Fear Of Colour

A few weeks back, my intention was to experiment with colour with my Lumix FZ38.

Also, I recently changed my phone, and the Realme 6 Pro I settled upon was another option for colour photography.

But despite this, about 95% of photographs I’ve made since have been black and white.

The Realme has a fairly decent in camera b/w mode, which I use to enable me to see compositions in b/w before making the picture.

However the final image is still a bit too low contrast for my usual tastes, so I’ve reverted to tweaking my favourite shots in Snapseed afterwards. Not zero processing, but very little, and with a workflow that is very quick and simple.

So this has me thinking again about my aversion to colour, perhaps almost a fear of colour.

This was further amplified by an experience with colour paint a couple of days back.

We’re having some rooms decorated, and chose a deep, classy blue for one of them. When the decorator cracked open the pot, the paint was far bolder and brighter than either of us expected.

He suggested it had been mixed wrongly at the shop (it was paint mixed to order, rather than a pot off the shelf), and offered to take it back.

I wanted to take a picture to show my wife (who was at work, I was working from home) but soon as I held my phone camera over the paint, I could see the colour was different still, to how it looked to the naked eye.

The decorator tried with his iPhone and that was different again, so there wasn’t much point either of us making a picture to try to show its true colour, when neither camera was capturing it with any degree of accuracy.

Turns out, the shop wouldn’t take it back and insisted that it was the correct colour. Once he painted a couple of coats and it dried, it was indeed exactly like the test card we originally picked out because we liked the colour.

We couldn’t quite believe how different the shade was to the liquid paint in the pot – and this is from a very experienced decorator.

It made me think about how some photographers seem to be on a quest to make every photograph they make look exactly the same colours and tones as their eyes saw the scene.

I can see why one might want to do this, to have the most accurate document possible.

But it is, for me, a futile quest, with so many variables as to make it almost impossible.

Which I why I think I’ve always liked alternative film photography experiments that I know won’t end up anything like the “true” colours I saw with my eyes.

Techniques like making and using redscale film, or expired film, or cross processing.

These approaches remove any expectation or ambition to replicate colours perfectly at the outset.

They relinquish that control and perfectionism and instead say let the camera and film do what they will, and show me the world in their own unique and curious way.

It’s similar with black and white images, which is already a step removed from reality, simply because of its lack of colour, whatever further processing you embark on with your monochrome images.

Again this offers a simplicity and a freedom from trying to force something to look a certain way, and just letting it be what it is.

Even if we can capture a colour image very close to what our eyes saw, then this will almost certainly look slightly different to someone else.

What I call “red” and what you call “red” may largely overlap, but subtle differences in tones may be interpreted differently between us, not only in their objective colour and how we describe it, but in the emotional connections we have too.

A certain red for me might evoke a romantic carefree summer day in a field of poppies, but for you it may resurface a gruesome, bloody accident.

And then there’s the variance in the equipment we share and view our pictures with.

A dozen people in a room, handing round the same physical photograph at least remove some layers of variation between what they each see, personal interpretation notwithstanding.

But a dozen people with a dozen different screens (at least, as most of us have a phone and/or tablet and/or laptop and/or desktop computer, each with slightly differently calibrated screens) means a far higher level of variation, and the red we each see in the same digital image shared originally will span a wider spectrum than that single print photograph viewed in the flesh in the same room, at the same time.

In fact, the more I consider colour as a photographer, the more I fear it. There are too many variables, too many decisions.

I adore colours out in the world, and in our current late spring season there are delights such as woodlands full of bluebells, that couldn’t be experienced as vividly without colour.

But I don’t want to be spending hours trying to find and set up a camera that captures those bluebells exactly as I perceive them, and know then that the screen you view the same picture on won’t portray them with the exact same tones anyway.

There’s too much to try to control, that I can’t, so it seems pointless to even try.

So, for the foreseeable future, despite – or maybe perhaps because of – the colours blooming all around me, I’ll be sticking to black and white photography.

Specifically, the Lumix FZ38 with its moody film grain mode, and the Realme 6 Pro with a Snapseed tweak to boost the contrast and drama a little.

How about you? Do you have a fear of colour?

As always, please share your thoughts in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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20 thoughts on “Fear Of Colour”

  1. Oh Dan, look at it as an adventure! I don’t really like the over saturated colours found in digital photography, film seems much more organic, and often true to life to me. But even then, shooting the same film (Portra 400) in a 35mm Contax and a medium format Mamiya at the same time and place can yield very different results. Format, lens coatings, lens filters or even a difference in the emulsion between 35mm and medium format probably all play a part. Both images are great, but they are very different. So, the question is, do I like the result? Is it worth printing and hanging on the wall, or posting in my blog or on social media? I don’t see the world in black and white, and while I love the work of those who do, I just love working in colour with film….

    1. Steve, thanks for your thoughts. I think if I’d not spoilt myself with so many different film emulsions and later LightRoom presets that showed me such a wide range of colour possibility, I’d be happier with it now. In my first few years of “intentional” photography with Sony camera phones I never even thought about colour, I just took the pictures. That kind of ignorance was bliss!

  2. For me, it’s not an “aversion” to or “fear” of colour – I just find black and white in 90 out of 100 images more aesthetically pleasing. Still, I sometimes opt for colour-only for a while, but preferably when the (or a) colour is the main subject (see “A splash of orange”: https://robertkruyskamp.tumblr.com/post/647927777249689600 ). But eventually I will return to black and white mode after a few weeks of months.

    1. Yeh I’ve become like that in the last few years. My Pentax CCD DSLRs give lovely colours but even those I use less now, in favour of a smaller camera optimised for b/w.

    1. I did look it up, about the paint. What baffled me was that even an experienced decorator seemed confused by it! He’s painting other rooms in a lighter grey, and the difference between wet and dry is far less.

      Interesting post, and the first show is a particularly excellent example, where the colours just weren’t interesting, and made the image bland. As you say, shooting in b/w made it all about shapes and textures. Lovely!

  3. Hi Dan, For what its worth… I am now a fully paid up member of the 2021 B&W Challenge… its not a proper contest or anything its just something I dreamt up as I was fed up of being disappointed each time I reviewed the photos I had taken when out and about in colour… so have set myself the challenge… as I love looking at what others do in B&W… and aspire to do similiar….and unless you try you will never know eh…. Plus… maybe it has something to do with the fact of being colourblind that I am always disappointed… who knows… Kind regards… Lynd…

      1. Well, to be honest Dan, its not… as I am struggling to have the foresight of how things that are in colour will look when taken in B&W, OK I hear all those saying well you can do this and that after just by sliding say the contrast bar etc… but I am a very strong believer in that I “want” the finished image straight out of the camera, as I have spent far too much time in the past faffing and messing about with various different contrasts, hue’s etc… infact I hate having to look at images and thinking that needs a tad of this there and reducing here… its a right royal PITA, but getting to that point where firing the image off knowing how it will turn out, well thats what makes a hobbyist and a pro… but we will get there eventually…ask me in around 10 yrs time eh…

      2. I wrote about this a while back and how my first proper camera (ie not a phone cam) served to teach me how to see in black and white.


        Without actually being able to see the images on the screen before I made the shot, I wouldn’t have know how to imagine and see in b/w to be able to find the best subjects and compositions.

        Whilst I can use a colour camera (or a camera in colour mode) to shoot b/w now, I still do prefer to use one where I can see what I’m getting on screen, even if then I do make some tweaks in Snapseed afterwards (like with my new Realme phone). Maybe this is an approach you can try?

      3. Thanks Dan, I gave that post another look and also made a few notes etc… and just hope I dont have to take 7k images before getting the hang of things…lol… thanks for the hints and hacks… kind regards..Lynd..

      4. I didn’t see taking those 7k shots as a chore, you’ve got to enjoy the process, or it would be. Sometimes actually I think I’ve only bought a new camera or lens to give me a fresh challenge as I know the ones I have almost too well.

  4. That most photography is viewed on screens today means that none of us, whether in color or b/w, have final control over how they are viewed — and therefore what they look like. I’ve had to learn to be okay with that.

    1. Exactly. For work (at home and in the office) I have a laptop with a bigger screen positioned above, as an extended screen. I usually have one of my photos as desktop wallpaper, and the difference in tones between the two screens is quite marked.

  5. No fear of colors here 🙂
    In your case, I’d have used the K-m with a neutral/”boring” lens like the DA 35 2.4 which some people call boring because it’s accurate in the depiction of reality… with a newish CCD I think it’s the closest you’d get to reality.
    In regards to color, there are a couple of things that I find very interesting…
    First, every person seems to see colors a bit differently. We’ve had discussions in our family when we’ve seen something between blue and green, for example – my wife always sees blue, I always see green. None of our eyes is properly calibrated, and when we calibrate a monitor for our eyes, it might be off calibration for everyone else 🙂
    Second, we are attracted to color casts. The number one reason people shoot color film is because they want a color cast. Every time someone complained online that a film looked “too digital”, even if no one in the thread about it pointed it out, it was because of a lack of color cast. The color cast doesn’t have to be in the film, a lot of times it comes from the emulsion that was used or the time.
    My favorite SOOC JPEG setting for my Pentax cameras is based on the Muted setting, making it un-muted by enhancing color and contrast, but it allows one to pick a color cast. I chose Cyan because the blueish cast “cools down” a picture and makes it look like good, proper slide film (which has a cooler cast usually compared to negative color film). I find it really helps with the greens, but as I said earlier, I might just be a bit over-sensitive to greens…
    When processing RAW files, I’ll usually do nothing but apply a Kodachrome 64 preset I created in RawTherapee, lift the shadows a bit to match what the eye sees, and I’m done. K64 of course also has a “cool” look.
    On the other hand, Sigma used to have a reputation of having a yellowish/warm cast to the pictures to make them more appealing. I don’t think that’s true of their newer lenses anymore, but it has stuck with them…
    In summary, the way I see it, color can be complicated but it doesn’t have to be. Once you find some characteristic that you like (in my case the right subtle color cast, in someone else’s case it might be their favorite film or camera setting), you can forget about the science and just enjoy your results.

    1. Totally agree about colour perception. It’s not just that our eyes see colours slightly differently to another person, but our emotions and memories connected with particular colours skew this even further.

      Interesting about colour casts. I think for colour photos I like a kind of golden, sunset cast. The Pentax CCDs give this naturally, especially with warmer autumnal colours. Shooting autumn leaves even in the middle of the say, they always look like it’s close to sunrise or sunset. With family shots (nearly always taken with a phone) I tweak in Snapseed and generally increase contrast and saturation a little, and the setting called “warmth” a bit more. Makes the photos go from blue-ish cool digital to looking like they were made with a Polaroid in the 70s or 80s.

      I’d probably like Sigma lenses, the way you describe the “yellowish/warm cast to the pictures”.

  6. A nice article, Dan. I liked very much how to seemingly unrelated events are connected about a tricky topic as is color, and those that embarking in the search of accuracy cannot fathom the never-ending maddening quest that awaits for them. A quest that took me to the Sony R1 years ago, when set in adobe rgb space color the colors are accurate if read as common sRGB. The colors were similar to the colors in the work of Charlie Waite, which means quite natural or neutral in the digital world, but after some thousands of photos I got to understand I prefer pleasant colors than accurate ones: yellows with a touch of orange rather than tinted towards greens, deep vermillions in the sunsets, skyes towards cyans, very deep reds and blues; and on top of that when I used DxO or other apps with the function, I would add a layer of orange to the photo, very light, so it would erase bluish shadows and add warmth to the photos. About the colors to paint the room I suspect that wall maybe is in shadow, or a big window or another wall is altering its perception.

    1. Thanks Francis. I imagine, as others have said, that a factor in finding the colours you liked with the Sony R1 was the screen you were viewing the photographs on, or the printer that printed them also. You might have had the exact same camera set up and processing workflow, but a different screen/print may not have given you results you liked. I know from my day job where I have a laptop as a second screen and a 27″ monitor as my primary screen, the difference between the two with the same image is significant. Neither are necessarily better or worse, but have their own signature look, different to each other, and no doubt slightly different to virtually every other screen available.

      We’ve had a number of areas of our house painted with the same grey (not the blue I mentioned in the post above) and depending on the light, shadows, weather, time and day etc, it looks different shades of grey through to blue. Another reminder of how we as photographers are dealing with ever changing lighting, and therefore colour.

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