Don’t Shoot Red!

One of the best film photography tips I’ve read is to shoot red, as it nearly always looks good.

I wrote more about this a couple of years back, with a sample of some of my own favourite red shots.

With digital, just as powerful a tip in my experience is DON’T shoot red.

Most digital cameras I’ve used (and there have been a few) do not perform at all well with red, and generally leave them oversaturated, and/or significantly shifted from the shade of red seen by the naked eye.

Now I’m not one for always wanting to perfectly capture the colours as my eyes see them, and one of the joys of using and experimenting with different cameras and lenses is seeing how their unique characteristics render the images.

But I don’t like plain ugly or garish or unnatural looking colours.

Here are a few where I’ve walked that tightrope with shooting red, though red photographs are few and far between with my digital work, and in far greater abundance with film!

I do like this image overall, especially the shadows, the numbers, the texture of the stone, and the contrast between the living flower, and the gravestone, obviously marking the place of rest of someone who’s died.

But the red is too saturated, yet at the same time not as rich as it was in the flesh. As it’s only a small part of the image I kept it, but only just.

In this photograph, the red isn’t oversaturated. But then it’s committed the arguably even worse sin of being not vibrant enough.

I quite like the composition, but the washed out blandness of the colours is really disappointing. If I had the chance to shoot this again, I would wait for better light and see how that could improve it.

But comparing this to phone box photographs made with my favourite colour films it’s even more of a let down, it falls way short.

Next, this photo does kind of capture the vibrancy of the red, but then it overdoes it, and makes it look like the post box has had extra layers of red paint, and they’re still wet and running into each other.

Plus there are hints of pink and purple along the edges of the red object, which aren’t there in reality and just don’t look right. Not a great red photograph at all.

However, let’s end on a high. The above image is quite possibly my favourite rendering of red I’ve seen with a digital camera.

I wasn’t surprised to see it was made with a Minolta 35-70mm “Baby Beercan” lens, as they’re pretty fantastic, as are most other Minolta lenses I’ve had.

It’s vibrant enough to portray the colour as my eyes saw it in reality, but not oversaturated.

Plus that iconic shade of red used on phone boxes and post boxes across the land for decades, is presented in almost its full glory, certainly accurately enough to be instantly recognisable to an English citizen if they saw the colour alone and no other detail.

I expected this to be the product of a CCD sensor, and it was – the 14MP one in the Sony a350. Which makes me curious about picking up one of those DSLRs again…

But it’s still not quite as lovely as similar images I’ve made with film multiple times.

How about you? Do you avoid shooting red with digital cameras? Do you gravitate to or away from any other colours because they’re difficult to capture in the way you want them to look?

Let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

Thanks for looking.

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11 thoughts on “Don’t Shoot Red!”

  1. In my experience – it depends on the lens.
    If you use older Takumars, M and A Pentax lenses, and also the older Minolta manual lenses, you should have no problems on digital.
    I once did a comparison between my SMC-A 70-210mm f4 zoom, and my DA 35 2.4, a modern digital lens that you are familiar with. I found it in my old flickr account…
    First the digital lens: notice the reds are over-saturated and details are lost. https://www.flickr.com/photos/11375085@N02/14080885561/in/dateposted/
    The unfortunate thing is that since these shots were taken in RAW, I can de-saturate to regain detail that was captured, but if I do so, the reds just don’t look natural anymore… same with yellows, to be honest.
    Now the older zoom… reds are not over-saturated, look more natural, are much more detailed, and somehow seem more vibrant. https://www.flickr.com/photos/11375085@N02/14080847791/in/dateposted/
    That was with my older K20D which was not very color accurate. With the K200D I can get even better results with reds… if I use the right lenses.

    1. Thanks Chris, yes good example of how the reds are kind of blown out on that first one, like they’re bleeding through the petals of the rose.

      My favourite shot in the original post (and I had to look twice to check it was digital not film) was with a Sony DSLR with CCD sensor (you know how I love the old Sony CCD sensors, like the 6MP and 10MP ones in the Pentax/Samsung bodies) and an old Minolta lens from the mid ’80s. Really thinking about trying old this combo again, and as Sony bought out (Konica) Minolta, they kept their AF lens mount as all the old Minolat AF lenses from around 1985 work perfectly – and there are some very good ones indeed.

      I’ll have to do a direct comparison with, say a Takumar and the DA 35/2.4 on something red and see how it compares.

  2. I started seriously shooting flowers in spring 2019. Red and yellow flowers rarely turned out well because of over saturation causing loss of detail.

    I searched for answers and discovered that the wavelengths of light given off can adversely affect metering. I’ve had trouble with film and digital, but my best results were with digital cameras with spot metering.

    This spring I’ve tried using -EC, which helps as does subdued light. Take home: Bright sunlight and red and yellow flowers do not go well together.
    https://earthsunfilm.com/questions-about-shooting-red-and-yellow-flowers/

    1. Thanks Jerome, yes good point about yellow, I tend to avoid bright yellow too. Flowers here like buttercups even looked over saturated to the naked eye with bright summer sunlight on them, and blow out even more once photographed. I wonder sometimes if we expect too much, and forget that often in bright light, colours like white and bright yellow look blown out to our eyes, so if a camera captures this as naturally as possible, it will still look blown out!

      1. Current understanding is that the 6 to 7 million cones in the human eye can be divided into “red” cones (64%), “green” cones (32%), and “blue” cones (2%) based on measured response curves. They provide the eye’s color sensitivity.

        For the typical digital sensor, a Bayer array consists of alternating rows of red-green and green-blue filters. The Bayer array contains twice as many green as red or blue sensors.

  3. With my Sigma DP2 classic the red overblowns so I have to set that camera, as Jerome suggests, with spot metering, which makes the rest of the scene dark but the reds have something nice to me at least. This is one photo http://prntscr.com/1bo6rsn or this http://prntscr.com/1bo98se As you wrote to me too is not much about accuracy, and being tastes subjective it would be fine to me if you would find them garish, I think they, somehow look better than red of my other cameras.

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