As tempting as it is to fill the frame from edge to edge with a bold, or even a subtle blend of, colours (after all, colour is free, why not get greedy with it?), presenting the viewer with a scene that contains a decidedly stingy splash of colour can be more effective.
Small but significant patches of colour can perform many useful tasks in a photographic composition ranging from drawing attention to physically diminutive but emotionally meaningful areas to acting as a counterbalance to large areas of muted or dark negative space.
Isolated pockets of colour are particularly dramatic when they call upon naturally complementary colours, as in the shot of a single yellow daffodil that, while it takes up a substantially smaller portion of the frame, seems to dominate the surrounding area of purple flowers. The effect is even more pronounced because the warmer and lighter colour seems to advance while the cooler colours are perceived as retreating. In fact, this contrasting of a brighter area against a darker and heavier background is one of the most powerful methods for establishing a feeling of balance and unity in the composition.
Bright patches of colour are also useful at bringing a bit of life to otherwise drab or monotonous parts of a scene. The little girl in the magenta dress counteracts what was otherwise a completely dreary view of the Manhattan skyline looking back from Liberty Island. The sky was deeply overcast and this served to liven up the grey concrete monoliths perfectly when she walked into the frame.
Very often a scene may contain more than one isolated pocket of colour that, while seemingly in conflict with one another, can also act as a unifying force against a large area of darkness if the colours are well matched. In such cases analogous colours tend to draw one another out and each helps to reinforce the other. Incidentally, this type of scene isn’t really something you can set out to find (‘Honey I’m going out to find small analogous patches of colour on a neutral background to photograph…’), but you are far more likely to recognise and take advantage of them if you are aware of their importance.
One thing to keep in mind any time that you use a restricted area of colour is that placement becomes exceedingly important because whether you intend it to or not, the eye will be drawn to those spots of colour as surely as they will to a spot of mustard on your clean white shirt. (At which point, your clever better half may suggest you just photograph your shirt.) In the shot of the water lily, for example, even though the blossom has a moderate amount of colour competition from the red edging around the green lily pads, the eye lands immediately on the flower. The human brain simply cannot resist such unexpected pockets of bright colour.
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.
The Photographer’s Master Guide to Colour, by Jeff Wignall