What's the Best Way to Get Better Color Photos? Don't Just Use Color—Think Color!

For this image, I wanted to try something new for a familiar location—it's Lake Monroe, in Florida—and a composite of ten multiple exposures, each 25 seconds long, was my experiment. The result intensified the sky's color and revealed different tones over time. All photos © Deborah Sandidge

Color control of our photographs is at our fingertips. It's there, in the camera, all those choices about how we're going to make the most of color, to modify, intensify, or otherwise change it. We have picture controls, scene modes, special effects, exposure compensation, and white balance just waiting to help us make the most colorful photographs ever, right?

Well, yes...and no. As with most things in photography, it's in the way you use them. Actually, it's the way you think about using them, and how you add your own creative touches to the process.

Here are some of the things I keep in mind to make my color photos even more colorful, creative, and attention-getting.

The colorful creature at the Asian Lantern Festival in Central Florida exists, but everything else you see is the result of Fractal Filters's Julia prism, which I held about two inches in front of my 50mm lens. The photo is typical of my "Okay, that's great color—now what do I do with it?" attitude.

Adding It Up  
Color may be the most important element in the photo—it could be the subject of the photo—but by itself it may not be enough for me. I start by considering my composition so I can set up the color to do its best work.

After that, I think about adding other techniques, like long exposures or multiple exposures; making white balance (color temperature) changes; or perhaps shooting with a filter or a prism. I use those tools because I want the best and richest colors in my shots.

It was a stop-the-car moment when I glimpsed this Ferris wheel at a local carnival in Florida. Color was the reason for the photo, and the 3/5 second exposure provided a sense of motion while preserving the wheel's details. I set the color temperature to 3850 Kelvin for a tone cooler than reality offered, then set the camera's picture control to Vivid mode. I braced the camera on a ledge and used Exposure Delay mode to keep movement to a minimum.

White balance will influence the mood and often the drama of the shot. If I'm shooting fall foliage on an overcast day. I'm going to set my white balance to the Cloudy setting to make the colors a little bit richer, a little bit warmer.

I might also set Cloudy for a sunrise just to emphasize the warm tones of the scene. A neutral density filter will help balance the light in a scene and often emphasize color. Long exposures and multiple exposures can capture the changes in light and color as time passes.

The butterfly lanterns at the Lantern Festival were colorful and beautiful but a touch too literal for me, so I set my tripod-mounted camera's multiple exposure control for three frames and zoomed my 70-300mm lens at small increments after the first shot at 135mm.

Speaking of time, photographing at the blue hour is almost always going to result in rich, deep colors—which isn't always enough for me. I'll sometimes add to a blue hour photo the result of a color temperature adjustment to change the dynamics of the shot.

Temperatures around 4000 to 5000 Kelvin tend to cool off the tones in a photograph. At different times of day, I might experiment with the general white balance controls like Cloudy, Natural Light, and Sunny. 

For photos like this one, taken in Kyoto, Japan, the background can't fight for attention, so I look for neutral backdrops or I blur them out with wide apertures. Here I used the camera's Cloudy white balance setting to bring out the color.

Observe and Experiment
Color will always catch my eye, grab my attention and immediately set the mood of the photograph. Often it easily conveys the spontaneity of the moment, the fun being in that place at that time.

But for me the reality of the scene, what the color might suggest, is just the start. Even when there's not a lot of decision-making to be done—maybe the subject of the photo is color, pure and simple—I still like to try adding some extra touches to what's already there.

South Beach, Florida, is a can't-miss, fun location for color. I used a ten-second exposure to capture the red streaks of taillights to add motion to the image. The shutter speed also allowed all the colors to burn in a bit. The white balance here was 4800 Kelvin. I call this "setting up the camera for success."

And I like to experiment. I know that not everything is going to work, but I believe that experimentation is the key to creativity.

Sometimes I look at the situation and try to imagine what's going to happen. The photo at the top of this story of a purple sky is a perfect example of that. I looked at the scene, wondered what it would look like if it were captured in multiple exposures and then made that happen simply because I wanted to see what it would look like. Sometimes there's success, sometimes failure, but the idea is to try.

The Oakland Bay Bridge, San Francisco, in a 2.5-second exposure— long enough to capture the colors of the lights and their reflections. The blue hour was colorful, but not quite enough, so I set the white balance for 4750 Kelvin to accentuate the tones. You might get a shot like this with your camera on Auto white balance, but I like to be sure of getting what I want to see.

If you work this way you have to start by trusting your instincts and staying true to what you like and want to see. You can decide to use color deliberately to affect others, and you can look for it, compose for it, even make changes to it for that purpose.

This image from the local carnival takes full-on blue-hour advantage of the richest colors of the day as well as my setting of the camera's Super Vivid special effects' mode. Magic things happen at the blue hour, but you can always help them along with your own creative choices.

There's nothing wrong with that, but it's not the way I work or why I use color the way I do. What I do is ask myself: what do I want to see? And everything I do in a particular situation comes from the answer to that question. I never think, Oh, I have to get people's attention; I want to get my attention.

I think you'll find as I did, that with color, motion, dynamic composition, and trust in your instincts, the results will give your image the best opportunity to engage others.

Deborah Sandidge's website, deborahsandidge.com, offers a collection of her photographs as well as photo tips and a schedule of upcoming workshops, photo tours, and seminars.