John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Selective Color

selective color
Some people might also call this selective desaturation, because in many cases that’s how you do it: you take a color photograph and zap the color out of most of it. However, the color that is left behind will always pop out at us. The term “selective coloring” emphasizes that fact.

Why does the color stand out? Well, because it’s color. That seems obvious. But behind the obvious we find some interesting ideas. We live in a world of color. It feels more intuitively real in an image than the somewhat intellectualized and abstract quality of monochrome photos. Recognizing colors played an important role in the evolutionary survival of our species; we naturally rivet to it because we use color to identify what something is. We also associate colors with emotion, and emotions are the forces that connect humans to each other, so we can’t help but connect to the colorful element in an otherwise black and white image. Even the usually receding cool colors like blue will be perceived as moving towards us in a selectively desaturated photo. Selectively colored images can be so powerful that the color leaps out at us as if we were wearing 3-D glasses.

Is it too obvious?

For that reason, some photographers don’t like selective coloring. It’s too obvious. It has no subtlety. It’s just a gimmick for someone who has developed a little bit of Photoshop skill.

Without a doubt, selective coloring sometimes rubs our noses in something, but that’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes it’s fun. Sometimes it can be used to draw out an element and idea in an image that otherwise might have been overlooked. Or the color highlights a pattern that is not immediately obvious while desaturation eliminates other color distractions. And if the selective coloring is subdued, or involves a small portion of the image, the effect can indeed be subtle but powerful, as in the image of the tree branches.

It’s also good to keep in mind that the element that stands out in an image is the one that is different than the other elements. If most of an image has color, then the smaller desaturated area will catch the eye. A very interesting image might be one where there is an almost equal balance of color and desaturation, or desaturation and color appear in unexpected and perhaps even counterintuitive places. That tension between color and monochrome can be intriguing. In the photo of people walking on a city street, I selectively desaturated the utility pole wires outside the window from which I took the shot to draw attention to them as distinctly separate from the people but also mimicking them as a unit of intertwined parts.

Separate realities

Sometimes the colored and desaturated areas of the image might appear disconnected from each other, as if they are two separate realities or dimensions of experience. In some images, that might work. But if that’s undesirable, the photographer might take care to integrate the two zones, perhaps by visually overlapping them, or by using psychological lines,  as in the image where the woman in the desaturated area is looking at the selectively colored man.

As always in photography and any art form, we should always ask ourselves if the color and desaturation work successfully in the composition. Does it contribute to the meaning of the image?

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The Big Picture of Composition
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Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche