One of the most frequent questions we hear about our photographs is, “How do you manage to capture such vibrant colors?” The commonly-held belief is that the photograph must be manipulated in post-processing to get such brilliant colors. While some post-processing is necessary, the art of capturing vibrant colors typically begins in the field with an understanding of how light affects colors.
Take a look at the two photographs above. Both photographs were taken at the same location in Olympic National Park. Considering they were taken in the same location, why are the colors in the first photograph more vibrant and natural than in the second? The first photograph was taken on a spring, overcast day. The soft, scattered light helped to bring out the brilliant colors of the newly-formed leaves. The second photograph was taken during a summer afternoon in the harsh lighting conditions produced by clear, midday blue skies. The resulting photograph is dull and shows many underexposed and overexposed areas. Bright light in the background and dark shadows throw off the exposure for the entire image; the scene simply looks wrong.
Does that mean that, in order to capture brilliant colors, you must always shoot in overcast conditions? Not at all. Sometimes, the direct sun is exactly what’s needed to bring out brilliant colors. This is specially true if you are trying to photograph brilliant colors on the coast. All the image below were taken at midday under harsh sunlight.
If you want to capture photos with brilliant colors, recognize that the quality, direction, and amount of light affects the colors that you can capture. Here are some tips to help you capture brilliant colors:
- Avoid capturing photos with both harsh sunlight and deep shadows. For most situations, shooting during overcast conditions is the best way to do this.
- Harsh sunlight is sometimes necessary to bring out the brilliant colors in your images (such as when you are trying to capture the colors of water on a tropical beach).
- If your subject is small, you can control the light by using a diffuser and/or a reflector. Varina uses this technique to capture the mushrooms in the following image.
- Reflected light can add colors to your images. In the photo below, I used harsh, reflected light from the canyon walls to add color to my image.
- Reflected light can also be used to bounce light off of wet surfaces or the surface of the water.
- Use a circular polarizer to cut though diffused light (glare) and to bring out brilliant colors and details in your subject.
The next time you’re out in the field and want to correctly capture brilliant colors in-camera, pay attention to the light. You’ll be rewarded with some breathtaking photos.