Getting More For Less

By Geoff Harris

Using a Limited Colour Palette


In any photograph that we take, we make a decision about what to include in and what to exclude from our image.  There are many different factors that will affect our choice, but one which is always important to me is about colour.

Will I include lots of different colours in my photograph, or just a couple of shades?  As with many other choices, there is no one answer which will be right in every situation.

Using a large colour palette, that is, including a lot of different colours in your image, can lead to a dynamic and visually exciting photo.

However, it can also lead to visual confusion if you’re not careful – the viewer’s eye gets pulled by so many different, competing colours that it doesn’t know where to rest in the image.

For this reason, using just two or three carefully chosen shades can sometimes result in a visually more sophisticated photograph.

The colours that you choose can be either harmonising or contrasting.  Two or three harmonising colours will make for a gentle, restful image, while using a couple of contrasting shades will produce a photo with more impact.

This photo of chamomile flowers contains only yellow and white with a touch of green.  The simplicity of the limited colour palette leads to a gentle image, and the freshness associated with these light colours is enhanced by the tiny water droplets.

greek roofline

You can become even more minimalist in your colour palette by using different tones of only one colour.  This photo of part of the roofline of a building in Greece actually contains only white, although the areas that have fallen into shadow have taken on a blue-grey tinge.

(The blueness is caused by the cold colour temperature of the light in shadowed areas on a sunny day – see my blog on 11 May).

When you set a subject against a background of the same colour, sometimes the only way to make the subject stand out is to use differential focusing, i.e. to adjust your aperture so that the subject is sharp and its same-coloured background goes out of focus.

Personally I love limited colour palettes, and always look out for the possibility of a photograph which might use just two or three shades.  It can be fun to try – if you haven’t done it before, maybe look for some suitable subjects this weekend and send the results in to our monthly competition!

If you would like to learn more about composition consider taking Phil Malpas’s course on Finding the Picture

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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