Modern trends and palettes open new avenues of creativity in color photography. Discover how photographers use vibrant colors to give life to their work.
Color photography has been a fixture of the advertising world for nearly a century. In fact, color ads started out-performing traditional black and white ads as early as the 1920s. By the 1930s, vivid hues dominated the glossy pages of fashion magazines, and new technologies scrambled to keep up with the increasing demand for the mass production of color photographs. Commercial photographers understood one simple fact: color sells. And in that sense, they were the true pioneers of the genre, as it would be another forty years or so until color photography entered the fine art and documentary realms.
A look through the 2018 Creative Trends Report by Shutterstock confirms the enduring influence of eye-popping color. Trends like punchy pastels, minimalist neons, and shimmering holographic tones continue to explore new frontiers in color, as brands small and large find ways to incorporate new hues into their marketing. Let’s take a look at why these colors are so popular right now and examine how photographers can use them to their advantage.
1. Color In the Digital Age
Image by Fluid Frame. Gear: Canon 5D Mark III camera, Canon L 24-70 mm 2.8 lens. Settings: Focal length 70mm; shutter speed 1/125 sec; f16; ISO 100.
Social media has helped solidify this generation’s obsession with color. “Punchy colors seem to be popular now largely due to Instagram,” Offset Artists David and LJ of Fluid Frame tell us. “In order to grab people’s attention as they scroll, the bright blocks of color stand out and catch your eye. As these looks became popular on social media, they have worked their way into other visual assets for brands.”
AlexAnnaButs (Alexandr Buts)
Image by AlexAnnaButs (Alexandr Buts). Gear: Canon 5d mark II camera, 100mm macro lens 2.8 lens. Settings: Shutter speed 1/160; f13; ISO 100.
Shutterstock Contributor Alexandr Buts has noticed the effects of this movement firsthand. While muted images go unseen, bright images jump off the screen. “My super-colorful images often tend to be better earners,” he says. “Every day, a huge number of images are uploaded, and it is easier for buyers to notice brighter images.” As time goes on and more images hit the market, he predicts bolder hues will continue to be successful. Fellow photographer Dan Comaniciu has observed the same thing: “Colorful images, even the older ones from my gallery, are going up as top sellers, leaving behind the black and white images and the images on a white background that used to be on top.”
Image by Dan Comaniciu. Gear: Hasselblad H3d II 50MP camera, Hasselblad HC macro 120mm lens. Settings: Shutter speed 1/500 sec; f5.6; ISO 100.
Social media hasn’t just increased the number of images we consume; it’s also literally changed the way we see color. “There’s hardly any printed photography left, and we now view more photography on screens,” Offset Artist Michiel Spijkers observes. “Screens can show more colors than most print works.” He thinks the digital age has driven us towards more dynamic hues simply because of what’s possible.
Image by Michiel Spijkers. Gear: Canon 5D Mark II camera, Canon 100mm 2.8 lens. Settings: Shutter speed 1/125 sec; ISO 160.
2. Craving Color
Colorful images stand out, but our fascination with the rainbow extends beyond that. Almost every photographer we interviewed for this story mentioned the connection between color and mood. “I think people connect with brighter images because, simply put, color is fun,” Offset Artist Jessica Ebelhar explains. “And in the right context, color is energizing.”
Image by Jessica Ebelhar. Gear: Canon 5D Mark IV camera, F100mm f/2.8 Macro IS USM lens. Settings: Shutter speed 1/160 sec; f18; ISO 400.
When used correctly, color can also play into our fantasies and offer a kind of escapism. “It just makes people happy to see bright colors,” Spijkers adds. “It’s like when you see pastel houses near a seashore in Sardinia. It puts a smile on your face.” Offset Artist Shana Novak thinks this is especially important in this day and age. “There is a lot of negativity and darkness in the world at the moment,” she adds. “People are making a point to choose positivity and light.”
Image by Shana Novak. Gear: Canon 5d Mark IV camera. Settings: Shutter speed 1/125 sec; f16; ISO 100.
In photography, color can even transport us back in time. Ksenjavka, a Shutterstock Contributor, identifies the 1980s and 1990s as major influences on today’s fashion and fads. “In the world of visual aesthetics, everything goes through cycles,” the artist says. “I think trendsetters are able to transmit their childhood and adolescent memories to others.” For that reason, bright neons and pastels are back on the map.
Ksenjavka (KSU-KSU STUDIO)
Image by Ksenjavka (KSU-KSU STUDIO). Gear: Canon 6D camera, Canon EF 135mm 1:2 L lens. Settings: Shutter speed 1/125 sec; f9; ISO 100.
If colors can bring us joy, they can also tap into all of our senses. “Colors like red, yellow, orange, bright green, and purple access the brain’s memories of distinct flavors,” Shutterstock Contributor Michelle Patrick explains. “If you can evoke a secondary sensation, such as taste or smell, you have told a story with your images.” In food photography, in particular, colors can spark desire in customers.
Image by Michelle Patrick. Gear: Canon EOS Rebel T6 camera, 18-55mm lens. Settings: Focal length 46mm; f5; ISO 100.
3. Fearless Color
Like the first photographers to use color film in advertising, artists who play with color have to be somewhat fearless. “This trend lends itself to conceptual photography and out-of-the-box images,” LJ and David from Fluid Frame suggest. “The current culture is powerful and bold,” Patrick chimes in. “And that is reflected in their color choices.” When it comes to vibrant images, don’t be shy.
Image by Fluid Frame. Gear: Canon 5D Mark III camera, Canon 24-70mm L EF 2.8 lens. Settings: Focal length 31mm; shutter speed 1/125 sec; f16; ISO 125.
“In my mind, the key to making great colorful photographs is experimentation,” Ebelhar tells us. “While I do think it may be helpful to have a basic familiarity with color theory, there’s no right or wrong way to shoot colorful images; unexpected combinations can be incredibly interesting.”
Image by Jessica Ebelhar. Gear: Canon 5D Mark III camera, Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens. Settings: Shutter speed 1/160 sec; f12; ISO 100.
There are a number of ways to get your feet wet in the color pool. Patrick has a background in interior design, so the color wheel has proved invaluable to her work as a photographer. For Buts, studying thousands and thousands of images laid a good foundation for his own photography. “Find unique ways to get uncommon hues and tones into your work,” Novak advises. “Color is everywhere: craft shops, fabric stores, vintage shops.” She also uses light and gels to manipulate color.
Image by Shana Novak. Gear: Canon EOS 5D SR camera, 50mm lens lens. Settings: Shutter speed 1/125 sec; f16; ISO 100.
4. Less Is More
Keep in mind that bold color does not mean over-the-top color. “Be careful with brightness because there is a thin line between being brave and being tacky,” Ksenjavka warns. Make sure your color choices are wise and deliberate. “Too many colors in a composition is usually a big turn-off,” Comaniciu adds. For Buts, as few as four or five different hues in a single image can be chaotic and confusing. “It is difficult for the human eye to perceive more than three colors,” he says.
Ksenjavka (KSU-KSU STUDIO)
Image by Ksenjavka (KSU-KSU STUDIO). Gear: Canon 6D camera, Canon EF 135mm 1:2 L lens. Settings: Shutter speed 1/125 sec; f7.1; ISO 100.
Try to show similar restraint when it comes to composition as well. “Simplicity and cutting through the noise are such popular themes in our culture these days,” Novak tells us, and we can see this sentiment carry over into visual culture as well. Minimalism is on the rise. “When photographing colors, I do not feel the need to have a lot of things going on at once,” Patrick stresses. “I convey a simple message. That way, I am letting the color take center stage, not the objects.”
Image by Michelle Patrick. Gear: Canon Rebel T6 camera, 18-55mm lens. Settings: Focal length 45mm; shutter speed 1/15 sec; f5; ISO 100.
As vivid color grows in popularity with trends like pastels, neons, and holographic tones, photographers are finding innovative ways to tap into the movement while staying true to their unique visions. Every day, marketers learn more about how color works, and brands continue to look for new and fresh ways to incorporate dramatic hues into their advertising. As color photography evolves and enters a new era, we look forward to seeing how artists around the world use this growing phenomenon to their advantage.
Top Image by AlexAnnaButs (Alexandr Buts).