by Florence W Deems

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What is Color? We all think we know. But physicists and physiologists have discovered that the impressions we know as red, yellow, and the rest of the colors of the rainbow, simply are not there at all! They're just a small group of frequencies that lie within a certain narrow bandwidth of the whole electromagnetic spectrum.

We're equipped with eyes that contain certain specialized structures called rods and cones. These structures send the frequencies of colored light to our retinas at the backs of our eyes. From there these frequencies are transmitted to special areas of our brain that translate these frequencies into red, yellow, and other colors. So color is just an illusion.

However, camera manufacturers had to develop special chemicals, first with film and then with digital sensors, that act in a manner similar to our rods and cones. These chemicals can detect and translate the various frequencies of light into what our eyes interpret as colors.

But unless we understand that the primary and secondary colors of Llght are different from the primary and secondary colors of Pigments which we all learned in grade school, we may find using colors for imaging confusing. In the following chart are the Light Primaries and their opposites (Secondaries).

Primary Colors of Light: "Any three colors (or frequencies) of light which produce white light when combined with the correct intensity are called primary colors of light." The secondary colors of Light are produced by combining any two primary colors.

red cyan
green magenta
blue yellow
The Colors of Light Wheel

There are TWO COLOR SYSTEMS for dealing with Light that our technologies use: RGB (Light Primaries) and CYMK (Light Secondaries).

  • RGB (red, green,blue - Light Primaries):

    Although Yellow is one of Pigment's Primary colors, to get Yellow Light, in this system you have to combine the Light Primaries - red and green. This is the color system used by TV and computer monitors, called the RGB, or Red, Green, Blue system. So TVs and computers combine the Primary colors of Light instead of the Secondaries. Combining two Primaries produces one Secondary.

  • CYMK (cyan, yellow, magenta, black - Light Secondaries):

    The system used by many digital gadgets, Photoshop, printers and color copiers is the CYMK - Cyan, Yellow, Magenta, Black. These use the Secondaries of Light. Black is not a Primary or a Secondary - it is the absence of Light.

So when you see a color image on TV or on a computer monitor, you're looking at the RGB system. BUT, when you must print out a color image from the TV or the computer monitor, the dye-sublimation printers (what some photo labs use), the lazer printers, or the ink jet printers (which is what we use) have to translate the RGB codes into the CYMK codes to print. Fortunately for us, we don't have to figure this out ourselves!

Is a Red Object Really Red?

NO!!!!! An object that we call red, is really all the other colors (frequencies) except red! It rejects the red frequencies, sends them back out, and this is why we see it as red. The same is true for the other colors. We see the colors of the light frequencies that each object rejects!

A white object simply rejects ALL the color frequencies there are. We then see this object as white, because we're detecting ALL the frequencies of light that are falling on that object.

Conversely, an object we perceive to be black, is really no color at all, because it has absorbed ALL the frequencies of light that fall on it

Primary, Secondary & Tertiary Colors

Above you can see a 12-color wheel, this time it's a pigment color wheel, rather than a Light wheel. But the principle is the same. A secondary color is achieved by mixing two primaries. By mixing a primary with the secondary next to it, we get a hue in between that's termed a tertiary color.

Designers have developed certain terms describing various color schemes that some will find useful to know:

  • Complimentary = Colors that are opposite on the color wheel.

  • Analogous = two or more colors that are next to each other on the wheel.

  • Triad = any three colors that are evenly spaced around the wheel from each other.

  • Split Complementary = a color on one side of the wheel, plus the two colors immediately adjacent to its complementary or opposite color.

As with all color schemes, it seems to work out best with only one color as the dominant and the other one or two colors used as accents.

What does this have to do with photography? If we're producing fine art photographs and hope to sell them, we need to keep in mind these various designer color schemes and hunt for them in our subjects. People buy photographs to hang on their walls in a room that quite often has a particular color scheme. If our photograph/print doesn't match that scheme, then the buyer will hunt for other photos that will harmonize when hung in that room.

For instance, imagine a garden image that's mostly greens tending towards soft blue-greens and blues, it will help hold a person's interest if there's at least one "pop" of color on the opposite side of the wheel, appearing as a flower or two.

When making impromptu portraits of people, look for colors in the background that will be complementary or analogous or triadic or split complementary to the color(s) the person is wearing. If the portrait shows mostly the person's skin color, which will be warm, then see if a background with a cool color will set off the warmth of the skin tones.

If we practice seeing these different color schemes and shooting examples of each, doing this will help train our eyes to see colors in different ways.

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