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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Color Theory Explained

Having a solid understanding of digital color theory will make you a better all-around photographer. Digital expert John Paul Caponigro explains the ins and outs.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

1) The Adobe color picker is two-dimensional and charts permutations of luminosity and saturation of a single hue.
What is color theory? It’s not color management—a science of measuring color physically and describing it mathematically. It’s not color adjustment—a technique of changing color appearance. It’s not color psychology—a social science of charting and describing human response to color. While it’s impacted by all of these disciplines (it rests at their intersection), it constitutes a separate discipline in and of itself. Color theory is a language that conceptually and perceptually describes the elements of color and their interactions.

Part physical, part biological, part cognitive and part psychological (universally, culturally and individually psychological), color theory is perceptually based. Color theory often describes optical responses (which the other color disciplines take into account, but don’t focus on specifically), some of which are described as “illusions,” but are nonetheless perceived.

It doesn’t describe physical absolutes, as color management does. Instead, it describes perception, which is context-sensitive, thus relative rather than absolute. It doesn’t describe the mechanics of changing color appearance, as color adjustment does. Instead, it addresses what to do and why to do it rather than how to do it. It doesn’t describe responses unique to culture or individual, as color psychology does. Instead, it focuses on universal psychological responses to color, such as temperature.

2) The Apple color picker is a two-dimensional color wheel charting all hues with permutations of saturation at one level of luminosity, specified by an accompanying slider.
How Can Color Theory Be Used?
Color theory can help describe what’s perceived more precisely. It offers a language that’s shared and reasonably precise. Color theory can help make perception more precise. Language encodes thought, and a more precise and nuanced language can lead to more sensitive perception. Color theory can help analyze what makes some color relationships particularly successful and what makes others less successful. It illuminates the dynamic interactions between the elements of color, which can be used to guide decisions in selecting and adjusting color relationships.

Color theory is best used to inform color choices rather than to make them. Theory lays a foundation for exploration (guiding inquiry toward areas with greater potential and away from areas with less potential). It’s not a substitute for discovery. Jazz musicians Keith Jarrett and Thelonious Monk mastered music theory, but even they were surprised by their most original compositions; their compositions were informed and empowered by theory, but not determined by it. Theory is the sum of what we know, but it doesn’t contain what we don’t yet know. It can prime conditions for a breakthrough, but it can’t make one. It can be used to empower a unique or an authentic sensibility, but it’s not a substitute for one.


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