Consider Your Palette

As a lighting photographer, you have a significant amount of control over the tones and colors in your photos. How does that control affect your photography?

Do you know?

Do you care?

A few thoughts, after the jump.

Use of Color as a Signature

How many times have you walked past a magazine at a newsstand and somehow knew who shot it before you even took a closer look?

You might have recognized the palette of colors as being the signature of a particular photographer.

Greg Heisler uses a rich, deep colorful palette. Annie Leibovitz used to be Miss Superaaturated, but has become much more subtle in recent years.

Dan Winters is fond of those muted blue/green/grays, which is one of the ways you can spot him from a mile off. Ditto Joyce Tennison and her desaturated hues.

Have you ever taken a moment to try to figure out your palette? You likely have one, whether you know it consciously or not. And it goes a long way towards defining your personal style.

If you are not conscious of it, you might be settling into something you don't really want by default. That is what was happening to me. Or you might be all over the map when what you really want is to develop a signature look. And that's not very productive, either.

Using light brings with it the ability to drastically alter the color palette of a photo. Between using gels for your various sources, and the backdrop or locations you choose, that whole extra layer of control is one of the best reasons to be a lighting photographer. And if that control is evolving in a happenstance kind of way, you may be shortchanging yourself.

Taking a Step Back

A little while ago, I took a look at my recent work and came to the conclusion that I was defaulting towards rich colors and saturation. It's not something I necessarily wanted to be doing, either. But things were just ending up that way.

I think it was most likely because of my background as a newspaper photographer. Back then, when we had the ability to control a scene (portraiture, illustration, etc.) we tended to crank the color to make up for the fact that we published on what was essentially toilet paper. I can't ell you how many bad newspaper illustration I have seen that looked like they just stepped off of a Cyndi Lauper video from the 1980s.

And not that there's anything wrong with trending toward saturated colors in general, either. That's just not necessarily where I am wanting to be right now, if I take a moment to approach it consciously. Maybe it is the long-term reaction to leaving newspapers, where 'subtle' was not in our vocabulary. On the web, it starts to look heavy-handed.

And one photo at a time, my tendency toward heavy use of color is not something that would have been noticeable to me. It's one of those things that sneaks up on you, like when your brakes go bad. But in looking at my photos as a group, I am starting to make some different decisions both in how I am lighting and (to a lesser extent) my post processing. I have been trending a little more towards neutrals when designing and lighting photos. No definitive new look has evolved that I can see. But at least I am not always turning the volume up to eleven all of the time.

Maybe this is the first time a photographic color palette has even entered into your thinking. If so, you might want to spend some time looking at the work of photographers who you admire and seeing what you can learn about them -- and yourself.

No great truths being dealt here. Just an offhand reminder to be aware of -- and in control of -- your overall approach to color and tone. And to make sure you keep an eye on the big picture (and not just all of the little ones) if it is important to you.


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Blogger N said...

Good for you, you know what they say about unexamined lives!

Being new to Strobist when I saw some of your recent work I thought the same thing, though I didn't have any kind of a problem with it, I just noticed it.

I do however really like that you're not afraid of deep contrast, don't lose that.

October 12, 2009 11:50 PM  
Blogger Stormin said...

been doing a lot of shooting with the WB set to Tungsten and CTO gelling the strobes on the subject. Found that Tungsten WB works well with night-time lightning shots, too

October 12, 2009 11:59 PM  
Blogger bmillios said...

Don Giannatti and I recently had a conversation, he was talking about something very similar to this. He suggested that if you wanted to tie together a bunch of images (for a portfolio, a book, whatever) that you might consider applying a very light color-cast over the entire image in Photoshop - a certain color, at a low opacity, for example. (I would experiment first with the CTO or CTB colors.) This would not drastically alter the original photo - but it would serve to tie the group of photos together, possibly even subconsciously.

October 13, 2009 1:05 AM  
Blogger Raul Kling said...

Another excellent post! I didn't give much thought to the subject, but when I read the article it made so much sense! It's so easy to get trapped in following current trends without asking the questions you so thoughtfully suggested in this post.

October 13, 2009 2:11 AM  
Blogger Jun Madayag said...

I have thought of this issue just a couple of days back when I had my last shoot and I was thinking what would make my photos tell the viewer that its my work at a glance. I have attended a workshop with a famous natural light photographer last year but when I did my post processing one comment said my work looks like my the Photogrpaher who taught me and I thought that there was no orginality if I follow it. Recently I had made some shoot and finally decided what kind of look I will be producing in post processing. I'll try my own cinematic tones. Hopefully I could develop it. here is my flickr set just to share

Thanks for this post.

October 13, 2009 2:22 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

A thought provoking post. I've started using Kuler from Adobe to analyse images I use for wedding album designs. Could be used to create a palette for a series of planned images. I feel a project coming on ...

Kuler can be found here:
and it's free!

October 13, 2009 3:26 AM  
Blogger djaef said...

Yeah, interesting comments David. Colour palette is certainly a way to define yourself isn't it.
I like the new zenfolio as well.

October 13, 2009 5:29 AM  
Blogger Matt Wynne said...

In school a lot of time is spent learning about color. How it affects mood and message as well as the effect it can have in a series of images. Thinking about the use of color in a body of work should happen almost instinctively but applying that awareness to every image as a personal stamp is great thing to be conscious of. It is always good to hear a reminder of how to stay on track. Thanks for the post.

Boston Photographer | MWynne

October 13, 2009 8:46 AM  
Blogger Zach said...

I'm an amateur and still at the very early stages but I know that I tend strongly towards high saturation high contrast images. I've always admired people who can pull of pastel color palettes with a sort of hazy feel, but I can never bring myself to take away the contrast. Well, maybe with time and maturity.

October 13, 2009 9:04 AM  
Blogger Matti Vaittinen said...

Great post! I have to look trough my photos and see what kind of palette I have been using.

October 13, 2009 9:09 AM  
Blogger gwppk said...

Blue! No.Yel... aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

October 13, 2009 9:49 AM  
Blogger David said...


I am just at the beginning of the long journey that is learning strobism. I can't thank you enough for the amount of work and dedication you have put into this blog. It has inspired me to do more and work harder to achieve better images with new and creative lighting technique. This site has been an invaluable learning tool for me and am sure many many others, so thank you.



October 13, 2009 11:47 AM  
Blogger Frozen Forever Photography said...

Style is something to pay close attention to. It can go into many different areas, like what lenses you use all the time. I try to keep updating my style even with subjects. My goal with photography is to have images that dont need a logo for people to know its me.

Thanks always,

October 13, 2009 11:48 AM  
Blogger Ogalthorpe said...

Damn. That guy in the second row all the way to the left is just the most dashing mofo I think I've ever seen.

October 13, 2009 12:03 PM  
Blogger masont said...

Thanks for a great thought provoking post. I kept thinking back to a recent post at Stu's excellent blog Prolost. ( He is the guy who created Magic Bullet Looks for the video editing world and he goes into detail about how to achieve certain looks from today's hit movies.

We still photographers can learn a great deal about color palettes by looking to the colorists in the film industry who develop color palettes for entire movies or specific scenes that can evoke certain emotional response based entirely on the mood create by the color palette. The tools that today's colorists use have a completely different interface than what is on the surface in Photoshop but the same types of things can be done with curves and tonal selections.

October 13, 2009 12:41 PM  
Blogger Marc said...

Great post. For years I used to work for a copier manufacturer, managing color output, and before that I used to print C-prints at one of the big NYC labs.

I was just thinking the other day about the color palette that most of the OTC strobe army tends to get from using multiple speed lights in the field.

But, I think your instincts are absolutely right in gravitating to your current palette. Print requires contrast for readability, and it certainly adds excitement and mystery to ordinary subjects. So kudos to you for your assessment -- And especially your willingness to share your thoughts on this with the world. It's very easy to become complacent and not examine one's own actions.

October 13, 2009 2:09 PM  
Blogger Patey North said...

David, in the RSS feed, there's one more sentence after your final paragraph, stating cryptically,

"A little something we've been working on:"

Whatever it is, can we see it? :-D

October 13, 2009 2:23 PM  
Blogger Barney D. said...

I tend toward brighter more vibrant colors now which really show up great in prints, but the web unfortunately makes them look overly saturated or sometimes over plays the intentional color casts I like to leave in.

October 13, 2009 2:56 PM  
Blogger JasonG Photographer said...

Thanks for the great post. I always think about particular composition or lighting to define certain photographer's work, but have overlooked color palette. It is on my radar now.

October 13, 2009 2:58 PM  
Blogger Myron said...

Oh MaMa Please don't take my Kodachrome away--MaMa don't take, MaMa don't take, MaMa don't take my Kodachrome away....
Yes and they say that the Japaneese like more subtle tones so Fuji fits whereas Americans love over saturated, make it "pop"
People see different colors differently--there is a gender tendency for Men to be more color blind, whereas women see more shades

October 13, 2009 3:57 PM  
Blogger LIArtPhotography said...

Duh. Seems so obvious. And yet, I've never really given it much thought. But now that ya mention it...I DO have a preference! LOL! Very timely given I've just read Selina Maitreya's book about how to succeed in commercial photography and have committed to defining my personal vision photographically speaking. Thanks!!!

October 13, 2009 4:43 PM  
Blogger KeithAlanK said...

A quick and easy way to check your palette is to put all your Strobist pics in a Flickr "Set". This will allow you to see small thumbnails grouped together on a single page.

October 13, 2009 4:45 PM  
Blogger PositivePaul said...

I am unadbashedly a self-confessed sepia-tone addict. My friends often wonder if I see the world in sepia-tone. I don't wonder at all...

It's probably all the coffee.

October 13, 2009 4:47 PM  
Blogger charles said...

The trick to good photography is knowing what is appropriate for the shot. Some things look good SuperSaturated, others desaturated and some monochrome. Some even work best with natural color 8-]

Don't let your "style" get in the way of making effective photos.

October 13, 2009 5:09 PM  
Blogger Steve Kalman said...

There's an interesting site called (after Thomas EDison).

A recent talk there is on how humans process and interpret color. Here's the link, if it posts here:[if not, search for beau lott optical]

If you're going to establish a signature, might as well put some science into it.

Ted has lots of short talks running 6,12 or 18 minutes on an extraordinarily wide variety of subjects. Take a look around, but be sure to budget a few hours of lost time.

October 13, 2009 6:02 PM  
Blogger IKON16.COM said...

I’ve always been very conscious of my pallet. I tend to favor cooler more desaturated high contrast with a fair amount of texture for my portrait and editorial work. My rock photography for Live Nation tends to be more vibrant and saturated, but I still very intentionally gravitate towards shots with cooler hues:

-Nick Masters

October 13, 2009 6:19 PM  
Blogger John said...

Thanks for sharing the insight!

This article made me sit back and take a look at my own work and I discovered a few trends as well, not that they are good or bad, but definitely trends.

While I seriously enjoy all of the lighting info that you have shared over the years, I also like the brief interludes that delve in to other areas of photography.

Strobist is still my favorite resource on the net.

October 13, 2009 9:27 PM  
Blogger Harry P said...

Great post Dave.

October 13, 2009 10:38 PM  
Blogger TenisD said...

Hei, i always have thought You specialy dont put any huge modifications on Your pictures on just so people would learn better.
And i truly respect You for that.
I mostly want to turn my pictures upside down in postprocessing by colours and saturation.
But i somehow found one green - realy green effect in lightroom that everyone around seems to like :)

October 14, 2009 7:27 AM  
Blogger Marc Pritchard said...

I completely agree. The use of colour is just one variable but nailing it down will help to define your style, the same as the contrast, tone range and everything else you can change.

Of course, in business the hardest problem is settling on a style which people will want to buy!

October 14, 2009 9:16 AM  
Blogger Natalie Jorge said...

Finding your palette is not that easy. It's about finding your style and this can take a lot of years of experience... The works of photographers that most catch our attention are those with style. I hope one day I can find mine...

October 14, 2009 5:48 PM  
Blogger Willie said...

Thanks for sharing. I'm still struggling with the pallete.

October 14, 2009 9:27 PM  
Blogger h.linton said...

Your comments reminded me of an instructor that I had @ UCLA by the name of Leigh Weiner. He was a 30-year veteran in the heyday of Time-Life [and he had the stories to go with it]. One of the things that he said which I've remembered all these years later is that as a photographer matures their palette tends towards more subtle tones and, in his case, towards B&W. When I met him I was shooting super saturated colors [] but then tended towards B&W myself. It seems that now I shoot what the image/job calls for and not just from a single palette. I do wonder as I write this if it isn't similar to how we age in that we come into the world all bright-eyed and, over time, lose much of the enthusiasm we started with. I don't think that's a bad thing - just an observation.

October 15, 2009 4:20 PM  
Blogger Dustin said...

I always told myself I wouldn't develop a style. That meant I was getting uncreative and stagnant. But more and more often, people notice that 'dustin diaz style' and whadayaknow. It happened. I then had to come to terms that I had a style... and hey, I kinda like it :)

It's somewhere between muted orange, night, contrasty, lightning blues, shallow, and matrixy... i think.

anyway, thanks for sharing this David. I love a good self-eval.

October 20, 2009 2:18 AM  
Blogger Goldemberg Fonseca said...

Many times I've seen countless people only concerned about evolving their technical abilities, finding out how something works properly or not. But I think that there is a lack of creativity on their work as well as (mainly!) personality. And it's undeniable the correct usage of color (or lack of it as BW) is part of it.

Great article anyway!

November 11, 2009 10:17 PM  

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