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Dominant and Recessive Color

As we discussed in the previous chapter, some colors simply demand more visual attention than others. When we look at the visual electromagnetic spectrum, colors with longer wavelengths are those that grab our attention faster than those with shorter wavelengths. Likewise, these are the colors that are “cooler” on the Kelvin scale but visually “warmer.” Reds and oranges reach our eyes before blues, greens, and purples (violets). As a whole, these colors dominate visual attention.

For photographers, this is where seeing and being prepared for color really start to come into play. Simply put, dominant colors advance, while recessive colors, well, recede (FIGURE 4.8). Dominant colors are bold and engaging, much like the primary colors on the color wheel. However, the degree to which a color has dominance is determined by the color or colors with which it is combined. Picture the two colors blue and yellow, both primary on the color wheel. In any amount, pure yellow will always hit the eye before pure blue (FIGURE 4.9). Pure red is simply one of those colors that dominates just about anything.


FIGURE 4.8 The red chair dominates the light and dark greens behind it, strongly pushing the main subject of the shot—the girl in the white dress—to the front of the shot.

ISO 200, 1/200 sec., f/2.8, 110mm lens


FIGURE 4.9 The color and the texture in the winter sky are visually interesting, but the yellow and gold in the grasses advance toward our eyes faster, technically providing the color-layered shot depth.

ISO 100, 1/40 sec., f/10, 17mm lens

Often, dominant colors are minimized in architecture and clothing, acting as accent colors. Depending on which color is used, some dominant ones can take away from an environment, and subsequently an image, by increasing the amount of visual anxiety a viewer experiences (FIGURE 4.10). In many cases, dominant colors are provided less real estate in a photographic frame for just this reason. There is no rigid rule about this, though—it is an aesthetic choice, not doctrine.


FIGURE 4.10 The yellow reflections and warmer colors making up the patina of the woodwork in this Spanish cathedral are overridden by the extremely bright and distractive yellow in the sculpted stonework behind it.

ISO 800, 1/30 sec., f/4, 40mm lens

The science behind dominant colors isn’t necessarily anything new to you, considering the information in the previous chapter, but it is not the only thing worth considering about dominant and recessive colors either. Dominant colors also tend to influence the perception of color around them. A lot of red in a frame might deceive our eyes into thinking other colors in the image also contain more red (FIGURE 4.11). A large blue sky taking up three-quarters or more of an image may cool down other colors, such as greens and browns. Certain colorcasts that might be perceived simply may be the result of one dominant color in the frame.


FIGURE 4.11 Red is one of the strongest colors. The large amount of red wall present in the frame behind the guitarist “casts” a red glaze over the entire image.

ISO 200, 1/30 sec., f/2.8, 70mm lens

This is useful information when it comes to composing photographs, particularly those with a relatively large amount of subject matter that are not similar in shape or form. Dominant colors like saturated reds or bright blues might advance toward the eye from the background, but if the most important subject matter in the frame is “dressed” in such a color, compose it in the foreground to indicate its significance, both visually and as part of the image’s story (FIGURE 4.12). The farther away this subject is in a complex frame, the less likely the viewer will find it efficiently.


FIGURE 4.12 The dominating orange of the boat and coach advances off of the blues and browns in the water, and it works as a strong foreground color in this encompassing frame of the environment.

ISO 100, 1/2000 sec., f/2.8, 70mm lens

Nonetheless, using what we know about forms, such as dots, we can also strongly compose a simple image with one dominant and one recessive color. Many successful images simplify the environment in which they were made, the content in the shot, and even the technique used by the photographer. Using just two or three different colors to draw the viewer in can be very powerful, particularly if a dominant color is pushing forward meaningful subject matter (FIGURE 4.13).


FIGURE 4.13 Two colors—green and purple, a dominant and recessive color—are all that is needed to create interest in an image.

ISO 200, 1/320 sec., f/2.8, 100mm lens

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