A little color goes a long way

by Nick Kelsh

posted Saturday, March 21, 2015 at 2:11 PM EST

Three red hats, a red skirt, a red sweater, and some unusual 1940’s underwear all add up to National Geographic gold. Legend has it that back in the old days, Geographic photographers traveled with red clothing just in case they got into a bind. Whether it’s true or not, it’s makes a good story and my point.

Santa Claus wears red. Superman wears red. (Then again, so does Satan and so do Ladies in Red—sorry, bad examples.) But in case, red things are difficult to ignore; there’s a reason the Red Cross isn’t the Beige Cross.

When I was young, an old National Geographic photographer told me that back in the old days, Geographic photographers carried a red sweater with them in case they got into a situation when a human being in the distance wasn’t popping out of the background. No problem; break out the red sweater.

I’m sure you’ve seen an old photograph of an attractive young woman standing on the edge of a cliff pointing at something.What was she pointing at? Who did she think was watching? It didn’t matter. (This may be more than you want to know, but Kodachrome was the film of choice back then, and Kodachrome loved red. Red was gorgeous on Kodachrome.)

So the color red and photography have have a long and historical relationship. It’s certainly worth your while to analyze just how beneficial having a point of something colorful in a photograph can be. And it doesn’t need to be red; any bright color will do.

Superman’s cape may be bullet proof, but it’s also red, and that may help explain why there are so many outstanding photographs of him. A subject wearing bright clothing gives the viewer’s eyes a place to go, adding impact to any photograph.

There’s a power struggle that’s happens in first few seconds when a viewer meets a photograph. Everything in the picture is competing for air time; everything wants to be looked at. It’s your job as a photographer to guide the viewer’s eyes. You need to lend a helping hand and reduce the frustration. One way you can do that is to move their eyes to what you want them to see with the use of color.

Am I suggesting you go to Target and fill your camera bag with cheap, red clothing for any and every situation? Absolutely not!

But the next time you’re going for a photo walk in the woods with the kids and you have the option of dressing them in the dark brown coat or the bright yellow coat, go with the yellow. You can thank me later.

(An exceptional educator and a world-class photographer, Nick Kelsh is the founder of How To Photograph Your Life, an excellent source of affordable photography training and tips. Nick's courses can be conducted by yourself in your own time, or with feedback from Nick and your fellow students. If you appreciated this article and want to improve your photography, visit How to Photograph your Life and sign up for a course today!)