Ok, so I’m going to get some bad feedback for this post, but please, bear with me. I only thought to write this post when I found that it’s a bigger problem than I thought, after posting my 10 commandments of photography, one of which was ‘thou shalt never use spot color’, and I got a lot of feedback that people liked using it. Hopefully this post should help to clear up why you shouldn’t use it. Basically ever.
Here is my belief system when it comes to any artform that requires interpretation: If you have to explain it, it doesn’t work. I could tell you my favourite joke, but if I have to explain the punchline for you, then it’s not funny. You could take what you deem to be a good photo, but if you have to use spot color to draw the readers attention where you want it, then it’s clearly not doing the job it’s supposed to.
The main thing that spot color does in photography is to draw your attention towards certain parts of a photo, without asking the question, why? It’s a simple question, which is all too often ignored. What makes that part of the photo so important.
How many of you have seen spot color used in something like prom photos? I know I have. It’s usually on something stupid like a flower, or a handkerchief. This draws us towards the handkerchief, but raises a very important question at the same time, what’s so important about the handkerchief? Nothing, that’s what. It was just a nice bit of color in the photo, that the photographer thought would stand out nicely. The problem is though, it’s drawing us away from the important part of the photo, which is the subject’s themselves.
Ok, so we have two problems so far, by using spot color, we’re explaining where the viewer should be looking, and then we’re often sending them in the wrong direction. Just one of these problems is bad enough, but what else is wrong with spot color? Well, this takes me back to my original point; you’re explaining the photo. Either to a person who doesn’t understand it enough to get it, or because you’re worried that people won’t get the photo, because it’s not a very good point. I’ll get to all of this in the next section.
Finally, part of the reason that people do it is because they think it just looks nice. I do not, but I’m not here to argue about personal taste. All I suggest is that you look at the work of the photographers you admire the most, and see how much they use it.
Spot Color in Use
Here’s a photo that I took the other day, where I’ve used a little photoshop to hide the camera, you can check out the article here. There is no use of spot color, because this works well as a photo. You look exactly where I want you to look. Firstly by looking at the face (eyes contain a large amount of visual weight), and then the hands, and then at the arms, working your way in and our of the photos down the diagonal lines.
Now lets start playing with spot color. Lets say for some reason that you want to focus the attention on the face, it might make sene to spot color the face and have everything else black and white. I see no justification for this photo to be in black and white, but alas, lets do it anyway. Doesn’t it look pretty #sarcasm?
You’re basically telling the viewer that you want them to look at the face. The problem is that they were already going to look at the face, now you’re telling them not to look anywhere else as much. I could do it for anything in the photo, the picture frames perhaps? (ps. points for noticing my grandma swearing at the camera in one of the photos). The point is that a lot of time this is used, it sends people looking in the wrong direction.
I’ve seen some bad spot color in my time, thanks to sites like YANAP, but lets not get too carried away. A much more reasonable use of spot color that you would see with a photo like this would be to have one side of the mirror color, and the other side black and white, like in the photo below. But what is this telling us? Have a look and then scroll down for my thoughts below.
I can imagine a photo like this having a caption not too dissimilar to ‘reaching into the past’. That’s the gist of the feel of the photo with the black and white. But think about it, what do you think when it’s in color? What if I were to change my facial expression to express a certain emotion, such as regret? Would you not feel the same without the use of spot color? Is spot color necessary? Or is it just an excuse to make something out of nothing, in post?
Lets say you’re worried about someone seeing a poing you’re trying to make, so you want to make it clearer. Take my photo below for example, there’s a pretty clear juxtaposition going on. It’s actually two men sitting in the heat in Croatia, putting crimpers on wristbands for a festival, while watching ‘The Wire’, but that’s not what it looks like. It’s two potentially naked men sitting under a giant heart to most viewers.
Theres a chance that you may not see the juxtaposition in your own photos right away, so to make it obvious for readers, you slap on a bit of spot color to really make it stand out. The photo has gone from subtle and understated, to downright obvious. By explaining how the photo works, it no longer works, as all the charm is removed from the photo.
Whether you’re using spot color for ‘artistic’ purposes, or to help direct your viewers, you always have to ask yourself why?
Lets talk about artistic purposes for a bit. I get that some people don’t use it because they want to help direct the viewer’s attention, but rather because they think it looks nice. I’m not going to argue about personal taste, but I will talk about the side effects. By using spot color, you’re not only changing the color of the photo, but you’re directing the viewer without even realising it (most of the time), and usually without reason.
Perhaps you’re familiar with how you’re directing the viewer, and you like the spot color, and you like how it makes the photo stand out. I’m not going to tell you that you should never do it, because my opinion isn’t more important than yours, but I feel that it’s important that you understand composition first, by researching eye-lines, balance, visual weight, single point (very important for spot color users), and depth. If after all of that, you think that spot color is still necessary, then I have nothing else to say to you. Use it and enjoy it.
Now, I’m aware, that I’m probably upsetting a lot of photographers who have read this post, and likely not made it this far before commenting. If you do have something to say, positive or negative, I want to make sure you’ve read the whole thing first. If you leave a comment here, or on the fan page, include the word beer in the comment, so I know whether to take you seriously or not.