Wednesday, February 4, 2015

How Color Creates Emotion

sleeping polar bear on snow
Polar Bear, Sleeping
Every feature film, many television dramas and most high-end commercials take a trip through a colorist before release. Hollywood discovered how to use color long before color film became available. As early as the 1910s, some film stocks were tinted red, blue, yellow or other shades, and toning became popular as well.

As co-owner of a Los Angeles production company and award-winning video editor for 10 years, I developed an understanding of the power and use of color in still and motion photography. Colors have been found to relate to and convey emotions. Blues can be seen as cold, or they can be peaceful and calming as they remind us of nighttime. Earth tones of browns and greens remind us of nature, and convey tranquility and harmony. Reds and oranges are exciting and energetic. Even black, white and shades of gray can be associated with certain feelings.

Most of my images will have a dominant color or tone, and that is deliberate. It often starts with the shot I select, enhanced in post-production, or a creative treatment or undertone that I’ll apply in post. The color choices are deliberate. They help unify the image, hopefully convey the emotion I want to convey, and enhance the subject of the photograph.

The effect is best kept subtle. Pushing the vibrance or saturation sliders to the max is not my idea of color grading or color finishing, as it is called in motion image editing. When more overt manipulation is done, it should be done for a reason.

Some Examples
Here are a few examples of my color work. The sleeping polar bear, photographed during a snowstorm in the Canadian Arctic, saw very little post-production. I wanted white to dominate, a color that represents purity and innocence. I adjusted the color temperature, did some dodging and burning, and neutralized the white tones. The result is a near-monotone image of peacefulness, stillness and wilderness.

Horses and cowboy running in morning light
Morning Exercise 

I wanted to achieve the opposite effect with the image of the horses being run ("Morning Exercise"). This was shot in the golden morning light, so I already had a warm glow to start with. The effect was aided by deliberate backlighting and the dust being kicked up in the corral. The orange color conveys the energy and excitement of the workout, and I emphasized that with color temperature adjustments and an added color undertone.
Wooden bridge over snow-covered, frozen river
Ice Bridge 

The wooden bridge over the frozen river ("Ice Bridge") seemed to ask for a more extreme treatment. Under a cold, cloudy sky, the bridge did not stand out. In post-production, I created two layers. For the background, I desaturated that layer and then added a blue-violet tint. The bridge was masked out to show through the original color layer, which was then enhanced with warm tone adjustments. I wanted to create a contrast between the cold ice and sky and the warm, natural tones of the wooden bridge. The effect brings out the bridge and yet is subtle overall.

The range of techniques in color finishing is tremendous. I use these to enhance my images and convey not just what I captured in camera, but what I felt as I snapped the shutter.