Make It POP: 5 Tips for Finding and Using Dramatic Color in Your Photos

Color Boost: I carry a Singh-Ray Gold-N-Blue polarizer for instances where the colors are okay, but I want to make them a little punchier. It was near sunset on Juno Beach, Florida, and a storm was coming, and one of the things I love to do is convey a sense of motion with colors. The filter helped me slow down the shutter speed to 0.6 seconds to convey motion, and it accentuated the gold and blue tones to add more color and drama to the image. All photos © Deborah Sandidge

(Editor's Note: You can read "On the Road" columnist Deborah Sandidge's other columns here.)

Color is everywhere, so why would I be writing about finding and using it in photos? Why would this even be a concern?

I feel that for me to be most effective as a storyteller, I want to identify the best color at the best time and use it to best advantage—even optimizing it with filters to give it increased prominence in the picture when conditions demand that. Simply said, color in a photograph can be more effective when rich and more dramatic. I use various tools, techniques, and methods to allow color to help tell a more dramatic story.

Here's how it breaks down.

1. Start with “And”
Sometimes the picture is all about color, but more likely it's about color and. And what? And whatever works, whatever makes the photo better or different from the usual and the familiar. Maybe it's the lens I chose. Maybe there's a sunburst in the image. Maybe it's the framing of the photo, or a filter I used. Maybe something subtle in post processing. This is what most often goes through my mind: Okay, this is great, the colors are what can I do to make it special or unique? What can I add? What's the and?

Creative Lens: I stumbled on this tourist area in Quebec City, Canada, at night and came back, deliberately at mid-day, so I could get a sunburst in the picture. I knew I'd use my 8-15mm fisheye zoom at 15mm to get the buildings, the sky, and the colorful umbrellas edge-to-edge in the frame.

2. At the Right Time
The best light of day for dramatic color is often the blue hour—the time before sunset and sunrise. I think of blue hours as the hero times of the day when colors are going to be their richest. If I have great subjects, those are the times of day I prefer to shoot them, and that means being there at the right time to capture the color and the drama. It's just not going to be the same story at two o'clock in the afternoon, so I go at the most opportune times to allow nature to give me its best, therefore providing me the best photographic opportunities.

Think It Through: The colors of these lorikeets at the Brevard Zoo in Florida were great, but I wanted the background soft so they would pop even more. My 70-300mm zoom was at 300mm, which gave me f/5.6, and with the birds about a foot from the background greenery and me at the minimum focusing distance of the lens—about five feet—I got the softness I needed.

3. In the Right Place
There's a place along the Embarcadero in San Francisco that I return to again and again. I stay at the same hotel every time because I literally know how to get to my favorite spot in the dark. It takes me only five minutes to walk there, and then I wait for sunrise, often arriving at least 45 minutes before. I hope for expressive clouds to catch the light, but I never know what colors and effects I'm going to get. But I show up every single time because I won't get anything if I don't. Sometimes I'm rewarded with a dramatic, one-of-a kind sunrise. I can get my sleep later.

Set the Scene: An "and" situation on Marshall Beach, San Francisco, just after sunset. It would have been a nice shot—there was a lot of color and nice reflections on the water—but it needed that one extra element, so I asked my friend to step into the frame. A human element—and a stark, black graphic—made it so much better.

4. With the Right Tools
Mirrorless cameras mean I can travel lighter and still bring all the tools I need to get the best from favorite places and give myself multiple creative options. Whether I've visited a location many times or I'm going to explore for the first time, I take two camera bodies (at least), a wide range of lenses, a sturdy tripod, a cable release, filters—pretty much everything I need to capture color in the kinds of pictures I love to take—long exposures to depict, as best a photo can, the passage of time; the interaction of sea and shore; and the travel of clouds across the sky.

Steps Up: Every time I go to Chinatown in San Francisco I try to discover a new alley, and there are so many to discover. This one was sort of an unknown Instagram alley—there were so many people doing selfies and posed shots that I had to stand in line to get the picture. I wanted to go as wide as I could, so I reached again for the 8-15mm fisheye and later cropped the photo square. The colors make it work and prove that if you paint it, they will come.

5. When All Else Fails...Think
Sometimes I'm at the mercy of what's around me—and none of it is giving me the color impact I want. That's where gear options will help—lens choice, a filter, perhaps the old compositional standby of filling the frame with color by zooming the lens or simply moving to better frame an image to eliminate distractions. And I'm going to boost the ISO to allow me to shoot wide open, so the background goes soft and doesn't pull any attention from the colors the subject is giving me. If color is limited to a small spot that might be overwhelmed in the frame, I'm going to compose to keep that from happening. Or, say it's a foggy morning—then I'll make a picture that's all about the color of a mood. Or I'll adjust the camera's white balance to affect the color in a scene. I look for good color in all my shots, but when it's not happening I'll use a tool or a technique to get a colorful picture that otherwise would not have been possible.

Before Sunrise: I come here every time I'm in San Francisco. This was still the blue hour, working its way toward dawn and sunrise. The colors range from subtle to bold, but they all add to the drama of the photo.

Deborah Sandidge's website,, features a collection of her photographs, cinemagraphs, and time-lapse videos as well as photo tips and a schedule of upcoming workshops, photo tours, and seminars.