Art of Photography

Rob Townsend

Reflections on Part 3: Colour

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As briefly mentioned in my assignment 3 write-up, I found this section of the course to be a little more difficult to get through than the previous two. This wasn’t because there was a lot to do (although lots of reading/research, only four actual exercises) or because I struggled with the concepts (I think I got these pretty quickly) but more that I found it hard to find or create the images I needed to illustrate the specific colour combinations for the exercises and assignment. So it was a failing of imagination and inspiration more than anything else.

[I did have some external factors affecting the speed of my progress, like being knocked out by a heavy cold for a few weeks, and a lot of long days at work, but I think everyone has these from time to time so I’m not expecting any particular sympathy there…]

From b/w to colour

One of the things that I found a bit of a jarring juxtaposition at the start was that I’d spent two months shooting almost exclusively in black and white for the Elements of Design section, and actually found moving to colour slightly odd, like I was ‘cheating on’ the style that I’d learned to love. But after a week or so I got over that strange feeling and started to embrace a more colourful approach to photography.

Over time I found a similar thing happened as on the previous section: I started using strong colour combinations in my everyday (non-OCA) photography. Below are a few examples of photos from this period that were not part of the exercises or assignment (from my daily photo journal):

Also, as in the b/w experience on Elements of Design, after a while looking for colours and their inter-relationships started subconsciously affecting how I see the world; like a slight rewiring of my visual brain. In the same way as I came away from Elements of Design seeing lines, shapes and patterns in the world around me (whether I had a camera up to my eye or not), I finished the Colour assignment with a new-found (and increasingly instinctive) appreciation of the ways colours work with and against each other in everyday life. It’s not easy to describe but I do feel like it’s subtly altered the way I see the world.

Found vs arranged

One real eye-opener in the assignment itself was that I actually enjoyed the still life images, much to my surprise. Up until now I always steered clear of posed photographs, preferring to capture images of what was already there rather than staging things. However, when I spent some time on the toys and food sets in the assignment I realised it can be very satisfying to be able to finely manipulate the subject in a photograph to achieve exactly the effect you want – very different to working with the element of chance that always accompanies taking photos ‘out in the wild’. And this is related to the next learning…


I’ve recognised in my shooting on the assignment in particular that I am taking more time to think in advance what I want the end result to look like, before I lift the camera to my eye. I had particular subjects in mind for colour combinations and sought out (or assembled) real-life examples that matched what was in my head. In some instances this worked well – the ducks, rubik’s cube, apples and carrots images in particular – and in others, mainly the outside shots where I couldn’t control all the elements of the image, more approximately.

In addition to this, I’m trying to get inside the head of the viewer and how they will read the image; in a sense I’m trying to not only second-guess how they will look at the image but increasingly trying to steer or even manipulate how they look at it. For example, with the carrots I wanted a strong focal point with the orange then move the viewer’s eyes clockwise around the plate with the curved green lines of the leaves. Obviously this kind of thing is easier with still life. In pure captured moments in the real world, there’s an element of pre-visualisation that needs to be accompanied by a little bit of luck, and plenty of shots in the bag to pick from.

Subject themes

I covered this point in my preparatory notes blog post, but it bears repeating here as it’s a key element of my self-analysis this time round. When trying to get started on the assignment I was wondering why I found it harder to get going on this one, and after a while I put my finger on it: I work best (or at least I’m more comfortable) with a subject theme that gives me some structure to the set of photographs. This is why I found assignment 2 so satisfying, and this one so much harder to get off the ground. I think this need for a theme reflects the fact that I’m generally an organised thinker rather than a true creative thinker (I work in project management, if that gives an indication of how ‘left-brained’ I am…).

This search for a theme works in two ways, one for me and one more for the viewer, I believe. For left-brained me, I simply find it easier to be inspired when there are some parameters to the brief (and if there aren’t, I will invent my own); for the viewer, I believe that a coherent set of images with a unifying theme is much more powerful in getting over a message than an unconnected set of random images.

An appreciation of colour interactions

This wasn’t covered in great depth in the course notes, but for me the most fascinating element of colour relationships was not simply how colours look together, but how they affect each other. I found it very interesting how colours can appear significantly different dependent on what other colours they are juxtaposed with. What really brought this home was an iPad app called ‘Interaction of Color’ based on the Josef Albers workbook of the same name. It allows you to see the effects of placing colours in certain combinations, producing what amounts to a series of optical illusions. It’s really quite addictive to play with.

Interaction of Color, Josef Albers

Research and reading

I confess that I haven’t spent a lot of time on this section of the course reading about the history of, or theories of, colour photography. I found the above iPad app on colour interactions hugely interesting as it was both informative and interactive, and I think my learning style needs some practical application like this. Dry textbook reading alone isn’t the most effective way for me to learn. I am however very much enjoying the journals that I now subscribe to (BJP and Hotshoe) and several photography blogs that I now follow, some suggested by my tutor and some that I discovered myself. Every single day I am absorbing something new from looking at the photographic works and thoughts of others, and I’m finding this kind of ‘research’ and learning very easy to fit into my daily life. I do however intend to return to the textbook that I have temporarily put to one side.

I have visited a couple photography exhibitions over this section of the course, one yet to write up and one detailed here. Ironically, given that I’ve been working on the colour section of the course, and Martin Parr is most famous for his colour work – the exhibition of his that I attended (and loved) was of his early black and white work!


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