Stephen Kirkpatrick

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Color Is Light

As a photographer, my medium is light. The use of that medium can make or break a photograph. 
The word “photography” literally means “to write with light.”
Photography is the capturing of light (color), transporting it through glass (the lens), and placing it onto a receptor (film or a sensor) to produce an image for people to see. Studying a few simple aspects of light can help any photographer better understand the process and in turn, become a better photographer and communicator.
White light, or the light from the sun, contains all possible color variations, each recognized by its own wavelength. These colors are identified as the spectrum of light –  red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Red has the longest wavelength; violet has the shortest.  

Rainbow over Amazonia, Peru
June 1996

Light moves in straight lines, but there are three things that can happen to alter a lightwave. Materials may block all of the light (opaque), some of the light (translucent), or none of the light (transparent). These things alter the light and determine its color. Simply put, changing light changes color. 

Sunrays at Dawn
June 2010
from the book

SANCTUARY: Mississippi's Coastal Plain

The two photos below illustrate how altering the lighting can dramatically change a photo. I had found a blue green frog (the actual species of frog is a "green frog;" finding a blue one is an aberration of nature, like an albino) and wanted to show the unusual color. In the first photo, straight sunlight did not illustrate the blue correctly. So, I waited for a cloud to pass over. The cloud absorbed the long wavelength, yellow light, revealing the frog’s true color. Those few minutes of waiting made a massive amount of difference in the final result.

Green Frog (Rana clamitans)
July 1996
from the book

Fall Colors 
November 1992

Fall colors are drastically changed by clouds, turning bright reds and yellows (above) into softer pastels (below).
Fall Colors
October 1992
from the book


Water is naturally blue because it absorbs the long wavelength of red. 

Fish in Shallows
Grand Cayman B.W.I.
May 2008

The sunlit sky is blue because air scatters the short wavelength of blue. That’s why the human eye perceives blue when looking toward parts of the sky other than the sun. 
In contrast, red sunsets and sunrises are caused by the low angle of the sun to the earth’s surface. This causes the path of light to travel a long distance through the earth’s atmosphere, allowing the long wavelength of red to make it to our eyes. When looking at the sunset and sunrise, we see the color red more than any of the other colors.

Wood Ducks at Dawn
November 1988
from the book

When light is captured with a camera, the image is saved until it is ready to be displayed. There are two primary ways to view the photographic image – with light or with pigment (ink). 
1) Light or Additive Color - the primary colors in light are red, green, and blue. They occur in the additive color, or RGB, model. These are the colors seen on your computer screen, television, or out in nature. Black (no light) is the base and the image appears as light is added. If all colors were added, the image would go totally white. 
2) Ink or Subtractive Color - the secondary colors in light are cyan, magenta, and yellow. They occur in the subtractive color or CMYK model. These are the colors seen in printed materials like magazines and posters. These colors are light reflected off a surface that the surface doesn't absorb. There are four colors in the printing process. Pure black is added to cyan, magenta, and yellow. Mixing pigment (subtractive) and mixing light (additive) are very different in their properties and applications.
So, the next time you’re asked to save a file as RGB or CMYK, you’ll know that the method relates to how the image will be viewed.

Evening Rainstorm over Lake
September 1998

The photo above allows different colors and qualities of of light to assemble. Clouds, openings in the clouds, and rain all contribute to this powerfully lit scene.

Color and its many combinations affect us tremendously. Complementing colors are powerful tools in photography, whether used in the image itself or later on a wall. Complementary colors, like red and green; orange and blue; and yellow and purple, enhance and work in contrast with each other. These colors are found on opposite sides of the color wheel. 

Sunset Colors
Big Bend N.P., Texas
March 2001

In the sunset photo above, compare the clockwise progression of color on the color wheel from yellow to blue to the same progression in the sky.

Each color has its own properties and affects the viewer in different ways. Red stimulates us, blue lessens appetite, and green calms the senses. The most bothersome or irritating color is bright yellow. Bright colors reflect more light and can stimulate to the point of irritability.   
Colors, along with angles of light and composition, can enhance the message you want to get across in a photo. Just as certain compositions in a photograph might create a specific reaction, colors can also do the trick. 

Below is the slow progression of sunrise on a tree and rock formation. While the composition and color of light stay relatively the same, the angle of light dramatically changes the scene.

Sunrise on Rock Formation
Joshua Tree N.P., California
March 1998

I hope all of this helps you understand the power of light.

Again, happy shooting,

1 comment:

  1. I"m happy to know that you know the power of the Light and are happy to share it.

    Happy shooting.


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