Why colour matters in photography: from traditional colour theory to creative techniques

Colour is one of the most important tools available to photographers. Here, three professionals reveal how Canon's colour science gives them the confidence to capture colour with accuracy and style.
A predominantly blue-toned photo taken by James Musselwhite of a female model with arms stretched standing against a dark background as smoke engulfs her.

"Colour can feel scary for some people, so I like to start with colours they are comfortable with and then introduce elements they won't have thought of," says James Musselwhite. "I love it when a client sees an image and says they never thought it would work. It shows they trusted me to take something further for them." Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lens at 93mm, 1/16400 sec, f/5 and ISO 2500. © James Musselwhite

A golden sunset over a romantic landscape, a splash of red lipstick, a vibrant display of feathers – we can all draw meaning from colour in a scene. Together with lighting, colour is one of the most important and powerful elements of any photograph or video. When skilfully used, it can evoke emotion and energy, reflect mood, and give a narrative to images.

But there's more to colour than simply choosing a bright outfit or backdrop. How can it be used in harmony or contrast to tell a story? And how do camera techniques and settings help to capture subjects accurately? Here, we draw on the expertise of three pro photographers who reveal why colour choices are always about the story.

A photo taken by James Musselwhite of a person with pink hair and pink eye shadow and lip colour against a green background, closing their eyes and lifting their head.

"The best way to achieve a contrasting effect in an image is to use a complementary colour scheme," says James. "You can take red and green as an example, but it is important to not let this limit you. You can play with the saturation, density and hue of the colours as well." Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lens at 99mm, 1/160 sec, f/5 and ISO 100. © James Musselwhite

A photo taken by Jade Keshia Gordon showing two women in red dresses holding roses in their hands as they sit against a red background.

Jade Keshia Gordon shot this image for a hair brand and its Valentine's Day campaign. "Even though the models are wearing red and the set is red, I wanted to create a sense of separation with the lighting, which also complements both skin tones perfectly," she says. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens and a Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R at 24mm, 1/125 sec, f/8 and ISO 160. © Jade Keshia Gordon

British studio portrait photographer James Musselwhite is inventive and bold with colour and has won several awards for his approach. "I often build on an image by adding colour, to draw the eye around the portrait," he says. "I love how quickly the language in a portrait can change when I add colour."

London-based fashion and beauty photographer Jade Keshia Gordon is no stranger to adding vivid hues, especially when working with make-up brands. "When shooting skincare, the mood board tends to have the same colour palettes – beige, nudes and whites," she says. "I encourage clients to incorporate colour as you really see the difference in the final images."

The work of Portuguese wedding and documentary photographer Marisa Martins is defined by her use of natural light and authentic, flattering tones – an aesthetic that her clients value. "I always think about the colours before I push the button," she says. "I'm absolutely sure only Canon colour science respects the variations I observe in people's skin tones."

These professionals rely on the colour accuracy built into Canon's cameras and printers. Here's how Canon's colour science and technology has played a key part in shaping their individual styles.

Canon connected james musselwhite

Applying colour theory to photography

On a traditional colour wheel, the complementary colours opposite each other, such as red and green, can be used together for energy and impact, while the tones next to each other, known as analogous colours, have a more muted, calming effect.

James uses complementary colours when he wants to make a subject stand out from the set. "A model with a broadly blue outfit would be set alongside an orange backdrop and then we'd add orange gels as kicker lights to separate the subjects from the backgrounds," he explains. "We have gels of a slightly weaker density that we can use on our main light to bring a bit of colour into our subjects, and I'm always experimenting with flare from our backlights to add drama into portraits."

An analogous scheme with lots of similar colours is better for bringing several elements together without any of them competing. "Once I'm done, I'll harmonise a blue outfit with pink and purple gels. It's fairly free-flowing and the important thing is to allow room for failure."

By contrast, Jade is a fan of monochrome colour palettes, using varieties of a single hue to create seasonality and tell a story in the studio. "People shy away from putting certain backdrop colours together with skin tones for fear of the subject blending in, but by separating the subject from the backdrop slightly it creates a break between the two," she says.

Meanwhile, Marisa, who shoots on location, likes to look for "colour coincidences" in the environment. She might match the background with the subject's clothing, or home in on a scene to remove distractions. Like James, she says the choices are always about the story she's trying to tell. "If I'm working on a commercial brand and I have control over the scene and the subject, I look for harmony," she explains. Her family documentary sessions don't have the same rigid direction, but the same principle applies. "I'm obsessed with colours that repeat in different settings," she adds. "That makes the observer think more and navigate through the photograph."

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A photo taken by Marisa Martins showing two children in matching blue checked outfits holding hands as the one on the left places her arm on a dark blue railing with an ornate pattern inset.

"Photographing in shadow areas during harsh light periods tends to give a bluish tone to whites," explains Marisa Martins. "So I like to pull the white balance to a warmer tone, even more than what I felt at the time of shooting, to maintain the warm sense of summer." Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/400 sec, f/4.5 and ISO 160. © Marisa Martins

A photo taken by Jade Keshia Gordon of a woman pressing her tongue to the side of her mouth as she looks directly at the camera while her fingers frame the sides of the lens.

"The colours you choose can really tell you a lot about the person or brand," says Jade. For this portrait of model Olivia Metz, taken during a Masterclass sponsored by Canon UK, she gravitated towards using the blue of her branding colour. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 26mm, 1/100 sec, f/8 and ISO 100. © Jade Keshia Gordon

Accurate vs experimental colour temperature

Canon's Colour Matrix technology can analyse the lighting conditions and colour temperature of a scene and then adjust the camera's colour settings to ensure faithful reproduction. Jade prides herself on capturing light and dark skin tones as accurately as possible, and she finds her Canon EOS R5 to be so effective at doing this that she doesn't need to set a manual white balance. "I tend to use Canon's 'daylight' setting for the majority of my work, but when London becomes gloomy and I want that extra warmth, I set it to 'shade'," she says. "I may also use a gold reflector, which creates a warm tone on the skin, again changing the colour intended."

Setting the white balance is an easy way to adjust the colour temperature of a shot to match the lighting conditions. James chooses a manual white balance of around 4600K and shoots in RAW to allow for tweaks during post-production. "For me, capturing a grey card image at the start of every shoot is key," he says. "From this, I will draw a colour profile from which the whole shoot will be calibrated."

Despite his manual approach, he loves to embrace the "wrong" white balance when he's on location with mixed lighting he can't control. "Experimenting with colour balances can lead to striking results," he adds. "It's just a tool to use, to experiment with and to enjoy."

Two people sit together in front of a Canon Cinema camera on a shoot set, one person with their arm around the other from the back.

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A photo taken by James Musselwhite showing a woman in pink trousers and a white top holding a pink jacket in her right hand and posing against a pink background.

Colour choices are about storytelling, and James advises photographers to ask what it is they're trying to achieve. "What do I want the viewer to see?" he asks. "Do I want something to emerge slowly from the portrait or do I want it to shout? Answering those questions helps drive the direction we take the portrait." Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM) and a Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R at 55mm, 1/160 sec, f/7.1 and ISO 100. © James Musselwhite

A portrait photo taken by Jade Keshia Gordon of a woman with long dark hair in a purple top against a blue background looking at the camera.

In a test shoot at Jade's personal studio, she really wanted to experiment with something bright. "I felt the blue background against model Mela Child's skin really made the image pop, and I used a gradient patterned top to add in more colour tones," she explains. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens at 1/125 sec, f/6.3 and ISO 50. © Jade Keshia Gordon

The power of DIGIC processors

Thanks to Canon's DIGIC image processor, the latest Canon cameras can process large amounts of image data at high speeds to produce natural colours and gradations. James has come to rely on the tones and colour depth recorded by his mirrorless camera. "My Canon EOS R6 has a really good dynamic range, in RAW but also in JPEG capture," he says. "On-site and on location it's really helpful to get images sent to my phone for sharing, and the colours are always bright and vibrant."

Against dark blue walls, two girls smile while looking at the screen of a smartphone while another woman to the right holds her smartphone up. Photo by Marisa Martins.

"For me, colour is the fourth dimension, after light, composition and the moment," says Marisa. "Colour is the music that brings photography to life." Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens and a Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R at 1/640 sec, f/7.1 and ISO 160. © Marisa Martins

A photo taken by Marisa Martins showing a child viewed from behind, lying on sand and facing a pigeon, with a body of water visible in the background.

"I've always loved the minimalist, more natural, timeless style because that look really makes me feel more connected to the photo," says Marisa. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens and a Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R at 1/640 sec, f/3.5 and ISO 160. © Marisa Martins

Preset colour options for consistency

Picture Styles have been a feature of Canon EOS cameras since 2004, and they allow photographers to apply preset saturation and tone levels to a shot with one menu click. Jade first tweaked these parameters on her EOS 5D Mark IV and now finds it easy to choose a colour profile that matches her vision, even after moving to the EOS R5. "I tend to use a mix between standard or portrait, but I've changed the contrast and sharpness on both to be more in tune with my workflow," she says.

The Colour Space option in the camera's menu allows photographers to choose between sRGB – best for files that are going to be viewed on a screen – and RGB, which is best for printing as printers are configured to handle it, converting it to CMYK for output.

In-camera colour science is important, but the tools in Canon printers are an important final step for producing standout prints. "I usually pair my EOS R6 with my Canon PIXMA G650 to print photos for myself and to help me assemble stories," says Marisa. Although still at an early stage in her self-printing journey, she is keen to master soft proofing and colour management using Canon's Professional Print & Layout software, which is free with large-format fine art printers like the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000. "Only with Canon can I find alignment between the tool and the eye," she says.

Ultimately, colour in photography is about expression, experimentation and understanding the narrative you want to create while having the best tools to help you do that.

"Everyone understands what colour means to them," concludes James. "It is a universal language of mood in photography and art and allows as many people as possible to enjoy and understand your work."

Lauren Scott

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