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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

7) The Apple ColorSync utility can graph ICC profiles, displaying color in three dimensions.
Words and numbers provide one kind of perspective, pictures represent another. Color can be graphed. While color has three components, it’s typically graphed in two dimensions, not three. (The widespread use of computer imaging and its potential for 3D imaging may change this in the near future, but it hasn’t changed yet.) This means in any two-dimensional diagram of color, the representation of one element of color is limited. Nonetheless, even two dimensionally, graphing color is quite useful.

A classic way of representing color is in a circle or wheel. Creating and using color wheels to describe color and analyze color relationships is a time-honored tradition dating back to Leonardo da Vinci. Some of the most famous color wheels were created by Newton, Goethe and Munsell. Color wheels can be particularly useful when colors are plotted on them and when geometric shapes are imposed on them; you’ll be able to identify a variety of relationships between colors, both colors that exist in a composition and colors that do not. A straight line can be drawn through the center of the circle to define warm versus cool colors (a specific line between 90 and 270 degrees) or to identify complementary colors (any line). Concentric circles can be used to define the level of saturation a color or set of colors contains. Triangles can be used to identify types of color interactions—primary or secondary colors, monochrome, analogous or complementary colors. More complex geometric shapes—triangles, rectangles, pentagons, hexagons, octagons—can be used to help identify colors that may be used with one another to create logical color structures. For this, you’re likely to find the Apple color picker (a wheel) particularly useful inside Photoshop (Preferences > General > Color Picker > Apple). Color wheels are excellent at displaying relationships between hue and saturation, but are limited in their ability to display corresponding luminosity relationships.

There are many other useful terms in the lexicon of color theory and distinctions that can be made, but the elements mentioned here are the essentials on which you can base your conceptual foundations of color. With this language of color at your disposal, you can sharpen your perception of color, better understand existing color dynamics, make predictions about how color modifications will affect an image and communicate more clearly about color before, during and after working with color.

To see John Paul Caponigro’s photography and for workshop information, visit www.johnpaulcaponigro.com.


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