Colour by Michael Freeman

These are my learning points from the book Colour by Michael Freeman (Ilex, Lewes, 2005).


Hue – what most people refer to as colour, they usually mean hue.


RYB ‘Painter’s primaries’

RGB – ‘Transmitted primaries’

suggests 6 primaries and secondaries – red, yellow, blue, green, violet, orange plus black, white and grey.


Saturation – Pure hues are fully saturated, i.e. at full intensity

Brightness – second modulation of hue is how bright or dark it is.


Phenomenon of colour is an interaction between light and surfaces.

The final colour that we see and that the camera records depends not only on the light source but also on the surface it strikes.


RED – visually one of the most important, powerful colours – immediately attracts attention and has many strong associations. When set against cooler colours (greens and blues) seems to advance towards the viewer. Almost 3D effect. Emotionally – vital, earthy, strong and warm. Can connote passion, anger and danger.

YELLOW – brightest and lightest of colours, receives energy from a dark setting but is drained by a pale one. Expressively it is vigorous and sharp (rarely considered suitable for a food photo).

BLUE – quiet, relatively dark and above all cool colour. Blue recedes visually. Has its greatest strength when deep. . Has associations of intangibility and passivity. Suggests withdrawn, reflective mood.

GREEN – key colour of nature, eyes can discriminate within it a large number of greens. Carries suggestions of hope and progress. Yellow green has spring- like associations of youth.

VIOLET – Mixture of blue and red is most elusive of colours both in our ability to identify it and capture it photographically. Pure violet is the darkest colour – when light becomes lavender, when dark can be confused with dark blue, if reddish tends towards purple, if less red simply merges into blue. Rich and sumptuous associations and can also create impression of mystery and immensity. Violet landscape can suggest foreboding and other-worldliness. Purple has regal, religious and superstitious connotations.

ORANGE – Rich, radiant colour, inextricably associated with glow of incandescent light. Has associations of festivity and celebrations and also of heat and dryness.

BLACK – the absence of light and tone. While in pure form contains no detail – essential for establishing the density and richness of an image. When black appears extensively it can be heavy and oppressive but can also carry hints of richness and elegance.

WHITE – although theoretically white is the absence of colour and tone, in practice it is the most delicate of colours and plays a very important role in almost every image. White needs care in exposure – especially digital – slight underexposure makes it appear muddy, slight overexposure destroys the hint of detailand can give sensation of being washed out. White generally symbolises purity. Has association with distance and even infinity.

GREY – In purest form grey is the essence of neutrality, deadening the sensation of colour in proportion to its area in the picture. It also helps to reveal any colour cast in a photo. Mid-grey is exactly half way between black and white. Pure grey has leaden mechanical associations with connotations of being uninteresting. Grey is the colour of stone and so borrows associations of solidity and weight.


COLOUR AND CONTRAST – Contrast is not simply an issue of exposure and tonal range. It affects the intensity of colours, and the problem with high contrast scenes is to hold colour values. Exposure is a matter of colour – too little will produce dark, muddy hues – while too much will bleach them out.

Expose for the bright colours and let the shadows go.



Violet                  9

Blue                    8

Red & Green     6

Orange               4

Yellow                 3


RED & GREEN – Combination of strongest hue (red) and the most common in nature (green) is frequent and powerful, although the most balanced mixture uses a bluish green.

ORANGE & BLUE – Of the three classic colour harmonies, orange/blue is probably the easiest to find photographically, because both colours are close to the colour temperature scale of light. Orange is twice as luminous as blue, so the best balance between them is when the blue is twice the area in a picture.

YELLOW & VIOLET – The third combination contrasts the brightest and darkest colours in the spectrum, with intense results, but the rarity of violet makes it an uncommon relationship.


COLOUR ACCENT – A small area of bright colour set somewhere in the frame and contrasting with the background is a special case in colour relationships with a particular relevance for photography.


DISCORD – The negative of harmony is discord, equally subjective, dependent on opinion and liable to change. It has its own terminology with terms such as clashing, strident and vulgar. In art discord is typically used to challenge assumptions, awaken the audience’s attention and make statements.



Hottest colour    –    orange/red

Coldest effect    –    blue/green

Because cool colours recede and warm colours advance, blue/green (and neighbouring colours) are associated with backgrounds and distance.If colour of background is cool and subject is warm – impression of depth is heightened.

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