Feeling Blue

All colours can evoke an emotional response in the viewer but blue has a special quality, writes Andrew James.

With this in mind I did a little experiment on Instagram. My experiment was very simple. I posted two images – one a predominantly blue image photographed from the back of our ship in Greenland and the other the exact same image but processed in black & white. I asked which image people preferred and why.

Scroll between the two images below to see what you think…

What they said:

“Definitely colour. The Black & White just takes away the feeling of where you are.”

“Colour. Stands out more. More atmosphere.”

“The colour makes it feel more.”

“Colour for me, for all the reasons mentioned already but also the front edge of the ice looks above water on the B&W but beautifully below the surface in the colour.”

“Has to be the colour to appreciate the variations of blues.”

“Colour for me. It has more depth.”

So the colour version won hands down. It was no surprise because, although I love B&W, there are times when converting an image to mono means you lose something of that photo’s intrinsic quality. In this case, the subtle blue tones and the softness in the area where the lead ice disappears under water.

While I quite like both images it is the colour version that reveals more about the environment and light I was shooting in. As several posters put it, it just has more ‘feeling’.

The image is all about mood and emotion and the feeling you get when your view it and this is intrinsically linked to the blueness within it. It gives you context: This is a cold place and a wild environment. The Black & White version, viewed without the knowledge of the original colour still has some mood but its power is diminished. At the end of the day, we want our images to generate an emotional response and colour very often dictates this. Because this image is a range of blue tones, we feel coolness, perhaps solitude and calmness. All of the different blue tones are in harmony, leading from the lovely tones of the underwater ice, right to the darker mountains.

They say timing is everything and the morning after I posted this Greenland landscape on Instagram (remember: andrew.james.photos) an email from the stock image library Alamy popped into my Inbox telling me that, apparently, Pantone’s 2020 colour of the year had been announced and it was Classic Blue. In RGB terms this is R:15 G:76 B:129 or if you prefer, the block of colour below. In other words, blue!

Blue really is the colour

According to Alamy this colour “influences purchasing decisions in multiple industries, including fashion, home furnishings and graphic design.” This is utter bullshit of course but they ended the email by saying: “Make sure your photography is on trend by including this colour in your shoots.” This set me wondering how often I use blue – not specifically Classic Blue – in my images and whether, like my Instagram experiment suggested, I should use it more often. More importantly I wondered how I used it.

To add to the irony (in this case I am going to call it ironic blue) last week’s ‘Breathe fire with backlighting’ article was all about capturing images on the other side of the temperature gauge. In other words, last week orange was hot. Now it’s not. Blue is this week’s hot. Except it’s cold. Or is it? Okay, I need to lie down and think this through for a moment.

Dabbling in a bit of cod psychology tells us that the colour blue comes with a lot of baggage. We ‘feel blue’ when we are sad. Or we might ‘sing the blues’ for the same reason. If something occurs or pops up unexpectedly then it’s ‘out of the blue’. That’s a lot of sadness and uncertainly linked to this colour. Despite this, I don’t think my Greenland image is remotely sad. Yes, it’s moody but there is nothing about it that feels melancholic or depressing. At least I hope not.

This is because I think the colour blue gets a bum rap from cod psychology. In truth it’s a powerful colour, often strong and often full of hope. Think of ‘blue sky thinking’ or hum Mr Blue Sky from ELO!

White Balance and the colour blue

As photographers we spend a lot of time agonising over colour temperature (or White Balance as we generally refer to it). We can apply different WB settings on our cameras – Daylight, Shade, Tungsten, and so on – and as long as we shoot in raw, we can alter these setting to taste. The trouble is, taste is also something that can go horribly wrong. Trust me, I’ve been in a Las Vegas gift shop and there is no doubt that taste varies between people.

So in terms of the colour blue, our lovely calming, cool and collected hue, can we use White Balance to create a blue-toned masterpiece? Yes and no. Take a look at my penguin shot below (an Adelie) posing on some sea ice. The first image on the left is the original and WB was set at Daylight. The camera has done a very good job in the circumstances to give a neutral result. In the second I’ve taken WB slightly towards the cooler side so there is a hint of blue toning but it’s not that strong. The third image is WB pushed much further left, roughly equivalent to what you’d get if you set the camera to Fluorescent WB. Which do you prefer?

I would expect you to pick Image 1 or 2, but as tastes vary it could be either. I prefer the second image as I think the very subtle blue tone helps to accentuate the environment, and our knowledge says that penguins on ice are going to be in a cold place so the cooler tone taps into our normal emotional response. But if you prefer the more neutral shot – that’s okay, too. If you went for number 3 then I suggest you get your screen calibrated! It’s just too much, isn’t it? It doesn’t look right because the penguin’s plumage has turned blue and doesn’t look natural within the context. And in photography, context is really important.

However if you want to go a little more abstract with your imagery, then a more robust blue can work.

The first image here is shot using Daylight WB. The graphic nature of the scene is interesting but here, the recessive nature of the blue doesn’t make this photo pop. But in the second image the blue is really intense, thanks to the fact it was shot using Tungsten WB. Tungsten WB has upped its blue power tenfold and because it is an abstract, graphic image, it works well. Essentially, the more abstract you get and the less context you have, the more you can do anything you like with WB. You just have to pick your subject and your mood carefully!

Daylight White Balance
Tungsten White Balance

Of course an image with a strong blue in it can be mixed with a completely different colour (or WB) and still work successfully. Teal and Orange is one of the most popular colour combinations in the world of film-making. This shot, taken at sunrise mixes the subtle warm tones created by sunshine filtering through mist and falling onto the earth and tree, with an almost flat blue sky where the mist has cleared. Neither warmth nor coolness dominate here. They co-exist. And as blue is a recessive colour it acts as a great backdrop to the warmer tones.

Team and Orange combine in this landscape photo.

In a way, this image of a Cuban car is no different to the shot above it, except we’ve switched the colour tones around. This time the cool blues of the car fix our attention in the front, while the yellow background of the facade of the building contrasts beautifully with the blue vehicle. So if you can find interesting blue objects and contrast them with the background, that’s a great way to get a shot that works.

The blue of the car bounces off the warmer colour of the background.

But you can also put something blue against a similar colour so the two harmonise with each other. This is what attracted me to this bluey-green (torquoise) Cuban car – the way it almost blended into the similarly-coloured wall as if an artist had come along and painted them both at the same time. Whether you choose to contrast a blue subject against a background or find an object and background that work harmoniously together, the combinations you try can have an effect on the emotional response you will get from the viewer of your photograph.

Torquoise car and wall harmonising.

However you like to tackle the subject of colour with your photography, the colour blue is likely to be a frequent visitor within your portfolio of images. Unlike the often overpowering and ‘needy’ hot colours, such as reds and oranges, that are shouting for attention, blue and its various shades can be a more calming and often peaceful influence in your photography. The important thing is to think about how you want to elicit an emotional response from the viewer of your image through the use of colour and how it works within the context of your composition.

To finish off our journey into the blue, Jon’s video (below) shows three ways you can apply, enhance or even create that cool blue look in your shots. It’s all conducted in raw software using simple techniques, so there’s no mind-altering Photoshop processing going on! Watch it through, and then take a look through your back catalogue, and see where your blues need lifting. One of these techniques will help you to achieve it.

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