*The “Capture Color Series” covers different tips and lessons on Color Street Photography
Finding Color Combinations in the Street
If color is your medium of choice in photography, then color theory should be one of the first things you learn. One of the most important factors to making great color photography is the use of strong color combinations. Sometimes you’ll look at a color photo that seems simple at first, but you can’t take your eyes off of it. Beautiful colors working together can do this. They balance a scene, add interest, and pull you into the feeling of the photo.
William Eggleston is a master of color and looking through his work, it’s clear that he knows how to balance colors together. Through his command of color, he can make a beautiful photo from something as ordinary as an empty table. Learning color combinations and how they work together is a great way to improve your photography.
With Street Photography you can’t control the combinations of color so you have to know and see them quickly. So here’s five different color combinations you can learn to find and play with in the streets to really make your color work stand out.
5 Color Combinations to Look for in the Streets
1. Look for One Color standing out amidst Monotone
This first one is pretty simple to understand and see. Find a colorful subject or element within a scene that is mostly monotone. Black, white, grey all work as monotone. You’re looking for there not to be much color at all in the rest of the photo so that one color really stands out.
In this photo, the little girl is wearing a bright red outfit. The only other real color in the large frame are the matching red wheels on her horse cart. The road is gray, the cars are mostly white, and her horse is white. This really makes the main subject pop out in the scene. If her surroundings were filled with different colors, the effect would much less.
2. Look for One Color Across Multiple Subjects/Elements
This is another simple one to understand and look for. Find multiple subjects or elements in a scene that are all the same color. Just like in the previous combination, having the rest of the scene be monotone helps the color and subjects stand out even more too.
This is harder to find because the odds you’ll find multiple subjects of the same color within a scene goes down. But it still happens all the time. One trick is when you see one color standing out, like in the first combination, look around to see if you can see anything else with the same color. You can even wait around to see if something comes together on its own, after spotting the first colored subject.
For the first example, we have two blue phones and a matching blue shirt of a man poking his head inside. The rest of the scene is white and light grey, while the man’s pants are black. So there’s no competing colors and the blue elements really stand out.
In this shot, I noticed this combo and scene from across the street. So I quickly walked up and shot the photo, trying to frame it so the crowded street wasn’t included or interfering with the scene. I also wanted the elements spaced apart as well as possible.
In this second example, the scene is a little more complex, but still finds a color across three elements spaced apart in the scene. We have an orange chair to the left, a little boy’s orange bag in the middle and a little girl’s orange balloon to the right. Light and shadow helps brighten the orange colors and bring focus to them even more in this case too.
For this shot, I approached the scene a little differently than the first. For one, there was only the orange chair and boy’s bag when I first walked by. I liked how the light was hitting the color and creating shadow, but it was missing something.
So I waited a little while and then spotted the girl’s orange balloon coming from a block away. I got down low and as far back as possible, without getting hit by Istanbul traffic, and made the shot just as the girl and balloon entered the frame.
3. Look for Complementary Color Combinations
Now we’ll be getting into a little color theory. Complementary colors are colors that lie across from each other on the color wheel. This means they are opposite in color temperature. This opposition not only gives a strong contrast when next to each other, but can also bring balance to a scene or photograph.
A “warm” color (red/orange/yellow) will really stand out in front of a “cool” color (green/blue/violet), and vice versa. The “cool” also balances the “warm” creating a balanced feeling to look at. It’s why some color photos can be so pleasing to look at.
I’ve found that blue/violet and orange/yellow are the most common complementary colors you’ll find together in the streets. Red and green aren’t as common, but you’ll notice it when you see it.
Many buildings are yellow or orange and blue is a commonly worn color for clothing. Plus you have the blue sky and the blue tint the sky casts on the streets. Walking around you should be able to find this complementary combo somewhere. Finding bright, saturated versions of these colors together is harder, but worth it when you do find them.
In this example we have a yellow building, hallway, broom and skin tone from the man. And then we have blue pants, graffiti, and street. These are the only two colors you have across the scene so they all complement each other well.
This example is very simple. You have a bright yellow bus and sign next to a man wearing a blue shirt. There’s really no other color in the photo, with yellow bus taking over most of the frame, so that small blue portion of the man stands out more than it normally would.
Here you have red and green together, with a little blue too. The thing to notice in this example is her red hair against the green. Remembering to look for color in hair and skin tone is important too because it can make the person stand out even more and bring that pleasing balance. Colors are found in everything we see.
Here we have a bright yellow phone booth on the yellow concrete in front of the blue sea and sky. You don’t have to focus on finding colorful people, sometimes finding colorful combinations of ordinary, inanimate subjects can make for an interesting photo. Photographer William Eggleston has an endless amount of fans from being able to do just that.
In this photo we have 2 colors mixed in with some white. The man is wearing navy blue pants and vest which matches the navy blue POLIS stand, while the wall is painted yellow, which matches the man’s skin tone and cigarette filter. The white also mixes in well on the wall, his shirt, his cigarette and the stenciled “POLIS.” Since white isn’t a color, it doesn’t compete with the complementary colors. Instead, it helps them stand out even more.
For the last complementary example, we bright yellow dominating across multiple elements, with some cooling blues mixed in. All those yellow balloons and the bright yellow shirt against the blue shirts, billboard and sky. Finding complementary colors across multiple subjects can add even more complexity and interest to the color combination.
4. Look for Analogous Color Combinations
Analogous colors are colors that lie next to each other on the color wheel. Instead of being the opposite in temperature, like complementary colors, these combinations are of similar temperature. This brings a much different effect and feeling, but one that can be very interesting if done well.
Since these color combinations are of more similar colors, the contrast between each other won’t be as strong. They shouldn’t blend together, but they should give a similar feeling. Mixing “warm” colors like red and orange will create a striking, more powerful mood, while “cool” colors like blue and green can give a more calming scene.
Here we have a man wearing a bright yellow shirt with a woman in red. Being partly under shadow, the light hits only a portion of them which really brings out these “warm” colors together. Putting these bright, fiery colors together gives it a certain feeling that can go along with the intimacy of the couple.
Here’s another similar combo of colors captured with shadow and bright light. The warm colors dominating the scene makes it feel like the hot day that it is.
Here we have bright yellow and orange together, which again brings out the feeling of summer heat.
5. Looking for Monochromatic Color Combinations
Monochromatic and Monotone are not the same. Monochromatic colors are all the colors of a single hue. So basically one color across different tones, shades and tints. This can make for a balanced and almost artistically smooth capture, as the color blends together as one across the scene.
This scene is basically all shades of yellow, from bright light to dark shadow. There’s really no abrupt change of color, just a tonal range of yellow. This helps blend the scene together into one feeling.
In this example, we’re walking the line of Monochromatic and Analogous. I’d probably say it’s closer to analogous with orange and yellow, but the colors are close enough that it does almost blend together.
Bonus Color Combination: Just Combo Them All!
For the love of color, you can always just capture multiple colors together, no matter the combo. Everybody likes a rainbow and if you can find it in the form of a street scene, you might have something special. It should at least grab the viewer’s attention.
Here we have red, blue and yellow brightened by the light and accentuated by the shadows.
In this shot, you basically have every color in the rainbow because of the colorfully clothed woman with a background that adds even more color.
This scene is mostly complementary with the yellow and blue, but the red sunglasses and lipstick of the women adds a different color to the scene that helps her stand out.
Here we have mostly green, orangish/yellow and violet together, with a little red and blue from the reflection of the sign to the right. The girl’s violet shirt stands out, but not to the degree of a complementary combo. We almost have a range along one side of the color wheel that goes from violet to green to yellow.
And in this final example you have green, blue and a touch of yellow that stands out more against the cooler colors. The black shadows and bright light also bring out these colors even more.
Now Find these Color Combos in the Streets
Once you know all the different color combinations and how they can work in a photo, it’s time to find and capture them.
I’m a big believer in the photo finding you just as much as you finding the photo. If you are constantly looking for something specific, you’re likely to drive yourself crazy and miss any inspiration.
So I wouldn’t advise to go looking for color combos. Instead, I’d recommend learning how to notice and see them when they’re there. If you know it, then you’ll see it. Explore the streets, observe your surroundings, and immerse yourself into the feeling of the environment and moments around you.