Normal and color shifted photo portrait with a color palette
© Amaury Descours

Purists call it a split toning or color grading. The millenial followers of Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat simply call it photo filter. But do you know the secret of these “filters”? Why do photo filters stir our curiosity? How can you create your own photo filter? Part of the answer lies in developing a color palette in your photo and the emotions it creates.

I will share with you:

  • what is a color palette and harmony
  • the link between color palette and emotions
  • how to choose the colors of a palette
  • how does a color palette apply to a photo
  • which photo editing tools allow the development of a color palette

Before We Begin

Succeeding in making remarkable photos means making photos that provoke emotions that are most faithful to the emotions you felt when shooting. Focused on the theory of emotions, I designed a 6-step method for learning photography first with what you feel. Development is the 5th step to achieving it, and mastering color is one of the 6 essential development techniques to be known in photography.

Photo Development: the 5th level of the creative photography pyramid to share your emotions in picture
The Development is the 5th level of my creative pyramid to share ones emotions in photography, once having mastered the capture of the Subject, the Shooting, the Composition and the Light © Amaury Descours

The Color Palette: A Harmonious Simplification Of The Color Range

Technically, the “good” colors of a photo have the same hues as you see with your own eyes. But from a creative point of view, the “good” colors can also be more or less out of sync with reality. By slightly changing the hue of certain colors in your photo, you can merge different colors from the photographed scene to a smaller palette of hues. This reinforces the coherence of the colors of your photo which helps to give it a style and make it special. But provided that this palette is composed of harmonious colors.

A Quick Reminder About The Theory of Emotions

All types of emotions that we feel can be represented on a wheel with 8 primary emotions according to the theory of emotions of Plutchik. These primary emotions come in varying intensities (the most intense are at the center) and combine in 24 other emotions through dyads.

Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions
Plutchik’s emotional wheel models 48 possible emotions thanks to the primary, secondary and tertiary dyads which are combinations of the 8 primary emotions © Amaury Descours

Emotions and The Color Palette

Styling your photo with color makes it more intriguing and more desirable. Like the composition, a color palette aims to draw the eye in your photo. This is because the colors do not seem quite exact nor normal, but their shades appear nevertheless harmonious that you make your photo both credible and offbeat. You create a color tension on the likelihood and improbability of your photo. You pull the observer in your universe so that he feels as close as possible the emotions you have captured in front of your subject. In the art of story telling, this is called the suspension of disbelief!

Making emotions more present is to reinforce their intensity. Referring to the wheel of emotions, it brings out the emotions at the center of the wheel:

  • Ecstasy,
  • Admiration,
  • Terror,
  • Amazement,
  • Grief,
  • Loathing,
  • Rage,
  • Vigilance.

How To Choose The Right Color Palette

A color palette is defined by a deliberately small number of colors but which are in harmony. There can be 2, 3, 4, 5 colors or even more. The harmony of the colors is described with the color wheel and the theory of the colors: complementary colors, analogous/adjacent, triads, … I invite you to experiment the dynamics of color harmonies  with free online tools like Adobe Color.

How to start? It is the dominant colors of your subject that must guide the palette to have:

  • For a portrait, it’s the skin tones of the face
  • For a forest landscape, it’s the colors of the foliage: green in spring, yellow in autumn
  • For a seascape, it’s the colors of the sea
  • For an architectural landmark, it’s the color of the sky or as fallback the lighting
  • Etc.

The dominant colors should be the reference colors that will be the visual anchor to keep the likelihood of your photo. It will be the other colors in your photo that will play in your creative palette.

How to complete your palette? The easiest way is to start with a palette with 2 complementary colors: blue/orange, green/magenta, etc. Take the dominant color of your subject, and find the associated complementary color:

  • For a portrait, it will be a bluish color
  • For a forest landscape with green foliage, it will be a red/magenta color
  • For a seascape with blue hues, it will be a yellow/orange color
  • For a mountain lit by a rising sun, it will be a blue color
  • Etc.

But your palette can also be more complex, and play on triads or shades of similar colors for example.

How To Apply A Color Palette To Your Photo

There are many techniques for applying a stylized color palette to a photo. These techniques can be called split toning, or color grading in particular. But the principles of these techniques are essentially the same: we introduce colored shades for dark, medium and / or light areas to the entire image, or only on the subject and/or its environment. This can be a global effect or a selective/local effect (the colorists in the movie industry talk about primary and secondary color adjustments).

For example, for a portrait photo, you can apply a stylized palette to the subject and tint the shadows in blue and strengthen the middle tones of the face in yellow/orange. We thus play on the complementary harmony of these two colors, while keeping the skin tones of the face plausible and pleasing.

Normal and color-shifted photo portrait with a color palette
These 2 photos are from the same shot but developed with 2 different color palettes in Adobe Photoshop. Left: No color palette has been applied. Right: A color palette with complementary shades of teal and orange has been applied. Dark tones and shadows were processed with a deep turquoise blue. The light tones (thus the face) have been processed with orange tint. Nikon D800 and Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8, 200mm, f5.6, 1/60s, ISO 100 © Amaury Descours

Tools To Develop A Color Palette In Your Photo

Without going into a step-by-step tutorial that goes beyond the scope of this article, I can refer you to some tools to experiment with this technique.

The easiest way is to use mobile apps on smartphone or tablet. Many very popular applications like Instagram or VSCO offer editing features for color palette, but the result is often (very) disappointing: it is very difficult to effectively protect the dominant colors of your subject. One of the few applications that gives honorable results is Adobe Lightroom CC for Mobile, even in its free version!

Color grading a portrait photo with Adobe Lightroom CC for mobile
To apply a 2-color complementary turquoise / orange color palette in Adobe Lightroom CC for Mobile, you need to proceed in 2 steps. Step #1 on the left: Start by applying a split toning shift by targeting the shadows. Step #2 on the right: use the color mixer to fix to the dominant colors of the subject, ie correct the hue and increase the saturation of the skin tones. We get a result close to what is possible in Adobe Photoshop © Amaury Descours

On Mac / desktop PC, the choice is great and the possibilities endless, but you have to pay to have effective tools. We can cite :

  • Affinity Photo, which in the color palette application area is almost as powerful as Adobe Photoshop for a fraction of the price
  • Adobe Lightroom Classic, which compared to the mobile version, offers a color calibration feature that can be used for creative purposes
  • and of course Adobe Photoshop which offers the ultimate level of sophistication for this kind of development.
Color grading a portrait photo in Adobe Photoshop
Photoshop makes it possible to apply a color palette much more precisely, but it requires more technique. You must create a color layer whose layer style will target a range of tones (dark, medium or light): here a turquoise blue layer for dark tones, and a yellow/beige layer for highlight tones. But the result worth the effort, it is much more convincing and customizable © Amaury Descours

I mentioned at the beginning of my post the example of “photo filters” in mobile applications. The color palette is the main component of those filters. But these filters also use other development techniques:

If you know these techniques, you will do better than any filter on the market!

Let’s Go On Together!

Learn how to photograph with my 6-step method to make your photos first with your emotions. An intuitive approach that focus on what you are feeling, before considering any tools and techniques!

Then understand why development in photography is essential in the expression of your emotions and explore the 5 different techniques of color development:

  1. Color of ambient light: developing the white balance
  2. Intensity of colors: developing color saturation
  3. Attracting to your subject with color: developing selective/local saturation
  4. Harmony of colors: developing a color palette (this post)
  5. Monochrome tones: developing in black and white

Do not miss my future posts to better capture and share your emotions in picture: subscribe to my newsletter, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram!

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