The Emotion of color

One of the reasons I love color photography is due to the unique emotional impact it produces when done right. Of course doing it right has some tough challenges, from the camera to the computer, to the print, the mat and the frame. Lots of ways to get frustrated along the way. I guess this is why lots of photographers stop at the computer. Mastering the camera alone is hard enough. Add to that Photoshop and all of the other software you need, and the challenge is daunting. If anything, that’s an understatement. So what’s this got to do with color? Well, making an emotional connection with color is a huge technical challenge, not just artistic. It’s not as easy as it looks.


Technical Challenges

if you’re not interested in a technical discussion, skip down to the next section

Camera technology has always offered latitude when it comes to reproducing the colors that we see. At the same time that means there is imprecision. With film, one type produces more highly saturated colors while another does better with skin tones. Digital photography has even more latitude up front by allowing for quick adjustments in how the camera will record color. With either technology colors can be adjusted on the computer. So the color in a Fine Art print is NOT simply a WYSIWYG process. The challenge of producing an emotional connection with color starts out as a technical one, and then becomes an artistic one.

Why is color such a technical challenge? You can’t find a camera that perfectly handles white balance in every situation, and has a perfectly calibrated sensor or film, and never under or overexposes. So it’s still up to the Artist to figure out how to represent or reproduce color, whether the goal is to be completely accurate, or to represent a personal vision. In the case of the photo shown above, you’re seeing what I saw as closely as I could represent it. In this case, for me, no personal vision could compete with what was already there, at least from the perspective of color.

To add to the difficulties, JPEG, the most common file format for photography, by design throws away some of the color information in a photo in order to compress the file to make it smaller. It therefore can’t perfectly represent nuances in color. In some cases it can’t represent the color at all, because it threw away the hue of a color by averaging other colors in the same area during compression. In Fine Art color photography, where color is one of the key components, we can’t afford to throw anything away. (By the way, the RAW file format does NOT throw anything away, so that is the preferred format for Fine Art Photography) I’m not bad-mouthing JPEG though. It works just fine for other print media, like most magazines and Wedding albums.

What about the paper? Even the highest quality paper has it’s unique attributes, which means that it’s going to take the ink differently. Some papers are matte, some glossy, and others in-between, and the same print on each of these will look very different. These all have an impact on the colors, and special calibration is required.

The Emotion of color

Now to the artistic side of this discussion. Black & White photography produces a range of emotional responses, sometimes very powerful. I’m not sure that they are the same responses that color might produce. That’s hard to figure out. For me there is something different with color. Of course it’s silly to think that all emotional responses are measurable or exactly reproducible between people. Obviously emotions belong to the viewer, and they are highly personal, and often based on experience. However, there must be some commonality as lots of people tend to respond in similar ways to certain attributes of art, including color.

I can’t put my finger on why the Tulips photo shown above evokes such an intense feeling (in me), but I know for sure that it’s the colors that are doing it.

To the Designer of all designers, and the creator of color and light – Thank you!

– Mark Esposito

Comments welcome