The Art of Photography Assignment Three – Colour


Part three of the Art of Photography section of this course is all about colour, and this assignment is to show my understanding of colour, and how I can control and use it in my images.  Throughout this part of the course I’ve been looking at the relationships between different colours, both complementary and contrasting, and I need to show my understanding of these relationships through my assignment images.

I needed to take around four images of each of the following colour relationships:

  • Colour harmony through complementary colours
  • Colour harmony through similar colours
  • Colour contrast through contrasting colours
  • A colour accent using any of the above relationships.

Before preparing for this assignment I wanted to ensure I was familiar with the colour wheel and how the colours within it relate to each other, so I revisited the earlier exercises to remind myself of the main “rules” (click on each of the images for more details)


As with the previous section of the course, I needed to really concentrate on this one to get it right, as over the years I’ve never really thought too hard about how I used colour in my images – other than the traditional red, white and blue of the Royal Air Force roundel, or a red poppy for Remembrance Day as an eye-catching PR tool. I looked at the work of other photographers, such as Jay Maisel ( and also various photographers for National Geographic (, and although I was slightly saddened by the fact that I was in Somerset in the middle of winter, rather than somewhere more colourful and sunny, I had a few ideas. As I’d worked through some of the exercises in the run up to the assignment, I’d taken a few images that I’d planned on using for this final assessment.  Below are some of my early ideas for images to be used – some already taken by this planning stage, some to be taken (or not as the case may be in some of the ideas):

Complementary colours:

  • Red flower on green background
  • Traffic lights, one behind the other, try to catch one on red, 1 on green – use long lens to compress distance
  • Yellow centre of purple flower

Harmonious colours

  • Road markings (red road, yellow lines)
  • Neon lights on pier
  • Woods
  • Portrait

Contrasting colours

  • Flowers
  • Spices
  • Car light
  • Bristol Street Art

Colour accents:

No real prior ideas for this part, just wanted to see what caught my eye when out and about with my camera.

Overall my main aim was to avoid all the images being too similar a style – I didn’t want them to all be landscapes, or close up, or nature for example.  I also wanted to have a mix of posed, still life and uncontrolled action, natural colour and artificial, manufactured colour – I wanted to get a wide variety of images, if nothing else; it makes it all a bit more interesting to look at, although during the planning I seemed to be heading down a theme of flowers so tried to make sure I didn’t have too many, but failed a little!


Standard Kit:

  • Nikon D800 DSLR
  • Nikon 50mm Fixed Focal Length lens
  • Tamron 28 – 75mm Lens
  • Nikon 75 – 300mm lens
  • Tamron 18 – 24mm lens
  • Manfrotto tripod (used on any shots below 1/60th second)
  • Nikon SB-910 flash (used off-camera when used)I use ambient light as much as possible, (other than the portrait) and all images have only had “darkroom” adjustments in Adobe Photoshop – cropping, levels, brightness and contrast, and maybe a hint of a vignette around the edge of one or two.


Click on each of the images for more information, including self-critique and camera settings.

Complementary colours

Below are a slideshow of sketches of my interpretation of the balance of the image:

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Overall I think this is the set of images I struggled with the most, finding it difficult to find the complementary colours in the right balance, I’d really wanted to stay away from lots of flower images, but found myself being drawn to them as subject for this part, mainly due to a desire to try and find the colour combinations occurring naturally rather than man-made through paintwork, or packaging, for example.  I had hoped to get at least one example of the three different colour combinations, but seem to have ended up with mainly orange/blue, none of which I’m 100% happy with the ratios.

Harmonious colours

Below are a slideshow of sketches of my interpretation of the balance of the image:

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Contrasting colours

Below are a slideshow of sketches of my interpretation of the balance of the image:

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On my initial sift of my potential images for this section, I seem to have ended up going with blue/red for the colour contrasts – not intentionally, it just seemed to happen – perhaps it’s harking back to my previous job again, I am naturally drawn to this colour combination!  I think that these images generally work quite well, and are quite eye-catching.  In the end I chose the orange/green one and the flower to balance it out, although it does mean that there’s yet another flower image, which may be too many!

Colour accents

Below are a slideshow of sketches of my interpretation of the balance of the image:

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I’m quite pleased that there is no flower image in this section, and generally I’m quite happy with the range of images, although I’ve kind of surprised myself that there’s no red accents in there!


This assignment was a definite challenge, but then again, what’s the point in study if it’s easy! Overall though, I’m generally pleased with the images I’ve got, there’s certainly more variety than I initially thought I’d have at the end, although there are too many flowers for my liking!  I feel that I’ve got a good range of still life, streets, landscapes, portraits etc…, perhaps a few more people shots would have been useful.

I do feel that now I have a much greater awareness of colour and how to use it.  Previously I would have used colours in a particular balance purely because I felt that it worked, or looked good, or was eye-catching, whereas now I have a more in-depth knowledge of why particular colours work well together, or contrast strongly, and will be able to use this in future work.

The gallery below is a selection of some of my rejected images, and why I chose not to use them:

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Exercise – Colours into Tones in Black and White

I’ve always been a fan of black and white and the way the detail of an image stands out more when the eye isn’t distracted by colour.  The use of filters when shooting with black and white film can change the appearance and tone of different colours, depending on what colour filter is used.  For example, using a red filter over the lens when shooting a  landscape on a sunny day can render the blue sky nearly black, and of here’s some little white fluffy clouds around it can make for a really dramatic shot. Shooting digitally in colour makes life a bit easier as you don’t need to make your film colour or filter decisions before shooting, as digital editing software has various black and white adjustments that can be used in post-processing.

For this exercise I needed to build and shoot a still-life set up containing examples of red, green, blue and yellow items, so after a bit of hunting around, this is what I came up with – which is kind of reminiscent of my former RAF Photographer career! I’ve also included a set of black, white and grey cards, with the grey being a mid-tone and acts as a constant throughout all of the changes carried out in post-processing.

I shot quite a few variations of this image, starting out by just using available light with a reflector to bounce a bit of light back in, but then I gave in a got my flash out, and with a long exposure, pinged a few bursts of off-camera flash in during the exposure.  Technically I’m not into the lighting part of this course, so I should just stick to available light, but I preferred the flashed image so I’ve gone with that one for the next part of the exercise – playing with the different black and white filter settings in Adobe Photoshop.

Once the image was loaded into Photoshop I then needed to create 5 additional versions of the original image and apply various black and white filter adjustments and look at all the images together to see the differences that the various adjustments create. Click on the images in the gallery below to look at a larger version.

Nikon D800 | 100 ISO | 3 Seconds | f/32


Exercise – Colour Relationships

The colours in the colour wheel seen in my previous post balance differently with the complementary colours opposite them on the colour wheel, depending on their perceived brightness.  The brighter the colour, the less is required to balance an image, for example, red and green are perceived to be of the same brightness value and therefore balance well at a ratio of 1:1, in equal measures.  Orange is perceived to be brighter than its complementary colour of blue and therefore should take up less than the image than blue in order to create the correct balance, and ideally should be at ratio of 1:2, with more blue than orange.  Yellow is even brighter than it complementary colour of violet and should be used in a ratio of 1:3. The image below shows the colour balance combinations and ratios.

17th century poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe devised a colour notation system, to give a value to the brightness of the colours – the higher the number, the brighter the hue. E.G Red = 6, Green = 6, Blue = 4, Orange = 8, Violet = 3, Yellow = 9 – and the complementary colour pairs add up to 12, although whether this is actually relevant, I’ve no idea!

Part One

For this exercise first I needed to find one image for each of the harmonised complementary colour pairs above, in the ratios required for good balance, which was no easy task.  I wanted to try and keep away from staging all of them, but wanted to fully fill the frame as much as possible with the colours, for there to be no doubt about the colours involved, with no others lurking around in the background, getting in the way.  One of the images was spotted whilst out and about, and then for the other two I gave in and bought myself some chocolate and some flowers – for educational purposes only, obviously! (click on the images for larger versions and captions)

Part Two

For the second part of this exercise I had a slightly easier task of finding colour combinations that appealed to me, and they didn’t have to fit into the ratios above.

Overall, once again I found this a really interesting exercise, having never looked at colour relationships in this way before, only going with what I thought worked.  It would be interesting to trawl back through my work over the years to see if any of my images have naturally fallen into any of the ratios, without thinking about it.

Exercise – Primary and Secondary Colours

For this course the primary colours are the three used in art, Red, Yellow and Blue – reflected colours, such as paint.  The secondary colours to these primary’s are Green, orange and violet, and are created by mixing two of the primary colours together.

This colour wheel shows the primary colours with the secondary colours between, which can be made by a mix of the primary colours.  For example red and yellow mixed will create orange.  The wheel also shows the complementary opposite colours across the wheel, as they are completely opposite, with no element of the opposite colour in it. The wheel also has the warm colours (Red, orange and yellow) on one side, and the cooler colours (Violet, blue and green) on the other.

My colour Wheel copy

For this exercise I needed to find six scenes dominated by one of the six colours above – not an easy task when you can’t go anywhere due to the snow, other than the woods round the corner.  Combine that with the fact that it’s January, there’s no flora and fauna around, and all the snow just seems to turn the world black and white, so I really had to think quite hard! It mentions in the exercise briefing that you need to make sure you don’t just end up shooting painted doors, as there’s no real challenge to that, as you are pretty much just photographing a paint manufacturer’s catalogue!

With each of the images I needed to bracket the exposure, and then pick the exposure which was the closest match to the colour in the wheel, so off I trotted to the woods – well, not so much trotted as waded through the snow – and although I thought I was going to struggle, I’m quite pleased with some of the examples I came up with, and 4 out of the 6 images were taken in the woods, I only had to resort to 2 still life images, taken when I got home from my walk.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with this exercise, and with my use of colour.  I enjoyed the challenge of trying to find colours in less obvious places, and it shows that with a bit of looking it’s possible to find colour anywhere, even in a monochrome snowy landscape!

Exercise – Control the Strength of a Colour

Having had really good feedback from my tutor on my assignments for Part Two: Elements of Design (post here: ) I can now move on to Part Three: Colour, where I can now explore the use of colour as another element of design, and how I can use colour to direct the viewer, and control how the image works.

For the first exercise I needed to manually control my exposure in order to “bracket” my exposure around the correct exposure, as suggested by the cameras TTL (Through the Lens) metering system.  Using that exposure as my starting point I needed to change my exposure by half a stop, adjusting the aperture to allow more or less light in.

Having set my camera on a tripod as I was shooting indoors on a pretty dark, grey day, with a shutter speed of 1/30th Sec I framed up on my exercise ball (apologies for the product placement!). At 1/30th second, my camera suggested that the correct exposure was f/5.6 so I took 5 images bracketed around f/5.6. I then needed to look at all 5 images alongside each other and look at the way the change in exposure changes the way the colour appears.

f/4 – 1 stop under exposed, the saturation of the red is reduced, giving it a slightly orangey/pinky hue
f/4.5 – ½ stop under exposed – I think the red in this shot is closer to the true object, and is definitely brighter than the f/5.6 exposure and I prefer this to the metered exposure.
f/5.6 – the suggested exposure according to the cameras TTL (through the lens) metering system.

Personally I think this exposure is a little on the dark side, and the red is darker than the true colour.

f/6.3 – ½ a stop over exposed. The red starts to become over-saturated and dark, reducing the intensity of the red hue as it gets darker.
f/8 – 1 stop over-exposed. The red hue is definitely getting too dark and saturated, and almost taking on a hint of purple.
It’s interesting to see how the change of exposure and saturation can affect the appearance of the colour hue, I’d never really paid that much attention to it in my past work, although I’d noticed it, I’d never really analysed the effect.