While color has existed since the dawn of time, it has only been in mass use since the 1960s. When it did arrive, however, traditional photographers, critics, and philosophers, were either skeptical, as it challenged their way of creating a photograph, or saw it as a gross overreach of commercialism that tainted the art form. Before that point, in the age of monochromatic photography, photographers only had to handle tone, or the different shades of black and white. So opening the door to color revealed an entirely new dimension to photography and the powerful emotional and contextual effects it can bring. Though our modern age has embraced color photography, monochromatic photography still lives a strong life alongside it. The idea of color in composition can refer to a very broad spectrum of technical ideas such as chiaroscuro, key, hue, saturation, brightness, and relationship.
Chiaroscuro, an Italian expression that means “light-dark,” and key together form what photographers call “contrast,” which refers to the balance of light and dark tones in a picture. The primary purpose of chiaroscuro is to model subjects and establish a relationship between light and dark, thus giving it tremendous power over the structure of the image. Meanwhile, key handles the overall brightness of a picture or the proportions of dark and light tones with high-key photographs appearing brighter than low-key photographs. Although, more often than not, high-key images appear better in monochrome, whereas in color they appear washed-out or overexposed.
On the other hand, the actual colors are determined by their hue, saturation, and brightness. Hue is the quality of a color that gives it a name like red or green; saturation refers to the purity of a hue with the minimum being neutral grey; brightness determines if the hue is dark or light, an element that plays an important role in contrast. Together, these elements create the idea of color as we know it. Each color also possesses its own range of meanings which vary from culture to culture but can always be used for a certain emotional or psychological effect.
Furthermore, it’s difficult to atomize all the different pieces of color that form a picture as they all have a certain unbreakable relationship with each other. Some colors complement each other while others clash. Even as early as the fourth century BC, the Greeks created numerous parallels between color and music by applying the same principles of harmony and relationship with inventions like the chromatic scale. However, throughout the course of history, humanity’s idea of good harmony has been in constant flux with several conflicting theories of what ought to be combined. In fact, the idea of “correct harmony” between colors tends to differ between individuals. Unlike other art forms, photography is less bound by this idea of correctness, and photographers often use the power of dissonant color relationships as well to make an interesting photograph.
As one can understand by merely looking at the picture, various shades of blue dominate the image with a few accents of orange light. Because blue has a cool temperature and tends to recede more than other colors, its dominance gives the scene a very calm and quiet look, which is almost perfectly complemented by the oranges and yellows, giving it some degree of life. The image also features very high contrast with the darker regions appearing almost completely black, leaving some areas of the image ambiguous. And because of its low key, the clouds in distance pop out of the sky more than they would in real life and offer some texture to the normally barren horizon.
By contrast, this image features no color whatsoever as it hearkens back to the monochromatic photography of old. With no other color beyond the spectrum of black and white, the image loses most of the emotional power it could have with color. Instead, the primary emphasis becomes the shape and structure of the subject. In this case, the image captures only the beauty and austerity of the cathedral’s architecture. Nothing more, nothing less.
Even with these strengths, monochromatic photography will never achieve the same effect as color photography through the limitations of its palette because removing color would also remove a distinct quality of the human experience: emotion. That doesn’t mean that monochromatic photography no longer has a place in this world, as it can be visually and emotionally striking when used properly. However, because of the neutrality of black and white, people will often feel something is missing. Because we are surrounded by color every day, we often take its effects for granted until we know what we lose in its absence. So, step outside, take a deep breath, and enjoy the bright yellows, the cool blues, and the energetic reds because you are fortunate enough to see them.