How to Use a Limited Color Palette to Compose Strong Images

There are lots of ways to use color in photography. One is to look for strong, complementary colors – those on opposing sides of the color wheel – and include them in the same frame. The opposite is to use a very limited color palette.

Here’s an example of the first approach. There’s a green background, purple petals, and yellow stamen. Three strong colors, working together to create an image that has good impact, because of color contrast.

Limited color palette

Limited color palette approach

But the approach is the opposite. Instead of including several strong, contrasting colors the idea is to use a much more limited color palette. You can do this with strong colors, as in this example below, where the dominant color is red.

Limited color palette

Or you can do it with much more subtle colors, as in this photo.

Limited color palette

Either way, the result is a strong image with an intelligent use of color.

Many photographers move away from using saturated, contrasting colors towards a more limited and subtle palette as their skills and vision evolve. As you look at the work of other photographers, especially professionals, you’ll find that a limited color palette is a mark of maturity and sophistication.

Color in the landscape

Landscape photography is a genre that is synonymous with saturated color. Back before digital, one of the most popular films for landscape photography was Fuji Velvia – a slide film noted for its contrasty, saturated images.

In the modern era techniques like HDR and software like Lightroom and Photoshop help us create saturated, contrasty images. Often that’s what you’ll see.

But what about exploring the subtleties of light and landscape?

For example, instead of photographing the setting sun try waiting until after it has set. The colors are softer. If you have a clear sky the entire landscape may be bathed in a golden glow. The result is a much more subtle use of color.

Limited color palette

Another technique is to explore the possibilities offered by bad weather.

I took the photo below in a town in southern Chile called Puerto Aysen. It rains a lot there, even in summer. When I took the photo it was raining. But the soft light captures the mood of the region well. The color palette is limited and dominated by green. Subtle contrast is provided by the colors of the painted boats.

Limited color palette

Limited color palettes and portraiture

Think about the use of color carefully in portraiture. Here you have much more control than you do with the landscape, as you can ask your model to wear specific items of clothing. You also get to choose the background.

If you haven’t decided in advance what your model is going to wear, a good tip is to ask them to bring along several options. Then you can choose the most appropriate outfit.

Here, I liked the model’s unusual hat. I positioned her against a neutral background so that the green hat was the strongest, most dominant color in the composition.

Limited color palette

Still life and color

Here’s a simple still life that I took in a restaurant in New Zealand. I liked the way the wooden platter and wooden table went together. The colorful fruit contrasts nicely with the neutral tones of the wood.

The photo shows another composition technique in action, one that I touched upon in the earlier portrait section. It’s the technique of composing the photo so that a single strong color is placed against a neutral or gray background. You then have a photo with a subtle color palette consisting of gray (or neutral tones, like the wooden table) and a single, dominant color.

Limited color palette

This leads to my next point, which is an important one. One of the keys to using a limited or subtle color palette is to develop your observation skills. The photos shown so far have one thing in common – I saw the subtle colors and framed the photo in a way that uses them well.

This an important skill to develop. One thing that elevates the work of the best photographers above everybody else is composition. Observation and composition go together. The more you learn to observe the world, and see how color, texture, tonal contrast, and the other building blocks of composition work together, the better your composition will be. In turn, this helps you create stronger, more memorable photos.

Lightroom and color

Don’t forget that Lightroom gives you several tools for controlling color.

The Camera Calibration panel is very important when it comes to processing Raw files. For most cameras, you will see Profile options like Landscape, Standard, Portrait, Neutral, and Faithful (with variations depending on camera model). Selecting Landscape gives you stronger, more saturated colors. Selecting Neutral or Faithful gives you more subtle, true to life colors.

You can also use the Saturation and Vibrance sliders in the Basic panel to reduce the intensity of colors.

The photos below show the difference it makes.

Limited color palette

Limited color palette

The first was processed with the Profile set to Velvia (the equivalent of the Landscape setting on my Fujifilm X-T1). The second was processed with the Profile set to Astia, which gives softer colors, and Vibrance set to -12. You can see the difference, the colors in the second version are softer and more subtle.

The HSL / Color / B&W panel lets you target and adjust the saturation of specific hues. In this portrait example below, I used the Targeted Adjustment Tool to lower the saturation of the background, reducing the amount of blue in the photo. The result is that the model’s pink dress becomes the strongest color in the image. Reducing the saturation of blue simplifies the color palette and makes a stronger image.

Limited color palette

Hopefully, this article will help you understand that there is more to color than getting as much of it in the photo as possible. There’s plenty of room for using a more subtle approach and limiting the number of colors included in the frame.

Do you have any ideas for ways to use a limited color palette or subtle colors in your photos? Please let us know in the comments.

Mastering Composition

If you’d like to learn more about color and composition then please check out my ebook Mastering Composition: A Photographer’s Guide to Seeing.

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