine you are using ‘selective color’ to create your images. Is this a conscious choice towards a minimalistic use of color?

    I’ve always been a color photographer (for better or worse) and I understand what you’re saying about primary colors. I tend to shy away from brightly colored mini figures and I also desaturate all my images because those yellows and reds get to be too much. Trust me, I understand what you’re saying.

    Great post Mike, excellent food for thought moving forward!


    1. That’s a great observation about red. I hadn’t even noticed. I like that exercise in the handbook too. Sounds like a great way to look at scenes differently. I’m going to have to pick that book up.

    2. Shelly,

      I shall have a look at the Playbook assignment, I’ve had the book since Christmas but haven’t actually opened it yet.

      As for red, it wasn’t a conscious choice, but it seems I’m quite fond of red and oranges as stand-out colours. They’re normally the complement of the green/blue backgrounds I use often, so maybe that’s it.

      I have just read ‘Lifelike’, a book on colour theory and practice in photography, and it talks about harmonising colours by desaturation and colour overlays. Made me realise why a lot of images look better with Instagram/vintage filters!

  2. Fabulous article… I think I need to study up on color! It does explain the attraction to storm troopers and the Boba Fett prototype. Very interesting subject!

  3. Since I read this post I haven’t stopped thinking about colors in my pictures. I think I still have to figure out why some pictures seems to me to work better than other despite not using complementary colors. On the other hand it brings my attention to details I never noticed. In particular I understand why I love to take Rex riding a red bike. I never realized how strong was the contrast in terms of colors.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *