A Few Words On Colour

Colour is all around us, and is of primary importance to image making. When attempting to record the  exact colour of an object I am to photograph, several important steps need to be observed. First and foremost, a colour check card must be inserted into the scene, and a record taken with the exact lighting to be used for the final image. This colour check image is then viewed on a computer which has a monitor regularly calibrated in-line with the colour check card. Now, using a processing engine of choice, the colour profile of the test image can be taken and then transferred to all of the images in the collection. So, this is how we produce a ‘neutral” image, free of colour bias from ambient lighting , colour bias from the digital chip in-camera, and free of monitor error.

Of course, this perfect little file will go on to be viewed on a number of monitors over a range of devices, and few, if any, will be calibrated. Each will add their own filter of too dark, too light, too red, too yellow, too blue etc. And if that file ever goes to print, it will not be reproduced as is. It will be reproduced at best, with the limitations of the printing process evident, and at worst, with some other errors evident. However, we should still endeavour to be accurate when required to be so.

Colour though is a strange beast. If we think of skin tone and were given an artist palette, what colour would we mix? If we limit our model choice to a “white” sitter, the first question is are they really white? Well, no. The actual colour, even in natural light, will depend upon several factors. Are they dark haired or blonde? Are they red haired? Do they tan in sunshine or burn? Is the skin very pale, or olive? So, there is no one colour to mix for skin tone if accuracy is important.

Even with each individual model choice, variations will exist. The skin tone will change depending on the quality of the light and shade. Is it warm or cold light? How far into the shade is the subject? If you look at the work of John Singer Sargent he was a master of painting colour how it actually looks and not how one would imagine it to be. You may imagine a camera would do that, but each digital chip within a camera has it’s own little biases. Just as in the age of film, each film manufacturer produced a different product that reacted with it’s own unique preferences. For instance, Agfa colour transparency film was prized by landscape photographers for it’s warm quality, which produced such pleasing rural scenes. This was a choice, to select film stock that would record a scene with that beautiful Agfa hallmark of dreamy landscape quality. The film expressed an emotion through it’s recording of colour.

The recording of emotion through colour is well established in the world of painting, but perhaps a little neglected now in photography. If we look at how Turner tackled the painting voted the nation’s favourite, “The Fighting Temeraire” we can see how the use of colour was used to marshall our emotions. The beautiful 98 gun Royal Navy ship is bathed in an almost ghostly light, as it is towed into harbour by a dirty little steam tug. The sky is ablaze with a dramatic red sunset as the last days of the Temeraire have arrived. The ship that served us so well at the Battle of Trafalgar is now part of a past that depended upon the power of sail. A new, more efficient future has arrived in the form of steam.

We owed much to the likes of the Temeraire, and as she is towed into harbour for the last time to be broken, Turner has the sky salute a poignant farwell. Of course on the very day that this actually happened, the likelyhood is the sky was dull grey and the scene was less than inspiring. But Turner had a story to tell. A hero to acknowledge. If we are to photograph a building as a “hero” and we have a story to tell, should we not learn from the masters of image making?

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