Throughout the centuries, painters have applied radically different approaches to using colour in portraiture. Their goals, however, were almost exactly the same: to present their subjects in an interesting way while at the same time offering an insight into their personalities.
Rembrandt, for example, often worked with a rich palette of dark earth tones, typically contrasting with golden highlights, while Van Gogh on the other hand often used bright primary hues pitted against one another in experimental fashion in what now seem like almost pre-psychedelic combinations.
While Rembrandt’s colour choices were often aimed at extolling the strength of dignity of his subjects, Van Gogh’s were often as much about his own off-beat vision of the world as they were of his subjects’ physical characteristics. Interestingly, both of these painters often used themselves as subjects for their portrait explorations—a thought to keep in mind if you can’t find subjects of your own to shoot.
The colours that you include in your portraits, in setting and wardrobe and in your choice of lighting situations, are extremely important and often they say as much about your vision of the world as they do about your subjects. Colour’s most important role in portrait photos is, as with many other subjects, to establish an overall mood. Using colour (and light) to create mood in a portrait is very similar to the way that you create mood in a landscape: when the dominant colours are warm and the lighting is soft and flattering, your images will have an engaging and welcoming feel. Crank up the saturation and punch up the contrast of the lighting and you create an entirely different emotional dynamic.
Because of this, it’s important that you choose a colour scheme that reinforces the mood that you’re trying to establish. In Jennica Reis’ delightful portrait of her daughter carrying a fistful of brightly coloured helium balloons, the brilliant hues of the balloons and her pink dress add to the cheerful excitement of the moment. By contrast, Iancu Cristian’s portrait, shot in a softly lit wooded setting with a more limited and earthy palette sets a happy, yet more tranquil and reflective mood. By choosing more natural tones and carefully avoiding any bright colours or hard contrasts that might have distracted her subject’s face, she has made the face the hero of her shot. The only hint of bold colour in the frame is the sash and trim of the dress, which contrasts nicely with the surrounding green.
Travel is a great time to use local colour to enhance your portraits. In photographer Stephanie Albanese’s street portrait of an old Mexican woman, she has used the extremely vibrant indigenous hues of the locale to help reveal a story of her subject’s culture and heritage. To make the image even more colourful she draped the woman in a vividly coloured blanket and posed her in a pocket of warm morning sunlight—a few thoughtful touches that transformed the situation into a classic travel portrait.
Finally, one of the nice things about shooting portraits is that, unlike a lot of other subjects, you can make changes to setting and wardrobe and radically transform the colour combinations. Moving your subject from sunlight to shade and substituting a blue-toned outfit for a red one, for example, can transform a hot and passionate composition into a more quiet, perhaps more introspective interpretation.
The Photographer’s Master Guide to Color is Jeff Wignall’s thorough course on colour and the role it plays in digital photography, giving you a new understanding of the important role colour plays in the creation of successful photos, and allowing you take outstanding colour photographs with any digital camera.