Color, Part 1

Sand Dunes, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado © Mike Spinak

The Constrained Color Palette

When people want to photograph a beautiful scene, they often use the widest angle focal length they can, to capture as much as possible. Usually, this leads to disappointing results. Showing as much as possible tends to make pictures incoherent. When one looks at such a photo, one might wonder what part of the photo s/he’s supposed to focus upon, and what the photo is about. The communication gets diluted or lost in the mass of extraneous details.

Clarity can have as much to do with what you don’t include as what you do. Skilled photographers learn to keep extraneous details out of their pictures, as much as possible. If it doesn’t contribute to the picture, it doesn’t belong in the picture. (This doesn’t mean that compositions shouldn’t be busy, just that any busyness shouldn’t be unnecessarily filled with irrelevancies. The delightful works on Raghubir Singh, such as this, exemplify that coherent compositions can be complicated and multi-faceted, yet with nothing out of place.)

Color tends to be one of the last bastions of haphazardness for many veteran photographers, as they learn to pare compositions down to only the essential elements. The world is a riot of color, and so this gets incorporated directly into photographs, without the photographer’s moderation. Further, many photographers are like a kid with a big box of new crayons, who wants to use every single color. The results of trying to capture every color possible within one photo are usually as disappointing as the results of trying to capture as wide of a swath of a scene as possible. It usually becomes an incoheerent mess with no clear message. Again, this is not to say that pictures can’t ever be well composed with many bright colors. The point is simply to use colors judiciously, rather than with abandon, and incorporate them as intentional and coherent elements of your visual expression, in of themselves, rather than as the unnoticed accompaniments of the objects you choose to include.

You might be surprised to find that limiting your colors to just the ones which contribute strengthens your picture in the same way as removing all the other extraneous details.


Sand Dunes, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado


All pictures and text are © Mike Spinak, unless otherwise noted. All pictures shown are available for purchase as fine art prints, and are available for licensed stock use. Telephone: (831) 325-6917.