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Photographing Nature: Not Everything's Black-and-White

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Ralph A. Clevenger explains that color is a powerful creative tool, if you know how to use it.
This chapter is from the book

The color of nature

Reds make our heart beat faster, greens have healing properties, blues calm us, yellows give us hope, browns and grays make us sad. Of all the visual elements, color is perhaps the strongest. Often a spot of color is the reason a photographer stops to take a picture. It catches the eye. Our reaction to color is instinctive; it's wired into the brain, part of how we interact with the world (FIG. 4.1).

Fig 4.1

Fig 4.1 These weren't the only aspen leaves floating in Rock Creek, but by choosing a long lens and framing tightly I eliminated everything but these few leaves, the rocks, and water. The contrasting colors really make you notice the leaves. Eastern Sierras, California. (Nikon D100, ISO 200, 70–200 mm lens, tripod, 2 sec. @ f/16.)

Color seems to be wired into nature, too. Even though most other creatures don't see color like we do, the natural world has plenty of color. Flowers, plants, mushrooms, bugs, birds, lizards, sunsets, rainbows—even rocks have color. And sometimes it's unbelievable color, as in the lilac-breasted roller (LBR, as they say on safari), shown in the opening photo of this chapter. We were driving through a recently burned area in Tanzania when I spotted this bird hunting for insects. The dark burned wood provides a strong contrast with the LBR's incredible colors. This bird was pretty fearless, letting us get quite close. Then it ruffled its feathers…click.

Color of light

Color comes from light. The sun produces every wavelength that the human eye can see. So does a flashlight, but because its bulb has more red and yellow wavelengths than sunlight does, the flashlight's light looks warmer. Sunlight on an overcast day is filtered through clouds, which are made of water; therefore, the light appears bluer.

Colors of light are measured with a special temperature scale called Kelvin. Photography borrows this scale from physics, using it to measure the intensity of colors from red (warm) to blue (cool). The lower the Kelvin temperature, the warmer the light; the higher the temperature, the cooler the light. For instance, a candle flame is 1850° Kelvin, the light from a 100-watt incandescent lamp is about 2900° K, a sunset red sky is about 3500° K, sunlight at noon in the summer is maybe 5400° K, a light overcast sky is about 7000° K, and a shady spot can be 8500° K or even higher. You don't really need to know the Kelvin scale, but your camera does; since you're supposed to be in charge of your camera, you need to have an idea of how its temperature scale works, especially later in this chapter when we talk about camera white balance (FIG. 4.2 and 4.3).

Fig 4.2

Fig 4.2 The color of the evening light was beautiful. It was early fall, and the tundra was just starting to change around Camp Denali. Rain had passed through the area, and the last rays of light were hitting the distant hills. The light was almost palpable. Denali National Park, Alaska. (Nikon D2x, ISO 200, 12–24 mm lens, tripod, 1/30 sec. @ f/8.)

Fig 4.3

Fig 4.3 One of the most incredible sunsets I've ever seen. The colors were just intense. I shot with every lens and tried every composition during the few minutes of peak color. You don't get a second chance with displays like this. Salton Sea, California (Nikon F4, ISO 32, 20 mm lens, tripod, Fujichrome Velvia 50, exposure unrecorded.)

Sometimes you can actually see colored light. If the time is close to sunset or sunrise and the air holds a lot of moisture or dust, you can get what I call "pink air." It's as if you can feel the air, it's so thick. The light turns the air pink. Everything's pink—the sky, your skin, the white T-shirt you're wearing, everything. It's like looking through pink glasses. Sometimes it's more yellow than pink, sometimes more orange. Maybe I should call it "colored air." Whatever. It's amazing light for photography (FIG. 4.4).

Fig 4.4

Fig 4.4 In the dry season, dust hangs in the still air over the Mala Mala Game Reserve in South Africa. We were sitting on a rocky hill watching the sunset. As the sun descended, the air turned golden—everything turned golden. Choosing one tree as the subject helps to give the eye somewhere to go in all that color. (Nikon F4, ISO 100, 400 mm lens, tripod, Fujichrome 100, exposure unrecorded.)

Color of subject

Just as light has color, things have color. When light strikes a subject, some of the wavelengths are absorbed and some are reflected. The reflected wavelengths bouncing off the subject produce the colors we see. What's unique about this quality of light is that it's subjective. Each of us, and each species of animal, sees color differently. Fortunately, most humans agree on the general hues of common colors. In photography, red, blue, and green are the primary colors; yellow, magenta, and cyan are the secondary colors. How you use these colors, how you mix them in your photographs, can mean the difference between a boring image and a contest winner (FIG. 4.5).

Fig 4.5

Fig 4.5 I saw this image while lying on my belly photographing wildflowers in the Mojave Desert. I couldn't get the bee and flower in the same shot—with the wide-angle lens, the bee was just too small and never in the right position. Instead, I composited the flower shot with another bee shot that I had taken earlier, and created what I saw in the scene. This image was selected as Highly Honored in the 2007 Natur's Best Photography Annual Competition. (Digital composite.)

To understand how colors work together, designers use a color wheel, a diagram that relates colors to each other. The wheel shows which colors harmonize and which colors build tension, helping you to choose dramatic subjects and compositions. To create color harmony, find colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. Color harmony brings a sense of balance to a photograph, helping to provide a connection between all the elements in the scene. Scenes that contain opposing colors jump out at us, make bold statements about the subject, and force the viewer to follow the colors in the composition (FIG. 4.6).

Fig 4.6

Fig 4.6 Analogous (similar) colors are next to each other on the color wheel; complementary colors are opposite each other.

Nature finds color very useful. Flowers use color to attract insects and birds for pollination. Animals use color to attract mates, to camouflage themselves, to show their emotions, to warn predators that they're poisonous or can sting.

Birds, amphibians, and insects take the prize for color in land creatures. When you photograph animals like these, think carefully about the color of the animal relative to the color of the background. Is it harmonious, with the subject and background working together? Or is it complementary, the subject's color contrasting with the background, making it stand out (FIG. 4.7 and 4.8)?

Fig 4.7

Fig 4.7 Some people see the color of this beavertail cactus flower as pinkish purple. I think it's magenta and it harmonizes well with the red color of the ladybug. The black-and-white patterns on the ladybug stop the eye. Mojave Desert, California. (Nikon D100, ISO 200, 105 mm macro lens, handheld, 1/30 sec. @ f/16.)

Fig 4.8

Fig 4.8 The brilliant magenta of this Taiwan flowering cherry tree contrasts strongly with the green foreground. Magenta is opposite green on the color wheel. Using complementary colors like these produces strong visual statements in your photographs. Santa Barbara, California. (Nikon D100, ISO 200, 28–70 mm lens, tripod, 1/30 sec. @ f/8.)

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