Shocking Colors =Maximum Drama: Surprising Combinations Can Dazzle The Eye

Photographing subjects with outrageous combinations of colors is a lot of fun. As great as complementary colors are, and as pleasing as subtlety and mood are, there’s nothing quite like color combinations that virtually knock your eyeballs out of their sockets! Combinations like orange and lime green, deep purple and red, and orange and magenta are extremely potent in drawing attention. Sometimes these juxtapositions of color are found in nature (surprisingly enough) but often they can only be found in man-made objects. One of the reasons I love photographing festivals is because the costuming is frequently shocking and outlandish.

The image that comes to my mind first when I think about the places I’ve photographed was (#1) taken on Burano Island near Venice, Italy during Carnival, and of all the amazing colors I saw, none of them was as wild or visually arresting as this. A few blocks from where I took this picture, I found a house that was painted in amazing colors and I posed another costumed model in front of the door (#2). I had direct sunlight at about 11 o’clock in the morning, which I didn’t like, but the colors and graphic design made this picture dynamic. If you love color, fashion, masks, and medieval architecture, once in your life you have to visit Venice during Carnival.

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All Photos © 2010, Jim Zuckerman, All Rights Reserved

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The hotel in which I stay (with the photo tour I lead there every year) has red patterned fabric on the walls, and I used this to photograph my wife in a costume she made for the occasion (#3). I used the incredible combination of magenta, cobalt blue, and red with a black mask to make a color statement. This was taken with on-camera flash because I didn’t want shadows from side lighting or three-quarter lighting interfering or competing with the color.

Yellow and purple juxtaposed together are always crowd pleasers, so to speak. I found a beautiful flower that caught my eye (#4), and it not only had great color but the radiating design of the petals made a strong graphic design. Notice that it’s not necessary to have direct sunlight on a flower to have the colors pop. I feel that the richest and most saturated color—any color—comes from overcast lighting conditions rather than direct sunlight. This goes against what many people believe, but it’s true. Notice also how much depth of field I have. The center of the flower is tack sharp and so is the periphery of the image.

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The mannequin I photographed in Istanbul (#5) also shows the same striking purple and yellow color combination. I used Photoshop to darken the background because it was somewhat distracting. Even though you take pictures of brilliant color combinations, a distracting background will still pull attention away from the colorful subject. You can never go wrong with dark backgrounds behind lighter subjects.

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I found another great color combination in the Colony Hotel in Delray Beach, Florida (#6). This was completely unexpected, but when I checked into my room I was amazed by the juxtapositions of royal blue, lime green, cyan, and pink! How could a photographer not want to shoot this? I used a wide angle lens and a tripod, and that did two things for me: First, it elongated the corridor to make it look more graphic, and second, complete depth of field was guaranteed. In this kind of low light situation, it’s so easy to be lazy and not use a tripod. Many photographers would just bump up the ISO and hand hold this picture, but I wanted it to be perfect in every way, and that includes having a minimum of digital noise. Therefore, I used ISO 100 and f/22 so the chair in the foreground and the distant port of the hallway were both sharp. In the same hotel, the men’s room in the lobby had my favorite outrageous color combination—orange and green (#7). I got strange looks from other male hotel patrons as I photographed this, but I thought it was pretty unique so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

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If you don’t know where to find shocking color combinations near your home, you can always shoot candy. This is a fun project for a rainy day. Macro shots of candy can keep you enthralled for a long time. The colors and shapes are amazing. Try using natural light as I did in (#8) where I placed the foil-wrapped chocolates next to a large window and/or use off-camera flash to create a sense of depth, dimension, and pronounced texture as in (#9).

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In nature, some of the most brilliant colors can be found in small and intriguing—and poisonous—creatures. I conduct a poison dart frog and reptile workshop twice a year in St. Louis, and one of the great allures to shooting these creatures is their incredible color. The frogs are not poisonous in captivity (due to a change in diet), and I set up several shooting stations with natural backgrounds including bright flowers. The shocking contrast of the frogs against the flowers is amazing, such as blue and magenta (#10) and yellow and pink (#11). A new workshop I’ll be leading in Costa Rica features shooting some exotic local snakes including the beautiful eyelash viper that I set up against a red flower (#12). The black background here made the colors really pop. The focus of the workshop is hummingbirds because they, also, have great colors.

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One of the most dazzling displays of color I’ve ever seen is in Keukenhof Gardens in Holland. At the end of April, tulips are in full bloom and the photography is dazzling. Every color combination you can think of is here (#13). In addition, the flowers are planted beautifully (#14) as if an artist had painted the scene complete with S-curves, repeating patterns, and stunning graphic designs. There are other gardens in the US and Canada as well that have impressive displays of color, such as Cheekwood in Nashville, Tennessee and Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia.

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A technique that I like to use when photographing bold color combinations is to use slow shutter speeds to blur the images. The colors become abstracted, and the results are often stunning. I usually move the camera as well as shooting moving subjects, and that way I get the combined movement. The photos that result are always unique and unpredictable. For example, in Papua New Guinea I photographed Huli tribal dancers (#15) with a 1⁄2 second exposure while I moved the camera up and down. It’s impossible to pre visualize this exactly, of course. The closest that you can come is to have an idea of what will happen, but you won’t be able to see this in your mind’s eye as you see it on your monitor afterwards. In India (#16), I captured a Sikh horseman in action, and I panned the camera using a 1⁄4 second exposure. When I photographed a Christmas parade in Puerto Rico, (#17) I experimented with various shutter speeds until I decided that 1⁄2 second was perfect for creating a total abstraction of the colorful costumes the dancers were wearing.

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