Who Wants Natural Colours Anyway?

Many camera websites and blogs rave electric about the natural colour rending of a camera, lens or film, as if it’s the holy grail of colour photography. But is it?

I’ll admit there are times when I’ve sought a look and a colour palette that has seemed natural, yet also somehow enhanced what I saw with my naked eyes.

Much of the flower photography I’ve captured with my Pentax K10D falls into this category. Its CCD sensor combined with Takumar or Pentax-A lenses gives more saturated yet still relatively natural colours. Especially in good light.

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But I often found that when I was shooting with this set up, my focus was almost entirely on capturing the colour of a certain flower, rather than thinking about whether it was an interesting composition overall.

I was like an amateur botanist, gathering or documenting colours, rather than making photographs that stand alone, regardless of colour.

With film, I experimented numerous times to specifically explore colours that are shifted from “reality” in some way.

Whether that was by making and shooting my own redscale film –

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Or deliberately forced light leaks (nothing sophisticated, just popping open the back of the camera a fraction every couple of frames) –

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Or cross processing (having slide film processed as colour negative C41 film) –

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And now I’ve extended this experimentation to digital photography, either adjusting settings in camera –

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Or with apps like Hipstamatic or Snapseed afterwards –

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So whilst I do enjoy those colours my K10D gives pretty much straight out of camera, even they aren’t a perfect rendition of the natural colours of the scene.

I see photography as an opportunity and privilege to do more than “just” capturing reality.

The final photograph is a version, a unique personal interpretation, of the reality.

We can’t change the composition, focus, depth of field and so on after releasing the shutter.

But we can use our creativity to alter the colours, and influence how we want the image to be seen and interpreted by others. 

Also, in the last nine months I would estimate that 95% of my photographs have been b/w anyway, which be definition is a major modification of the natural colour present in the original scene we saw with our bare eyes.

The photograph we make is not the scene itself, it’s not the reality. It’s an object, an artefact in itself, and when we get it right, and have a captive, appreciative audience, it might even been called art.

So who wants natural colours anyway?

What are your thoughts around natural colours? How much do you seek to recreate them in your photographs, or how much do you deliberately subvert them? 

Please share your thoughts and experiences with us below (and remember to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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34 thoughts on “Who Wants Natural Colours Anyway?”

  1. Dan, I enjoy your black and white photography but for myself I have a passion for color in what I do. As a person who also does painting, drawing, collaging etc I love the use of color in my work. Loved seeing your color photos this time xoxo susanJOY

    1. Yes, with any other medium I would indulge in more colour too. Just like the simplicity and purity of b/w photography and how it strips everything back to the raw composition, light, shapes and textures.

  2. I actually like it when the camera produces colors that are as neutral as possible (the Fujis are perhaps an exception, their “film simulations” are well thought out). I really hate post-processing, so I use a (consistent) preset, in Snapseed or in Lightroom (RNI’s Ektar preset, which has nice, bold colors). I find this workflow easier when the basic file is as neutral as possible, as it just requires less tweaking after applying the preset.

    1. Robert this is generally what I have been doing when I shoot colour too, keeping everything neutral or default on the camera then using a preset in Snapseed.

      I like having the variation at the Snapseed stage (eg I have a “vintage” colour preset, and a “warm” colour preset) which then gives consistency pretty much whatever the camera, rather than having to tweak every camera to get the same look.

      That said, if I used fewer cameras I’m sure with a bit more experimentation I could get colours set up in camera as I wanted then have no need for Snapseed.

      Not there yet though.

      Again it’s finding a balance between consistency and variation, where you want the consistency which gives a simple direct approach, and where you want enough variation to keep things interesting, eg two or three colour presets rather than just one.

      1. In this context I came across a nice blog post from Kevin Mullins: https://f16.click/tips/fujifilm-jpeg-settings.html

        He describes his custom in-camera settings for a number of different situations or styles. This is all very Fuji related of course, but the idea behind it is interesting. You consciously choose a specific custom setting, appropriate to the subject, as if you were making the choice for a certain film. It prevents you from being overwhelmed, afterwards, by too many (preset) options in post-processing.

        1. Thanks Robert, this is really useful. I don’t have a Fuji but it’s good to see how he adjusts different settings to get different looks. This is similar in principle to what I have done with Snapseed – start with a preset then tweak the parameters – but it’s something I’d like to try in camera more. I think my Pentax Q is the most likely candidate as it has plenty of flexibility with settings. Plus I’ve found a straight out of camera look I like with the Q, so it would be good to find a colour equivalent (or two). Also makes me curious about an older Fuji X, like the X100.

          1. Well Dan, I did not want to mention it before I was 100% sure, but I got a nice original X100 today. First impression is very good. Everything I look for in a camera in terms of operation, build and simplicity. And that optical viewfinder (after a few years with EVFs) is superb. The X100 has less options in custom settings than more recent models (not all film simulations, no “grain”), but I’m going to play around with the settings to create a few personal “films”. It would be nice if I could make Lightroom superfluous, maybe I can cancel the subscription at the end of the current period (I hate their business model).

          2. Very very interested in hearing your thoughts on the original X100 in the coming weeks. I’ve just finished writing a review of the LX3 I got recently, which isn’t as glowing as I hoped it might be, and in fact quite a disappointment.

            Totally with you on LightRoom, you probably recall I’ve written a couple of posts on this in recent months!

          3. I used the LX3 for what I would call “snapshot documentary” (90% B+W). Red carpet events and stuff like that. It was a good camera for that kind of photography – for other genres maybe not so much. Looking forward to your review.

            Re Lightroom: I will miss it for the post-processing of film scans that I get back from the lab (color cast, dust, hair, etc.). There is a lot of work in that (it shouldn’t be, but that’s a different story) and I have not yet found an alternative to deal with it. But shooting just a few films a year does not justify the monthly LR subscription fee.

          4. So far I’ve only used the LX3 for b/w too. Love that it has a Dynamic mode for b/w which, with further tweaking, gives me b/w photographs I like straight out of camera. This is a big plus. Unfortunately it’s disappointing in a few other crucial (for me) areas. Review will be up in a few days.

            Maybe you need to try a different lab? I used to just get mine done at a local Asda and I can’t ever recall having dust or hair on the scans? There must be reputable pro labs that you could use and redirect that LR fee into?

          5. Unfortunately, this is the only lab in my area. Color is okay, but B+W 120 film they really can not handle. And yet: 25 euros per film (= £ 22). I still cringe each time when I pick up the scans and have to pay. Alternative option: mail order to a foreign lab, but that is even more expensive and the reliability of the Dutch postal service is disastrous (personal experience). Or I should scan myself, but with my total lack of patience or a dust-free space, that probably will not yield a better result either.

            As much as I like shooting with the Holga, the fun ends immediately after taking the last frame. If I manage to get in a good flow with the X100, I will probably leave film for what it is.

          6. Yikes that is expensive. I haven’t had any 120 film processed for a few years but I recall it was less than £10 a roll then. And that I found too much.

            Scanning, in my experience, is not for the impatient, which I’d include myself in. Although I know many people now have a pretty fast, efficient and effective workflow with a DSLR. See some of Frank’s posts for example –

            https://whyfilmcameras.com/2018/04/21/scanner-vs-digital-camera/

            I’ve been reading about the original X100 and it does sound very appealing. Basically a slightly larger compact with a very good prime lens, old school knob and dials for shutter speed, aperture etc and excellent options for straight out of camera JPGs. I really hope it works out for you, keep me posted.

          7. Those old skool knobs are fantastic. No retro gimmick or hipster nostalgia, it’s just very practical during shooting. No more fussing with function buttons or menus. And that optical viewfinder is so much better than an EVF.

            The X100 is not the best camera for macro – that could be an issue for you? For my photography style it ticks all the right boxes.

          8. 0.8 meters. However, there is a macro mode, it focuses as close as 0.15 meters or so; but it’s very slow, it needs some fiddling, and sharpness is not very good at f2. Haven’t tried it yet – as I hardly shoot macro anyway.

          9. I was reading a review the other day that said the AF was generally slow on the original X100, and firmware updates did make some improvements. Guess I’ll not know if it would be too slow/soft for me until I tried. It’ll remain on the wishlist for now, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts a few weeks down the line.

          10. Re AF: I used the X100 this weekend during a big street parade. AF did not work noticeably slower than with other cameras I had before (my copy has the AF firmware update, so I can not compare with previous versions). Given the fast-moving subjects (dancers), the AF was actually pretty accurate (much more than, for example, the Olympus I recently used). I had hardly any misses – with a few exceptions of subjects being (too) close. And sometimes such a “failed” shot was a happy accident that looks kind of cool. No real issue for me. I have not tried macro, but I do think the X100 is mainly a “reportage” camera, and a very good one. I had a lot of fun using the camera, and I had significantly more “keepers” than with other cameras on the first day of use. So first impression is very positive.

          11. Thanks Robert, all sounds very positive. Yes I know the X100 (and other X cameras) are loved by street photographers. I’m still curious about them, but for now I think the cost of them still plus the potential close focus limitations have nudged it behind one or two other cameras.

            Look forward to hearing more of your future experiences.

  3. I do.

    I mean, what I want is realistic-looking colors. I see so many photos around the ‘Net obviously heavily processed and the look just doesn’t resonate with me.

    If I had to sum up what I’m trying to do with my photos, it’s this: See this, see it as I did in this moment. To achieve that, I process to correct problems, but beyond that tweak color (or tonality in b/w) only until I get a natural look, both in color and b/w — and then only if the camera didn’t deliver it itself.

    1. Jim, I agree about the heavily processed (over processed for my tastes) images online, especially the “HDR” ones that look so synthetic and garish. Some are hideous!

      But what about a bit of artistic interpretation? What about increasing say the saturation a little of a red flag to increase its prominence in a scene, or muting all the colours a little to perhaps give the composition a more timeless or vintage look? Or shooting in b/w?

      If we’re purely shooting colours exactly as they were, are these just snapshots, just a way of capturing a memory in the same we might take a picture of a loved one on holiday purely to aid our memory. There’s no extra attempt to emphasise the impact or emotion of the composition (or part of it) as a way to connect or communicate our intention better with the viewer.

      1. I’ve got no problem with people who do whatever with their photos, but for me right now I’m really trying to capture reality, or my memory of reality. I do tweak saturation sometimes but only to bring the scene in line with my memory. I want the composition itself to bring the emotional impact.

        1. I like what you said at the end there, about the composition itself bringing the impact. I think this is why I’ve favoured b/w so much for the last nine months or so, it removes the potential distraction of colour and the composition has to stand on its own two feet more.

  4. IMHO there is no black and white answer (pun intended).

    Shooting (color) film, the colors heavily depend on the film used.
    What do you wanna do … let them as is, or correct them to get colors as you saw them … or want them to be seen. What is ‘natural’ in this context?

    Shooting digital, what settings do you use … making colors more vivid or bleached? Depending on the camera – i.e. sensor – used, each renders colors somehow different. So what would be ‘natural’ here?

    When correcting / adjusting colors in post-processing … do you really remember exactly the colors as they were … or do you try to get colors most pleasing to you also depending on your current mood … or intention?

    Sometimes the colors look just right out of camera and sometimes slight adjustments seem to make it look … ‘better’. What is ‘natural’ here?

    1. Interesting thoughts Reinhold, yes do you want the final image to be natural compared with the scene as your eyes saw it, or natural compared with the neutral way the particular camera/lens/film you’re using sees it?

      I used to often shoot a roll of new (to me) film, or expired film, just to see how it would render colours. I didn’t have a preconceived notion of what I wanted the colours to look like, it was always going to be something of a surprise.

      Oh and good point about your mood and intention changing. I remember shooting with my old Sony NEX and never being happy with the colours, and always needing to apply some kind of preset in LightRoom. But then the preset I used one week I might not like so much two weeks later, and vice versa. It was just too much inconsistency and variation.

      1. We are still takling about ‘natural colours’.

        Well, you call it ‘inconsistency’ or ‘variation’, however I’m not talking about our inconsitencies and variations caused by our (at least my) limited knowledge and craftmanship and artistic excellence and vision.

        I’d prefer calling it the way we learn and improve our photographic skills.

        Have not all craftsman, photographers, painters, writers, architects, designers etc. had their phases were they preferred working in a specific direction and preferred a specific type of colours, moods, sceneries, film types, developers, paper gradations, material etc. These phases changed over time.

        Some period I prefer punchy colours, another period I prefer de-saturated colours and another period I’m more pleased with black and white etc.

        Not that I’m an artist – nothing further away from that, but to me this is part of one’s own development/improvement and I cannot see this as a bad or disturbing thing.

        Some call it simply life-long-learning 😉

        Do you really want to stick the rest of your life with a specific setting, once you found a pleasing one?

        Are you not interested if there is someting more pleasing to you?

        1. Well, with photography, I do like to experiment, whether with a new place, new camera, new lens, new projects idea, new settings etc… But I guess I like some base level consistency in some aspect or other. Like I probably wouldn’t go to a new place with a new camera and shoot completely new colour settings. I’d keep one or two of the variables familiar, experiment with the others, and then make the next step based on my learning.

          Yes I’m going through a bit of an unsettled phase where despite loving my “holy trinity” of the Ricoh GX100, Ricoh GRD III and Pentax Q, I’m experimenting with other cameras (and thinking about purchasing others still).

  5. Hi Dan,

    When it comes to colour, then I’m looking to get as close to what the eye sees, hence the reason for trying to find a setting/settings that give me that directly out of the camera….I hate looking at over cooked pictures that have had every tweak possible done to them, less is more in my view…..

    Black and white, slightly different in so much as I am looking for camera settings to give me “bold” finishes…. ie really dark blacks….but when it comes to B&W… I’m trying to keep to a ” zero processing” policy…..

    1. Lynd, I dislike the “over cooked” images too, but I do now quite like a colour image with a little extra warmth and contrast than how it looked to the naked eye. I think the key for me is keeping it fairly natural (so it doesn’t looked processed) but still giving it a little creative enhancement somehow.

      There are cameras I believe that can produce satisfying and contrasty b/w images straight out of camera, the Pentax Q being a prime example with its Bold Monochrome options. The GX100 just doesn’t have enough scope in camera so needs the extra help in Snapseed.

  6. Saturday night I shot the same photo with 4 different cameras. I also decided to automatically load the RX1R Mk2 files with the Fuji 400 H preset. I didn’t do that once I saw the Sony camera dark preset. I preferred what Sony did over the Fuji 400 H simulation. However just the day before, I thought that Fuji 400 H was going to be my ‘go to’ film sim for the next little while. It is funny how ones colour taste can change so quickly. I think because there are so many options with cameras, lenses and post processing, colours should change. To answer your question, sometimes I like accurate colours but usually I prefer film simulations.

    1. This is what I struggle with. Do we have one colour set up per camera, and then choose that camera on any one photo shoot because we know the kind of colours it produces?

      Or do we pick the camera we feel like shooting, then rely on post processing to get the colours we want?

      The former option reminds me of shooting film, where each lens and film had its own character, and (because I didn’t do any PP myself with film aside from the lab’s automatic tweaks) I would choose a lens/film combo to give a certain look.

      For me the options seem to spiral out of control too quickly with digital and colour combined!

      I really should just stick with one camera for a month and try to set it up in camera to get consistent colours.

      But then as you say our moods and tastes change too – for me far more with colour than with b/w which I’ve had a fairly consistent look with for nine months or so.

  7. I can’t say I’m overly bothered about my results looking natural, in the sense of “exactly as a scene appears” … but I don’t want completely unnatural either, at least not generally. I want it to look good to me, which may well not be how something actually looked. I’ve been using a Fuji for a while now and pretty much do nothing in post except altering exposure slightly if needed, straightening (I am sometimes woeful at taking a straight photo, occasional wobbly hands due to steroids) and the odd crop.

    I’ve been experimenting with the film sims and tend to choose one and stick with it when I go out for the day and see if I like the results and I currently have around 4 or 5 custom settings that I find myself using. Mine is an X-T1, so doesn’t have the grain setting. I’d like that setting but not enough to justify a change. What would be nice that later models have, would be the ability to name the settings and to associate custom colour balances with each setting. C1 to C7 are not useful names.

    I recently came across a blogger who spends a lot of time playing with film sim recipes to emulate certain film types. I liked his “Vintage Ektachrome” and am currently using his “Ektar”, to see how I get in with that. Until this I’d not messed with the colour balance settings, but they can have quite a dramatic effect. It raised an eyebrow. I think in previous experiments with it I may have been too timid. One minor irritation is that custom colour balances aren’t actually part of the custom settings. OK if you remember the setting you want, remember to change it and then plan to stick with it for a while. It’d be a pain in the butt if you were the type who changed film sim on a shot by shot basis though.

    1. Tony, thanks for your input.

      What’s different about your preset colour settings? Are they radically different or just subtle graduations of the same thing?

      When I was using Hipstamatic I had a warm colour preset and a cold/bleached look.

      The trouble with colour is there are so many aspects that can be changed and the more extreme the changes veer from the original colours, the more choices seem to arise.

  8. Shadow tone boosted (but not highlight tone), slightly desharpened with noise reduction taken down (creates a sort of faux grain) versions of Classic Chrome, Astia and Pro Neg Hi and a very contrasty B&W (red filter). These aren’t really radical departures from the presets. Classic Chrome has had the most use I think.

    Using someone else’s recipe for “Vintage Kodachrome” is probably the furthest from standard I’ve tried and the first time I made a change from the standard colour balance. The intention is to look like old 40s and 50s Kodachrome, not the reformulated later version. Basically it starts with Classic Chrome, boosts saturation and shifts the colour balance to red and yellow. I had to change it a little as the recipe is for the X100F, which has more gradations in the settings and grain. I used it on a trip to Charlecote Park in Warwickshire. It was a bright early afternoon and it made everything look more like the sunset hour. I quite liked it, but I think I’ll try it with sharpness minimised. There’s a bit of a disconnect in that the tone definitely looks vintage, but the sharpness looks too modern digital. I could post some examples if you like.

    1. Yeh I’d be interested in some examples if you have them online.

      A few years back when I was shooting film and experimenting with redscale, expired film, film soups etc, I just didn’t “get” the digital film presets. I thought if you want to get that look perfected, just shoot film.

      I understand more now, but I don’t tend to try to emulate one particular film, just get a look I like overall that doesn’t look too digital and has some warmer, more vintage and film-like qualities.

      Except other times when I like a really muted, bleached colour look…

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