Stepping into color

Shooting digital makes choosing whether or not to use color a trivial exercise. You can even pick out a long-settled photo and flip the setting just to see what could have been. In practice, though, I realize that I am most comfortable shooting black and white.

When you're thinking of a photo as being black and white you focus on framing shapes and imagine large swings in contrast between light and dark areas. Texture and geometry become all-important and there's a feeling of precision and abstraction. I find these ideas comforting and it's easy to attract my mind's eye to these concepts when looking around for a shot.

As soon as you add color, though, this all goes to hell. Fine patterns are buried in complex color variations. Contrasts which were once dramatic are washed out or overwhelmed by underlying color transitions or, worse, appear as nasty, burned out and unnatural. A little burst of off-palette color draws the eye away from the geometry of the shot. Nasty stuff.

So this week's photo assignment was especially challenging to me. I felt disappointed and a little disgusted to start. The goal was to shoot something artistic and red and I found myself just taking dumb shots of every red thing I could find. Red was obviously nice because it's such a bold color and shows up rarely (in the US at least), but it wasn't immediately obvious how to make use of this. Just seeing that something is red fails to tell any story.

Over time, though, I started to see much more possibility. It probably took 3 attempts, walking about looking for red, before I started to notice that I'd been blunt before. If you're going to shoot color you can't just find something red but instead need to see how that red subject fits into the colors of the larger image.

To find a story in red and to embed it into time you need to recognize the metaphor and symbolism of the color. It's also nice to notice people's intentional choice to red over any other color.

Finally, it's important to note that color can be subtle and embedded into the scene instead of blaring and loud. While a lot of the shots I see as black and white look garish in color, better color shots have the colors step out of the way just the same.

In the end, I started to see red as an implicit matter of the environment instead of one that I sought as my subject. Instead of screaming, it represented richness warmth. I feel like even just over one week focusing on this helped me to understand color far more than I ever had in the past.

Alex Webb (portfolio, Magnum profile) is quite famous for his color compositions. They are complex and yet perfect. The muddiness of color that repulses me in my own shots somehow comes to order in his. A scene can be sliced into pieces by changes of tonality or brought to unexpected unity by a common color theme. These ideas are too advanced for my eye at the moment and seem to arise out of an even more improbable set of alignments and coincidences.

But I already feel more ready to be on the lookout for them. That's what a week's worth of deliberate practice can do.