A Guide to Colour Photography for Wildlife Photographers

colour theory wildlife photography

If you are looking to take your wildlife photography to the next level, understanding the power of colour in your images is essential.

Colour plays a significant role in grabbing the viewer’s attention, creating impact, and telling a story.

colour photography wildlife

From vibrant and saturated colours to more subtle and muted tones, colour can be used in a multitude of different ways to create a connection, evoke emotion, and highlight the beauty of the subject.

In this article, we will explore the art and science of using colour, specifically in your wildlife photography.

Keep reading to discover how different colours affect the mood and atmosphere of your shots, and learn how you can use colour theory to create visually stunning and captivating images.

Why is colour relevant to wildlife photographers?

Nature itself is colourful, and it’s worth considering its impact on your wildlife photography images, both in your subject and in your background.

From the vivid hues of a tropical bird’s plumage to the subtle colours of the landscape on a misty morning, colours can be used to enhance mood and atmosphere and add depth and dimension to your scene. 

The careful use of colour can also help to differentiate and draw attention to certain aspects of the photograph.

wildlife photography colour photography

When shooting a wider scene to show your subject in context for instance, placing the animal against more subtle colours will draw the viewers eye into the frame and straight to the subject. 

For frame filling portrait images however, your choice of background should also be influenced by colour, with darker hues resulting in a low key, dramatic, moody image and lighter, more vibrant hues creating impact and harmony.

Read more: How to Take Impacting Portraits of Wildlife

Colour theory

To use colour effectively in wildlife photography, it’s important to have a basic understanding of colour theory. Colour theory is based on the colour wheel and is the study of how different colours relate to and interact with each other.

By applying the principles of colour theory, you will find it possible to create images that are both visually balanced and engaging

Different colours can imply different moods. Red can signify danger for example. It is also a warm colour and can elicit a feeling of passion and excitement. 

colour theory in photography

Cooler colours such as blues and greens can evoke a sense of peace and tranquillity. Green is also a calming hue and can suggest freshness, relaxation and renewal. 

Red, blue and yellow are primary colours which cannot be created by a combination of shades. 

Green, blue and purple are known as receding colours which will usually fall away into the background. 

One of the most important aspects of colour theory is the concept of complementary colours. Complementary colours are those that are directly opposite each other on the colour wheel, such as red and green or blue and orange.

colour theory wildlife photography

When used together in a photograph, complementary colours create a striking contrast that makes each seem brighter and more vivid. 

The combination of these colours can be used to grab the viewer’s attention and help to make your subject pop. Think about the red breast of a robin against green foliage for instance, or perhaps a yellow butterfly shot against the deep blue hues of a summer sky. 

I also like to contrast warm colours with colder colours when the opportunity arises. Shooting in winter during a spell of snowy weather at dawn or dusk for instance, can create visual tension between the warm colours projected by the low sun and the cold hues of the snow. 

colour theory photography

Adding a splash of primary colour against a backdrop of more muted hues can also be effective, and a great way of drawing in the viewer’s eye and highlighting your subject. 

By incorporating colour symbolism into your images, you can add layers of meaning and depth to your wildlife photography.

Read more : An Introduction to the Power of Colour Photography

Accurate colour vs. creative use of colour using white balance

White balance is a camera setting that allows you to neutralise colour casts caused by different colour temperatures. Understanding white balance is essential if you aim to correct various colour casts to produce an accurate representation of your subject.

using colour theory in wildlife photography

If your white balance setting is not optimum, colours can appear too warm or too cool, distorting the natural colours of the scene. Adjusting your camera’s white balance will enable you to correct these colour shifts and capture images that more closely resemble the subject’s true colours.

Auto white balance (AWB) is a convenient feature that automatically adjusts the white balance based on the camera’s evaluation of the scene. While AWB can work well in many situations, it doesn’t always produce the desired results.

This is because the camera is using a ‘best guess’ algorithm. It may struggle to accurately determine the correct white balance under mixed or extreme lighting sources.

white balance midlife photography

To achieve more consistent results, a number of preset white balance settings that are designed to mimic a range of common lighting conditions can be used – for example:

  1. Daylight: The daylight preset is suitable for shooting in natural daylight conditions, providing a neutral colour temperature.
  2. Cloudy or shade: These presets add warmth to compensate for cooler lighting conditions, such as overcast skies or shaded areas.
  3. Tungsten or fluorescent: These presets are useful when shooting under artificial lighting, such as indoor environments.

By using these white balance presets, you are informing the camera that the light is that colour. The camera will then bias settings in the opposite direction to counterbalance the natural light and achieve more accurate colours.

While accurate colour representation can be important in wildlife photography, white balance can also be used creatively to enhance the mood and atmosphere of your shots.

By deliberately adjusting the white balance settings, you can introduce a warm or cool tone to your images, inducing a certain emotion or feeling.

For example, setting a warmer white balance can enhance the warmth of the light when shooting during the golden hour.

colour theory photography

Conversely, a cooler white balance can emphasize the icy blue tones of a snowy scene, creating a sense of tranquility and enhancing the feeling of cold and extremity.

Experimenting with different white balance settings can help you to tell a story and convey the emotions that you would like to evoke.

Read more: What is White Balance?

Exploring colour during the golden hour and blue hour

The temperature of light is measured in degrees Kelvin. During the first and last hours of daylight, when the sun is close to the horizon, the temperature of the light will measure in the region of 3,000ºK.

This is why these times of day are often referred to as the ‘golden hour’. The wavelengths of the light are longer, which gives the light its warm, rich colours.

golden hour wildlife photography

Exploring colour during the golden hour is a great way of producing images that emphasise energy, passion, and intensity.

You might silhouette your subject against the fiery hues of a sunrise or sunset, for example, or backlight a bird in flight against a dark background. These types of images can create a strong emotional response and a sense of comfort, happiness, and intimacy.

The blue hour refers to the period of twilight before sunrise or after sunset when the light takes on a much colder colour, dominated by blue hues.

colour photography colour theory

This fleeting time frame offers a unique opportunity to experiment with colour and create captivating images that have a distinct mood of their own. Harnessing the natural light during this brief window will bring a sense of tranquillity and serenity to your pictures.

Locations that have a calming atmosphere will work well at this time of day; perhaps an animal sauntering through a forest, for instance, or a bird swimming on a calm lake before sunrise.

Read more: How to Photograph the Blue Hour

Monochromatic and muted colours

While vibrant and bold colours can create immediate impact, sometimes a more subdued approach can create equally stunning images. Monochromatic and muted colour palettes can add a sense of elegance and sophistication to your wildlife photographs.

A monochromatic colour palette consists of different shades and tones of a single colour. By limiting your colour choices, you can create a sense of harmony and simplicity in your images.

This approach works especially well when photographing animals with uniform colouration, such as a white mountain hare against a snowy backdrop or a white swan on a misty lake.

monochrome wildlife photography

The lack of contrasting colours allows the subject’s unique characteristics and textures to take precedence, resulting in a balanced and harmonious image.

Muted colour palettes may involve desaturating or toning down the colours in your photographs. This technique can be particularly effective when capturing wildlife in naturally dark environments such as woodlands – an owl perched in a dense forest, for instance.

By reducing the intensity of the colours, you emphasise texture, shape, and form. This can create a unique atmosphere and a sense of subtlety and realism that adds depth and authenticity to your images.

Read more: How to Photograph Wildlife in Black and White

Ten top tips for using colour effectively

Next time you’re out with your camera, try to use these top tips to harness the power of colour and make your wildlife photography stand out from the crowd.

colour photography

1. Research the subject: Understanding the natural colours and patterns of the subject and its environment will help you to plan and pre-visualise your images.

2. Pay attention to lighting: Different lighting conditions can affect the appearance of colours. Experiment with different times of day and lighting angles to achieve the desired effect. Remember that you will find warmer tones during ‘golden hour’ periods, and cooler tones in the ‘blue hour.’

3. Use colour to guide the viewer’s eye: By strategically placing a vibrant colour in your composition, you can lead the viewer’s eye towards the subject or create a strong focal point.

colour theory wildlife photography

4. Experiment with different colour combinations: Don’t be afraid to try different colour combinations to create unique and visually striking photographs. Play with complementary or analogous colours to create harmony or contrast.

5. Consider the background: The background can either enhance or detract from the subject. Ensure that the colours in the background complement the subject and help create a cohesive and balanced composition. Consider the time of year and setting of your subject and how its various potential backgrounds may influence these composition choices.

6. Shoot in RAW: Shooting in RAW allows for more flexibility in post-processing, enabling you to adjust and enhance colours without sacrificing image quality.

7. Utilise natural phenomena where you can: the warm, soft light during sunrise or sunset can enhance the richness and saturation of colours, creating a magical atmosphere. You may get opportunities for more muted tones during a storm/the grey weather of winter.

how to use colour in wildlife photography

8. Use a polarising filter: A polarising filter can reduce glare and enhance colours, especially in scenes with water, sky, or foliage.

9. Expose correctly: Proper exposure is crucial in capturing accurate and vibrant colours. Use the histogram and exposure compensation to ensure that colours are well-balanced and not over or underexposed.

10. Increase saturation and vibrancy in post-processing: Raw images can often look a little flat. Carefully increasing the saturation and vibrancy of colours can make them pop, but be careful not to overdo it to maintain a natural and realistic appearance.

In conclusion

Colour is a powerful tool in wildlife photography that can help capture attention, evoke emotions, and tell compelling stories. Understanding the importance of colour, the psychology behind it, and how to effectively use it in your images will help to take your wildlife photography to the next level.

Remember to experiment with different colour palettes, from vibrant and bold to monochromatic and muted. Consider the emotional impact that you would like to convey and the story you want to tell, and use colour to reinforce and enhance those elements.

Don’t be afraid to use your camera’s white balance settings creatively to help realize your vision and to explore post-processing techniques to enhance the colours in your images.

Ultimately, the use of colour in your wildlife photography will help you to not only capture beautiful and captivating images but also to communicate the emotions and mood behind your images.

So head out, embrace the vibrant hues and subtle shades of nature, and let colour tell its own story.

Visit Ben's website

Ben Hall is one of the UK’s leading wildlife photographers with many international awards to his name. His images are widely published throughout the world, he has has co-authored two books and runs wildlife photography workshops in the UK and overseas.

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