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Light’s Impact on Color

One of the more important things I’ve come to understand is how the quality of the light impacts the rendering of color in a photograph. If you think a red door is always a red door, think again. The color of the door appears to change in appearance relative to the quality of the light that’s illuminating it. If you shoot that door under direct sunlight and then later, on a cloudy day, the resulting photographs will be markedly different, as the hue of the red changes and shifts.

Colors under direct sunlight possess more vibrancy and saturation. There is a “pop” to such colors that is a result not only of the harshness of the light, but also of the increased contrast that such illumination produces. Those same colors photographed in the shade or on an overcast day will appear more muted and less intense because of the diffused and softer quality of the light.

The images of these oranges at a fruit stand reveal the amazing differences of color even within a small, confined area. The oranges illuminated by the direct sunlight have a high degree of saturation that’s lost as you move down into the shadows, where the colors become duller. By the time you move down to the lower-right corner, where light is being reflected off the street and into the oranges at the bottom of the stand, you see a color that has a saturation and contrast somewhere between what you find in the direct sunlight and shadow.

Light and color are intertwined. They aren’t independent qualities of a scene or photograph. If I see color, I’m examining the light and what it’s illuminating. If I’m following light, I’m examining what’s happening to color in the direct sunlight, in the shade, or even beneath a neon sign.

The color of any object will shift in hue as a result of the different qualities of light, but few are more important than the light’s color temperature.

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