Use Color to Create a Distinctive Photo Style

Whether you’re trying to get your tiles dialed on Instagram or are looking to elevate your photography, you've got to have a distinctive style.

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Use Color to Create a Distinctive Photo Style 

From shooting to editing, change your perspective on color with these pro tips. 

Whether you’re trying to get your tiles dialed on Instagram or are looking to elevate your photography, you've got to have a distinctive style. There are many ways to create a ‘look’ that’s all your own (don’t worry, we’ll explore all of them in the coming months), and color is one of the biggest components. Some photographers build a color palette and stick with it no matter what, while others learn how to apply color in a way that suits the mood of the shoot to create a consistent photo set.

Either way, learning how to use color is a great way to start creating your own unique style. With all the talk out there about color theory, color wheels, and pixel peeping to get the truest tones, it’s important to break down the artistic impact of color on your creative vision.

What is Color and How to Get It

This may seem like an obvious question. Or maybe an overly philosophical one for a photography website. But it’s important to stop and think about what color really is. What does blue make you feel? Do you see that combination of colors in nature or only in vibrant urban settings? Does your subject pop because of the background it’s against? Is there a “vibe” to your trip that almost seems to have a color all its own?

Too much color without distinguishing features can be distracting in a photo. Flat colors from shooting in RAW or even JPEGs that don’t have much flavor can make you stare at the screen saying “I swear it was prettier in person.” There are a number of ways color can add to a shot and plenty of ways that it can detract from it, too.

The Color Test

It can be insightful to switch a photo to black and white and see what you gain or lose. Even trying this exercise with some existing photos in your library can teach you a lot about the way colors play off each other to create a mood or story all their own. It also helps you think about the relationship between subject matter, exposure, and color, which is important as you start to figure out how to portray your vision.

No color
Color changes everything

Even though there's not a wide range of color in this photo, the subtle blues add a lot to this shot.

Commit to Color and Texture

Many photographers have felt the struggle of committing to a certain filter or set of colors for their photo set. Maybe the vibe is perfect for a few of the photos, but in others you lose some detail in the sky or on your subject. This is one of the ways that viewing your photography as a larger project rather than a single image can change the way you shoot and edit—losing a bit of detail or fidelity in one shot but creating a cohesive feel and recognizable style is a worthy tradeoff. I spoke to a few of my favorite photographers who have very recognizable color palettes about how they use color from vision to shooting to editing.

Bailey Batchelor

Bailey creates image that evoke the modern-day West with creative use of color and strong tonal contrasts. Her style is consistent and instantly recognizable, regardless of the season and the subject matter. Whatever Bailey points her camera towards, the end result is an enchanting window into the mind of someone who wants to celebrate the surreal beauty of the southwest. She gave us three tips on how to approach your own use of color.

  • Think about mood. How will the colors in the image make viewers feel and interact with it? 
  • Use complementing and contrasting colors. Some colors work better together than others. Make sure your palette works well together and minimize distracting colors.
  • Use colors to tell a story. For both individual images and photo sets, you can suggest things to the viewer through use of certain colors.

Grafton Pannell

Grafton’s photos always feel like the interior Northwest—that region where the high desert meets the granite mountains dotted with pine trees—while celebrating subject matter from vintage trucks to candid family photos to epic cycling shots. He shared a few ideas about how to nail the colors you want in your pictures:

  1. Shoot with the temperatures you gravitate towards. I shoot with a pretty warm white balance to keep my spirits high when I’m out shooting. Whether you like your shots warm or cool, it can help to shoot with settings that match your creative vision.
  2. Figure out what matters in your shot. When I’m shooting snow, I’m willing to overexpose by quite a bit to get really true whites because I love celebrating the pow. When I’m shooting in the woods, I focus more on making sure the highlights are dialed so I can capture those drippy green and gold hues on the trees.
  3. Tones. Sometimes the gradient in the sunset seems too good to be true or the bright colors of technical outdoor gear look so good against a natural background. In those moments, do everything you can to stay out of the way and let your camera capture the scene.

Use Color to Create Your Own Style

If you’re reading this, you’re already stoked on photography! Now it’s time to get out with whatever phone or camera you have with you and start shooting. Once you have several shots, study them as a group and identify the general tonal themes in your images. Are they mostly warm or cool? Large blocks of color and negative space or lots of detail and variety? The more you notice what you capture and how you like editing it, the more you can refine your process and commit to your own style. Our creative process is always changing but the more you learn about color, the more you can use it as a tool instead of a “happy accident.”

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