Tag Archives: colour

Seeing shades of grey

As the autumn gives way to winter the countryside seems to assume more muted tones, hunkering down to wait for the burgeoning abundance of spring.  On some days this seems so extreme that the world appears to have turned into black and white before my very eyes.  This time of year helps us to see the shapes and forms more clearly, without the distraction of colour.  We may notice things that would otherwise be overpowered by the colourful palette of the scene.  Textures, shadows and lighting hold centre stage and we can appreciate the finer details in our surroundings.

At night and in dim light, we are only able to see in shades of grey anyway, as the cone cells in the eyes that give us our colour vision are not stimulated in these conditions.  Our night vision depends instead on the rod cells in the eye.  They are much more sensitive to light than the cones and can be stimulated by just a single photon! The way rod cells are ‘wired up’ means that we lose some of the detail and clarity, giving our vision an effect reminiscent of looking through a soft focus lens.  I often think that examples of old photographs, with that soft monochrome look, show us sights as our eyes might have seem them at dusk or in the early dawn, before our colour vision is fully active.

Photographing in black and white can be considered as a type of abstraction, as we know instinctively that the image is one step away from a more colourful reality.  At any time of year, my camera is frequently set to show monochrome previews, as my love affair with this way of seeing the world continues unabated.  In his book “50 Portraits”, Gregory Heisler suggests that working in black and white “frees up the photographer to see the world and re-create it in a fresh way, shifting the image from ‘how it looked’ to ‘how it felt’.”  The image becomes defined by the range of tones that the camera’s sensor (or the film) can distinguish between the extremes of black and white.  As Heisler generally works with larger format cameras, this range can be quite incredible.  Even with my more modest 35mm and 120 black and white film, I can see a tonality that can be lacking in a digital image.  When it comes to film, my interest is solely with monochrome; for digital the jury is still out.  Will I take the plunge?  Decisions, decisions…

A colourful life

Do you remember watching the Wizard of Oz?  The film starts out in sepia-toned monochrome, emphasising the dreariness of life in Kansas, and once Dorothy is transported to Oz everything explodes in glorious technicolour.

Colour plays an important role in our lives.  We may associate particular colours with our memories of past events, and they evoke a response in us when we see them. Colour can be used as symbolism and we have many colour-based associations within our language and culture.  We even have a ‘Colour of the Year’!

Isaac Newton showed that colour is an illusion when he used a prism to split light into a rainbow of colours.  All colours as we see them are made up of light emitted at different parts of the visible spectrum.  The colour perceived by our eyes is based on the light reflected from an object, just as the image made by a camera represents the light received by the sensor.  If the surface of a red apple absorbs all the wavelengths other than red, the red light is reflected back and we see the apple as red.

We all see colour in different ways.  Women are more likely to see colours accurately than men, and there are many degrees of colour accuracy even amongst those who would not be considered colour blind.  Aside from this, our perception of colour is affected by the prevalent light falling on the subject.  The mind analyses the information it receives by comparing the colours in the scene and corrects for the variations in the light over the day, or indoors/outdoors, to give us consistency in what we see.  Edwin Land, inventor of the Polaroid camera, called this ‘colour constancy’.

There has been a tremendous amount of research on how colour affects human beings and some suggests that men and women may respond to colours differently. Colour affects us emotionally, with different colours evoking different emotions.  Emotions are felt in the more primitive, limbic system of the brain, and we may have a strong emotional response based on memories associated with a particular colour.  Wearing particular colours can affect our mood or represent it.  Some days it feels right to wear that bright red sweater yet at other times we may be drawn to a quiet pastel colour shade.

Warm colours are attention-grabbing reds, yellows and oranges.  They may represent warning, energy, vibrance, heat and fire.  We also associate them with hostility, anger, power, warmth and comfort.  They are likely to dominate a photograph, even if they are a tiny part of it.

Violet, blue and green are cool colours.  They are more peaceful, soothing, calming.  They may be associated with sadness, indifference, freshness or clarity.  These characteristics influence how the viewer feels about our photographs, the overall effect may be quieter and more relaxing.

Does your mood affect the colours you are drawn to photograph?  There is much to learn about ourselves when we consider our relationship to colours and the shades we choose to make a part of our lives.

Simplicity in black and white

I tend to associate the summer with strong, bright colours.  Bluer than blue skies, verdant green grass and a spectrum of flowers encourage me to dig out my gaudiest summer clothes and revel in the long, warm days.  So why, then, this year, am I increasingly drawn to creating images in monochrome?  Sometimes the full-on-ness of summer can become a bit much and July has been just that.  The heat and brightness can become overpowering and hide the subtlety of tones and shades that can be seen in monochrome.  Although black and white are strong colours in themselves, the many shades of grey reveal details of the world that colour can mask.  In the midst of summer’s brashness, I seek the cool peacefulness of a simpler palette, to see beyond the distraction of hue to the reality of form.

Images full of contrasting colours make an effective metaphor for a busy life. They are lively and full of interest, jumping off the page or screen and demanding your attention.  Although interesting, they can be quite wearing too.  For me, working in monochrome is a more restful way of connecting with my subject.  The simplicity of the colour scheme parallels the simplicity I am seeking elsewhere in my life.  Removing the colour from my images is like clearing the clutter from my cupboards.  Both provide a sense of space, a restful environment in which to exist.  And it’s way too hot for clearing cupboards!