How to Judge Color

by Tony Hallas

The art of judging color is a subtle one ... I am not referring to whether or not an image should be "warm" or cool" ... but to the perfect point in an image where the colors are all in balance with each other. This happy condition creates what is known as "push-pull" in photolab speak ... a neutral point where no one color takes a majority voice in the image ... where the values of one color are enhanced by the opposite to make the image look more "colorful". The "push-pull" is created by the colors working against each other ... the key to making an image look full of colors, not just uni-colored.


The human eye is very deceptive ... it tries to adjust to just about anything ... so to evaluate an image it is important to do something we have done all our lives ... we need to make a comparison! Even seasoned lab technicians can go "color blind" after making too many corrections ... so to be accurate they compare to a known constant ... a gray scale with color patches included. Ideally you would have a neutral gray with a pure red, green, blue on one side for your additive colors, and a cyan, magenta, yellow set of patches for your subtractive colors on the other side. Things like this are usually available from photo stores.

Take your image that you are color correcting and ask yourself if the OVERALL tone of your image matches any of the color patches? It is even possible that you might have two of the colors present ... say a "cyan-blue" caste ... in which case you would want to add red and yellow (orange) to bring the image into the "neutral zone". Keep adjusting the color until you can no longer find any one color in the entire image that matches your sample chart.

At this point you have reached a true "neutral" ... and it is here that your colors will have their brightest moment!

As a footnote ... understand that unless you are a seasoned pro and have done literally thousands of corrections over many years, you will not have the objective colors burned into your brain. Even a pro needs to have the chart to stay on track ... what is vital to this process is that you compare your artwork to a known constant. You do not need to memorize what is a pure red, green, blue, cyan, magenta, yellow ... you have it there in front of you.

When you use this comparative process to judge color the spurious caste in your photo will stick out like a sore thumb.

In the three samples ... note that in the "blue" image there is a blue caste covering the entire image, and in the "yellow" image there is yellow everywhere. When this happens it "poisons" the other colors. In the "neutral" image we have no one color taking dominance and we have achieved the maximum "push-pull" to the colors. Now you have the most "color" in your image.

It is possible to add a "bias" to the image once you have achieved neutrality ... perhaps you want a "warmer" or "cooler" effect. But always reach neutral first is the only way you will know what you have to work with.

Wishing you a colorful future...

image with blue color caste
Blue Color Caste

image with yellow color caste
Yellow Color Caste

neutral or no color castes

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