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True Colors?

Color grading basics for social media.

So you’ve just taken an amazing photo and are about to post it to Instagram when you’re confronted with a dizzying array of options: Hefe, Valencia, Hudson, Amaro, Ludwig…no these are not male protagonists from a Mills & Boon novel, they’re photo filters that change the color, quality and overall mood of your image.

But Instagram doesn’t stop with filters; you can also adjust saturation, brightness, color and temperature levels.

Not long ago, color grading was something that only concerned a rarified class of professional filmmakers and photographers. These days, however, technology and the ubiquity of digital photos and video has made color grading accessible to anyone with a smartphone. So if you’re sharing photos or video on your social platforms (which you should be) how does the color grade of an image affect how your audience perceives it and – by extension – your brand?

Using examples from film, I’m going to highlight three very basic tenets about color psychology that can help inform your decisions when you’re stuck between Rise and Mayfair or are putting the final touches on a photo or video.

Temperature

Increasing the temperature of an image means accentuating its warm colors – reds, yellows, oranges and browns – which makes objects in an image seem heavier, denser and closer to the viewer.

This can be used to great effect if you’re trying to make a composition feel cozier or to make subjects in an image seem closer to the viewer – both physically and emotionally.

This illusion of intimacy is a great tool to use when you want your image to feel relatable or trustworthy.

Justin Simeon’s 2014 film Dear White People uses a subtle brown/sepia temperature throughout. Simeon wants his film’s subjects to be empathetic and relatable so by using a warm color grade he closes the distance between his characters and the audience that much more.

Dear White People (2014)

Dear White People (2014)

The proximity invoked by warm images need not be positive. As the name implies, warm colors’ most powerful associations are with physical temperature. They can convey the desiccating heat of a desert or, as with the warm orange tint used in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, an oppressive mugginess where everything and everyone feels too close.

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Do the Right Thing (1989)

On the flip side, cool colors – namely blues, greens and purples – can make a photo feel lighter or airier. Cool colors add distance between an image and its audience with cool colored subjects appearing to receded away from the viewer.

Cool colors are great at conveying, well, coolness. If you want a subject to seem more impressive or intriguing, cooling down the temperature can put it on a psychological pedestal. Although cool images do not not lend themselves as readily to instinctual emotional connection, the disassociativeness of cool temperatures allows, perhaps, a more intellectualized cerebral connection to a composition.

David Fincher’s use of cool blues in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo forces viewers to watch the film’s subjects with a more objective, dispassionate gaze which can help build a sense of awe and mystery. In the following image Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth Salander is cast in cool blues – she seems distant and alien, which adds to our curiosity about her.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

So in short – warm up your images if you want your audience to trust, connect emotionally or relate to it. Cool down your image if you want your audience to admire, connect intellectually or aspire to it.

Saturation

Lady Murasaki Shikibu wrote, in the Tale of Genji, that ‘beauty without color seems somehow to belong to another world.’ This very sentiment is easy to see in images that are desaturated or drained of color.

If you want to make a composition feel rarified or removed from the everyday, drain the color from it. This is why black and white photos seem at once timeless and austere. With the viewer not needing to expel mental energy on interpreting color, more focus is spent on an image’s overall form and composition – the viewer becomes very aware that they are an observer, wholly separate from the black and white world they are viewing.

Once a technological necessity, creating images in black and white is now a matter of choice. Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha is a recent film produced in black and white; a creative choice that underscores the timelessness of his narrative while imbuing an almost fairytale-like otherness to contemporary New York.

Frances Ha (2012)

Frances Ha (2012)

Conversely, saturating an image makes colors appear more vivid.

Highly saturated images also “seem somehow to belong to another world,” but rather than the colorless, haunting world of desaturated imagery, highly saturated images are reminiscent of fantasy, childhood and the imagination – I’m thinking Wonderland, Fantasia and Milton’s Paradise Lost. This is because saturation imbues a sort of hyper-real quality to colors. By making a color more pure and less complicated to comprehend, it looks simpler in the same way young children might comprehend colors without overthinking them. Highly saturated imagery seem as if they could be a formed by the imagination of the viewer themselves.

Alma Har’el’s 2011 documentary Bombay Beach takes a look at an eccentric community on California’s Salton Sea. By saturating her film, Har’el is able to underscore a sense of childlike wonder as she documents this bizarre, fantastical environment:

Bombay Beach (2011)

Bombay Beach (2011)

In sum, desaturating can make an image seem more mature, timeless or elegant; use it if you want your viewer to be reminded that they are an observor. Saturation lends a more childlike, whimsical or innocent quality; use it when you want the viewer to question the lines between their own imagination and what is depicted in the image.

Hue

When modifying the overall hue of an image, there are no set rules and limitless combinations. How can you identify the overall hue of an image? Find something in the composition that should be completely white. If it’s off-white – say more red, or blue than pure white – there’s a good chance that the overall hue of an image has been modified.

When applying hues, there are no real rules apart from seeing what works for a particular image and thinking both laterally and symbolically.

Color symbology is a culturally constructed with myriad interpretations. For example, red symbolizes good fortune and joy in China, whereas in the West it is more readily associated with anger or violence.

Think metaphorically and using a hue can help add deeper narrative to what you’re trying to say in an image. For example, green can represent technology,

The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix (1999)

noxious gasses,

The Virgin Suicides (1999)

The Virgin Suicides (1999)

or growth.

A Little Princess (1995)

A Little Princess (1995)

While pink can add a soft, pastel-like quality

Marie Antoinette (2006)

Marie Antoinette (2006)

or a vaguely medicinal, pepto-bismal-y aura.

Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005)

Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005)

In the end there is no ‘correct’ way to color grade. But understanding some of these underlying concepts might help you better elicit the intended emotional response from your audience. If nothing else, knowing these basic rules will allow you to be better at breaking them! 😛

So have fun, take risks and see what works with your audience.

Christian Herrmann

About Christian Herrmann

Adopted into the Ram family after years of social anthropology and documentary-making in England. Vine obsessed. Connoisseur of awkward Youtube videos. Greatest accomplishment so far: made a rap video that hit the front page of Reddit.