Color wields emotional power, and nowhere is this power felt more than through vivid, colorful images. Read on for tips on choosing good stock photography based on color, to really draw in your audience.
Color in photography has the ability to transform the mood of your designs. They bring a psychological impact to a marketing campaign or branding project. More than lighting, staging, or subject, color is the technical secret to shaping your audience’s reaction. It makes a design feel more engaging, inviting, and memorable.
In this third installment of our series on what makes a great stock photo, we delve into the psychedelic world of color in photography. Let’s explore the dos and don’ts of selecting and using colorful pictures.
Why Is Color Theory Important to Consider When Choosing Stock Photos?
Color has a significant psychological impact on a viewer, through environmental, cultural, and historical conditioning. In other words, the audience already has a range of pre-constructed ideas when viewing a colorful image. Marketers and designers can play into these ideas through a clever use of color.
In this article, we’ll look at a range of guiding principles for choosing colorful pictures and using them successfully in your designs.
Read on to find helpful tips on using:
- Advancing Colors
- Color Saturation
- Color Isolation
- Color Contrast
- Color Psychology
- Black and White Photography
License this image via Photo_Bait.
License this image via macro.viewpoint.
1. Advancing Colors
Warning signs, high-visibility jackets, and the Golden Gate Bridge all have one thing in common. They feature strong, warm colors of red, orange, or yellow. This is because it’s important for people to notice these things.
Strong, warm colors are the best way to get noticed. They offer optimum contrast against a blue sky or ocean, as these hues sit opposite to each other on a color wheel.
In photography, attention-grabbing warm colors are referred to as advancing colors. Meanwhile, cooler colors that fade into the background are known as receding colors.
So, why does this matter to marketers and designers?
Tip #1: Use advancing colors to highlight important elements in an image
To really grab the attention of a viewer, use advancing colors to highlight important elements or subjects in an image. Enhance the impact of a design by using an image that features high contrast between advancing and receding colors.
For example, a warm-colored subject is even more eye-catching when set against a cooler background.
Tip #2: Don’t use too many receding colors in one image
While our attention is naturally drawn to warm colors, cooler colors such as blue, green, and gray often seem to draw less attention to themselves. They naturally recede into an image’s background.
With no inclusion of an advancing color, images that are dominated by washed-out, cooler hues will recede from the audience’s attention. Photos filled with only receding colors tend to look rather dull.
In the AI-generated image below, the street scene is dominated by cool, muted colors of gray and blue. In the absence of any advancing colors, the eye has no key focal point to focus on. Therefore, the overall image is muted and monotonous.
This would be quickly rectified by increasing the saturation level of the yellow tone on the building at right.
In this image, created using Shutterstock’s AI Image Generator, an excess of receding colors results in a dull, dreary image (left). Increasing the saturation and warmth of the yellow building at the right side of the image really helps to create contrast and make the image more attention-grabbing (right). License this image via Shutterstock.AI.
2. Color Saturation
Sometimes referred to as “chroma,” color saturation is a measure of the intensity of color in an image. The greater the degree to which a color differs to white, the more intense and saturated the hue.
Color saturation increases the vibrancy of photographs. It can also set a particular mood.
Tip #1: Don’t use oversaturated images
Social media has ushered in the era of oversaturated images, with intense color often used to draw in easily-distracted eyes. However, excessive color saturation can make images feel overly artificial and even unpleasant to look at.
This is particularly noticeable when working with photos that already contain a high level of color, such as seasonal summer landscapes or colorful fashion imagery.
If you find yourself looking at an image through narrowed eyes due to excessive color intensity, simply reduce the saturation level to pull back the intensity of dominant colors.
This heavily saturated image was created using Shutterstock’s AI Image Generator. At left, you can see how excessive saturation of the yellow and blue colors in the image have dimmed the detail of this nighttime shot of a flower and created an overly harsh image to look at. At right, the saturation is dimmed, creating more evenness of detail across the image, and a calmer image to look at. License this image via Shutterstock.AI.
Tip #2: Do increase color saturation with moderation
Avoid burning your audience’s retinas by only moderately increasing the color saturation in your images. A good rule of thumb is to keep in mind that colorful imagery doesn’t equate to heavily saturated imagery.
Think of the multi-colored yet calmly tonal cinematography of Wes Anderson films as a good benchmark. In his pastel-saturated movies, color is all-important, but the intensity of the colors is often muted, to maintain an overall quaint aesthetic.
In conclusion, a little color saturation can go a long way. A moderate level won’t distract from important additional elements on your designs, such as calls-to-action (CTAs) or headlines, and will give your campaigns a mood boost, as well!
At top left, you can see how too little saturation can make an image appear dull and flat, while at bottom left, excessive saturation makes a colorful image feel too brash. A happy medium can be found at right. License this image via Yiistocking.
Another example of how excessive color saturation can actually make colorful stock photos appear unattractive to look at (bottom left). License this image via Jeremy Reddington.
3. Color Isolation
Color isolation is when a photographer purposefully makes a particular color or color combination the dominant element in an image.
It can be enhanced with the use of color editing techniques, such as muting background color to emphasize a foreground color, or using one dominant color to create a striking monochromatic effect.
Color isolation brings the eye’s focus to a particular color, as well as the subject featuring that color, making it an effective technique for creating a focal point in your designs.
Tip #1: Use neighboring colors to balance monochromatic color isolation
Monochromatic photography, in which the same color is used almost universally across the whole image, can be a very effective way of using color isolation.
However, applying a monochrome effect to photos can make an impact on the clarity and details of an image. This is particularly true for darker colors, because a low-contrast image can be difficult to see clearly.
It’s also important to consider the psychological impact of a color when used in a monochrome image.
While blue can be beautiful when balanced with warmer tones, such as purple or red, it can also feel cold, even melancholy, in large doses.
In monochrome images, you can offset any negative psychological effects by introducing subtle variations in color from blue’s neighbors on the color wheel, violet and green, for example.
In the image at left, created using Shutterstock’s AI Image Generator, the monochromatic effect is too severe, making the blue colors feel too expansive and dark. It’s also difficult to see any details in the subject’s face. At right, this image uses monochromatic color isolation in a more balanced way, with light and dark blue tones creating contrast and a vibrant color effect that preserves the details of the subject’s face. License these images via Shutterstock.AI and Master1305.
Tip #2: Use color isolation for brand photography
For marketing designs and social media campaigns, color isolation is particularly effective for reinforcing brand color palettes and creating an overall stronger branded design.
Let’s say your business uses purple and yellow as part of its brand identity. You can, therefore, reinforce the memorability and strength of your brand by using imagery that prioritizes and isolates these colors.
On a psychological level, this increases the chances that a potential customer will remember your brand colors, and your brand as a whole, because imagery is more memorable than text alone.
License this image via Natalja Petuhova.
4. Color Contrast
Color contrast uses colors that are highly contrasting from one another to create a point of difference on images. This can be an effective technique for making stock photos feel more dramatic and helping subjects to really “pop’’ from the background.
Tip #1: Use the color wheel as guidance for color contrast
Color contrast requires consideration of how different colors work in combination with each other. Some colors have natural contrast against each other (such as orange and dark blue, or white and black).
Others have very little natural contrast (such as two pastel hues, or cyan blue and yellow, for example).
To ensure optimum color contrast, look to complementary colors, which sit opposite to each other on a color wheel. Using complementary hues will create natural contrast in your images, without any risk of color clashing.
All of these photos feature complementary colors, such as teal and coral red, lime green and orange red, green and red, and dark blue and mustard yellow. Clockwise, from top left: License these images via Photo_Bait, Master1305, Nagoor Ashraf, and Jacob Lund.
Tip #2: Don’t impede accessibility with exaggerated or minimal color contrast
Color contrast is particularly important to consider in relation to accessibility. Screen-based designs, such as social media posts and websites, emit light in order to generate color, which has the effect of brightening colors.
In some cases, this reduces the contrast between colors even further, making online content less clear for visually-impaired users.
Stock photos that use complementary colors, as above, are a fail-safe option for ensuring an accessible level of contrast in images, as these colors have a high level of distinction between them.
For type-based designs, you can check whether your chosen colors have sufficient contrast by using the online Color Contrast Checker tool.
In this image, created using Shutterstock’s AI Image Generator, the lack of color contrast (left) flattens the image, making the details and depth of the street scene less clear. In the edited image (right), the complementary colors, red and blue, have been exaggerated to create a clearer and more vibrant image that would be better viewed on online media. License this image via Shutterstock.AI.
License this image via Nils Jacobi.
5. Color Psychology
More than any other technical element in photography—such as light, composition, or sharpness—color has the greatest power to influence the mood and psychological impact of an image. This is because humans associate colors with very ancient meanings and emotions, stemming from their presence in nature.
Tip #1: Tap into color psychology within photography
What does this mean to you when selecting stock photos? Color is an instant mood-setter for an image, allowing you to have more power over how a viewer perceives images and designs.
Use orange to inject fun and cheerfulness. Opt for purple if you want to appear wise, spiritual, or mysterious. Meanwhile, pink softens the edges of messaging by bringing playfulness and compassion to the table.
Tip #2: Avoid colors with negative psychological associations
While color psychology can be used to wield a positive influence over viewers’ psyches, it can also have undesired emotional effects. Some colors, when used in combination or excess, have strong negative associations that are hard to shake off.
Pale green, for example, is often associated with sickness, making it a suitable choice for medical branding, perhaps, but little else!
Brown can also be a tricky color to use from a psychological perspective. It’s often connected to boredom, but on the more positive end of the scale, resilience and dependability.
In many cases, these awkward colors are best used alongside other colors that balance out their psychological shortcomings.
This image, created using Shutterstock’s AI Image Generator, demonstrates how color psychology can bring an unwanted mood to photography. At left, an image dominated by brown can, by association, feel dull, dreary, and energy-sapping to look at. At right demonstrates how brown’s lethargic mood can be counteracted with the addition of bright, fresh sky blue. License this image via Shutterstock.AI.
But wait! How color savvy are you? Take this quiz and find out:
6. Black and White Photography
It’s just as important to know when to opt for black and white stock photos. While color in photography can bring a particular psychological mood to a design, black and white photos really bring drama and depth that colorful images can’t match in quite the same way.
Tip #1: Use black and white photos to tell a story
By stripping vivid colors out of an image, photographers help to bring the focus back to the subject in a monochrome photograph, creating a more minimal and focused result.
Because of this, black and white images sometimes feel like they have a stronger sense of narrative and seriousness. This makes them a great fit for projects that need to convey emotion through storytelling.
Good examples for using black and white photos might be travel blogs, social media designs themed around human stories, or when it’s important to put across a strong sense of gravitas and narrative.
In other words, if you want a story to be the focal point of a design, black and white photography is a reliable choice, as the emphasis is put firmly on the subject of the imagery, rather than styling or color.
Tip #2: Don’t use too much contrast in black and white photos
When converting images to black and white, it can be tempting to increase the contrast to avoid a grayed-out look. However, applying too much contrast in black and white photos can diminish the details, reducing the clarity and overall balance in the image.
This is particularly the case for portrait photos, in which it is important to see details of features such as the eyes and mouth. For black and white stock photos, restraint in contrast goes a long way.
Differing levels of contrast have been applied to these portraits, generated using Shutterstock’s AI Image Generator. The image at left uses too much contrast, which dims the details of the skin and eyes and creates a more abstract result. The image at right uses a moderate level of contrast, which allows the viewer to see the details of the face and creates an overall more emotive portrait. License this image via Shutterstock.AI.
Conclusion: How Color Creates Impactful Campaigns
Now armed with the knowledge of how colorful images can transform the psychological, emotional, and visual impact of your projects, you can start to select photography with confidence, having a stronger idea of what you want colorful photos to achieve.
Need bold, colorful, or black and white photography for your next project? We’ve got you covered.
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License the cover image via Victoria Chudinova.