Musings on: are desaturated images more expressive than mono or ‘full colour’?
I was thinking of entitling this article:
“is the preference some people have for muted, desaturated or ‘dull’ colours a deliberate overlay of what we consider to be ‘refined taste’ on our natural liking for exuberant, saturated, vibrant colour?”
That seemed a little long for a title, but it’s essentially what this posting is about. Put another way: do we – some of us – find less saturated colour more appealing because it’s ‘more artistic’ than vivid colours? If so, then is this preference, to put it slightly pejoratively, an attempt to be terribly clever, civilised and sophisticated by suppressing our instinctual attraction to the more lurid end of the saturation scale?
To start with, I probably ought to declare which side of the fence I’m on here. I like desaturated colour. In fact, I like black and white images, I just haven’t managed to get the hang of creating them as yet; and I don’t prefer them over colour. Having said that, I also like some images which have plenty of colour, though those tend to be abstracts rather than representative landscapes. Certainly, what I like to make is on the more muted end of the scale. So this is in part a musing on whether I’m being pretentious in that … I think not, and I’ll explain why, but I’m clearly biased ;-)
I should also mention that this is effectively part two of my previous article on whether there is such a thing as ‘over-saturation’. I concluded in that piece that, provided the photographer isn’t misrepresenting what they’ve made – claiming that their images faithfully reproduce reality when they don’t – the degree of saturation is purely a matter of taste and artistic intent. That, then, is the starting premise for this musing. (Incidentally, the idea that two-dimensional images can ever ‘faithfully represent’ reality is decidedly suspect, but that’s probably a subject for another musing!)
We are instinctively attracted by saturated colour
Perhaps a worthwhile perspective is to explore just why it is that people are drawn to bright colours. Yes, there is always the argument that photo-processing software allows us to intensify colours, so we do, and such manipulation undeniably produces arresting images when seen in thumbnail galleries; but why do people notice bright colours in the first place? Maybe it’s just how we are? And if it is, then perhaps the fashion for admiring muted colouration really is a subconscious, or even deliberate, statement that we have overcome our natural state of gasping and saying “wow” when we see something bright and shiny?
I think it’s undeniable that we are naturally attracted to the bright and saturated in our world. That could be down to any number of things, so here are a few ideas, extensively backed up by no scientific knowledge whatsoever on my part. I’m merely speculating on how pre-civilisation humans might have benefited by having their attention drawn to objects or phenomena exhibiting saturated colours.
- Orange and red tend to indicate heat, which in turn implies danger. It’s in our interests to notice and examine the source of such colours. Conversely, heat is remarkably useful to survival so, either way, spotting things with ‘hot’ colours would be a helpful trait. The more saturated they are, the more heat: again, potentially a very good thing to notice.
- Fruit and berries are often brightly coloured and they generally constitute food. Without a convenient shop to go foraging in, I’m sure it would be beneficial to be visually drawn to pick out such things.
- Similarly, bright, verdant green – the brighter the better – also tends to indicate food nearby, as well as that vital resource, water. With water being so fundamental to survival, finding bright greens with splashes of other colours would generally indicate access to food, warmth, water, continued health and all those things which make us comfortable.
- In contrast to all of the above, grey, desaturated and drab colours suggest cold. Humans aren’t really fond of the cold in general, so we’re inclined to disfavour anything which looks uncomfortable.
If any or all of the above are true, then we in the 21st century have developed from people who were quite rightly inclined to seek out colour, either to enjoy what it promised or to recognise it as danger. Either way, it would be both eye-catching and attractive, in the literal sense of making us want to go and look more closely. If so, it’s perfectly understandable that we should continue to behave in the same way when presented with images of the World around us.
I’ll make the rash assumption that the above is true …
Given that saturated colour is instinctively attractive to us, it follows that, as we strive (or profess?!) to become more sophisticated, perhaps actively rejecting these historical preferences really is an attempt to overcome instinctual behaviour and to demonstrate our high level of education by preferring things which we would not naturally like over those which we should be drawn to? I’m not necessarily saying that it’s a conscious effort; it could easily be unconscious, a rebellion against succumbing to instinct.
If that’s the case then I’m certainly guilty! As my work reflects, I very much like desaturated images, though not to the exclusion of colour when it’s appropriate. I don’t think rejection of instinct is entirely ‘it’ though; for me there’s more to it than that: I have a vision of what I’m drawn to most, and hence what I like to create, and it simply isn’t primarily about colour. Indeed, colour can detract often from that vision, so my inclination is to remove it rather than add more.
But then, what about black and white, or mono?
Monochrome images abstract wildly from reality, whether they’re of landscapes or anything else. We don’t see in mono, so any image consisting solely of tonality is categorically unnatural and simplified. To me, these features mean that the compositional aspects of the image are both more apparent and more important when mono is employed. Without colour, we’re left with tonality used to express patterns, textures and shapes. That, in my opinion, is a good thing – it’s less ‘obvious’.
A recent, non-photography experience of the near-removal of colour convinced me of this even more. I was watching Danza Contemporanea de Cuba in Newcastle a couple of weeks ago. As with most contemporary dance, there were colours involved in the clothing for two of the three pieces, but the last, accompanied by Steve Reich’s repetitive, purely percussion piece ‘Drumming’, was in near black and white. I was very aware of how the lack of colour and the simplicity of the instrumentation, gave added prominence to the patterns of movement and shapes formed by the choreography. The other two pieces that evening benefited from the colours used; this one benefited from the lack of colour. I think this has a direct parallel in desaturated photographs.
Even that isn’t entirely ‘it’ though; if it was, I’m sure I’d have taught myself how to pre-visualise and post-process in black and white by now!
Desaturated colour offers the best of both worlds
I have concluded that I actually prefer to use the slightly desaturated look over either mono or colour: it can be more expressive since it retains the ability to use the colour dimension of the capture, yet also makes shapes, tonality and composition relatively more important than they would be in a ‘full colour’ image. I don’t want colour to be the dominant feature of images, but nor do I want to use purely tonality. For me, desaturating colours slightly, but not to the point of monochrome, offers the best of both worlds: it avoids an image shouting “look at me, I’m colourful” and allows the otherwise more subtle compositional aspects to feature more strongly in the viewer’s emotional reaction to the photograph. I’ll summarise this as:
over-saturation tends to dominate an image, whilst removing colour completely loses a major dimension of many images; desaturating colour can balance all the dimensions better and give a greater emotional impact, or at least more freedom of expression in attempting to create that impact.
This has been an interesting subject to think about and I’ve definitely clarified and changed my views somewhat. I conclude that what matters to me in choosing how to manipulate saturation in my images is achieving some kind of balance which conveys to the viewer the emotional response I had to the scene I captured. Generally, removing some of the colour gives prominence to the things which matter more to me, without abstracting too far from reality by going all the way to mono.
Of course, any given image may ‘balance’ better with either lots of colour or no colour; it just seems to me that slightly reduced colour most frequently provides the best balance in the images I want to create. Ultimately, for any photographer, any manipulation of saturation is purely personal, artistic vision. What matters is why it’s done, what the final effect is, and whether what has been done adds to the artistic statement the photographer was trying to make.
I’d be very interested to hear your views on the above, so please comment if you have anything to add or want to agree or disagree!
22 Responses to “Musings on: are desaturated images more expressive than mono or ‘full colour’?”
A very interesting and thought provoking piece, Mike! I saw some of my images on a different monitor, a few days ago and was horrified by the apparent oversaturation! My shots looked garish and started me thinking about doing less post production! You’ve also left me itching to try some Black and White shots! With kind regards, Dave Cappleman.
Thank you, Dave. I started a couple of years ago now, and my monitor was originally not calibrated; I had exactly the same shock one day when seeing some of my photographs on a different (also uncalibrated) monitor. Since then, I’m reasonably careful with my monitor’s calibration, but there’s still nothing we can do about what people view things on. A good argument for printing things of course! I’m sure I’ll do some black and white eventually… but it seems to me it’s difficult to do it well – I have great respect for those who can.
Interesting point about less post-production though. I suspect it takes me longer to get the degree of colour just right (for me!) than it would to pump it up nice and bright!
There is a reason why workmen wear standout colours – noticeability. It’s probably the same reason people ramp up saturation – noticeability!
I’m making images nearly always in mono now after I find myself desaturating so many of my Velvia images and preferring the result :-) What’s interesting is that I have just walked around Tate Modern and I was drawm to a Kandinsky painting. The info next to it states that: “Kandinsky felt that colour in particular was essential for liberating art from naturalistic appearances.”
This suggests that mono/desaturated work is more naturalistic – fine by me!
Thanks for the thoughts, Nigel. Yep – totally agree; I thought it interesting to ponder on why that might be though. Any anthropologists out there who’d care to shoot down my speculations are of course welcome too ;-)
I started off processing everything into vaguely looking like Velvia; I’m now into more of a Portra 160NC stage (I use DxO Optics Pro and the ‘film look’ package for post-processing). I still do use ‘Velvia look’ occasionally though – really depends on the subject matter.
Your mention of Kandinksy is very apposite! My original, over-long draft of what became these two articles on saturation used Kandinksy’s paintings to illustrate just that point (though I wasn’t aware of his comment – so thanks for that). I would argue, however, that rather than strong, saturated colour alone being the means of liberating art from naturalism, it’s more ‘move away from the real colour, in either direction’. In that sense, black and white is also unnatural, and so much so that there is no overlay – on the part of the viewer – of thinking of it as natural in any way. i.e. really saturated, or mono, both state clearly that ‘this is art, not representation’. That said, I’m also drawn to his paintings in galleries; it shows that brightness ‘works’ to both denaturalise and to draw attention, whereas mono solely does the former. It’s a very interesting area!
Interesting. I’m stuck in the middle between colour and mono and have been for a wee while. I’d like to leave the word pretentious out if I can. For me, its simply about what suits the image best in my minds eye. My brightest images tend to be my long exposures, which have already left realism far behind. Perhaps we don’t look at these images as closely but just see it as a whole. That makes me wonder if subconsciously I do black and white images in order to be taken more seriously by others? As a relative newcomer so far I’ve just taken and processed images exactly as I’ve felt like doing them at the time. I’ve very much enjoyed reading this as its making me think a bit more. Either way I like the desaturated look of the Lofoten images as I think it emphasises the almost primeval nature of the landscape.
Thank you, Mark. I think it’s fair to say that I’m also stuck in the middle, at least in the literal sense of leaving in some colour and taking some out, but not the extent of full mono. As I said, I don’t think it’s pretentious; I was simply acknowledging that some people do think that and using the opportunity to try and dissuade anyone from that view ;-)
I think it’s undeniable that using mono or desaturation probably has some degree of a wish to be taken seriously. I don’t think that matters, and I don’t think it’s the main driver for me, but I would be being disingenuous if I asserted that there is not a small element of that ;-) I’d like to think it really is a small element though! Glad you like the Lofoten desaturation; much appreciated, and if these articles make people think then I’m pleased as that’s a large part of the point, whether or not anyone agrees with my thoughts.
Hi Mike, and congratulations on another thought provoking blog. Apart from the content I like the fresh and clean layout too.
I think the article you write is of real interest. What immediately occurred to me was the different attitudes to colour that various continents/countires have. India and Africa have fantastically bright clothing full of life and the more ‘sophisticated’ first world countries tend to refine their colour palette. I like unashamed colour but in a photograph is a different matter to real life. Like you, I think abstracts that concentrate on the nature of colour and its combinations is of great interest. I think Matisse would be a good reference there. Shape and colour, and actually someone who can combine relatively dull colours to form a much brighter appearance. Ie. the reaction of one colour on another, something I find fascinating (and teach nearly every day at work:)
When colour is used too strongly so that it fights with the subject matter rather than complimenting it, issues start to arise for me. I guess I was thinking about American photographic taste when i made my first statement about different countries having different tastes. The American market is noticeably more saturated than say the British.
At School I talk a bit about whether if you had to choose you would be ‘colour blind’ or ‘tone blind’. We run the implications of both, and obviously being tone blind would be a major difficulty! Sure you get the colours but there are no edges to things. Not a possibility but makes us think that tone is taken for granted and is far more meaningful and useful to us than the relative superficiality of colour. Colour is about two dimensionality and B&W is about form in my view. I think we are so used to seeing flat 2d images that we can visualise the form of something quite easily now. Anyway, the only possible drawback to desaturation I can think of, and you make quite a compelling argument there I must say, is that images can be pigeon holed into a look that is neither ‘reality’ or pure escapism. It can be the effect of desaturation that is noticed more than the content and might get ‘in the way’ of the image through its ‘styling’. I think any effect an image undergoes is fine as long as the main purpose/meaning of the image is not interrupted by it. Basically what you said.
If that makes us all think a bit more about the actual message we are trying to convey in an image, be that tonal range, colour combinations or purely subject matter, the better. Well I ended up with quite a musing myself but I like these kind of discussions :0
Cheers Mike, good work.
Hi Joe. That is indeed quite a musing in its own right! Thanks for taking the time to comment so extensively.
What is it you teach, if you don’t mind me asking, that it involves examining the reactions of juxtaposed colours?
I entirely agree on the apparent, cultural context for the reaction different groups of people have to colour. It seems to apply in many things and naturally extends to photographs (and presumably other forms of art). I see, for example, a great many photographs from the US desert areas with very saturated colours, yet when I went there I was constantly trying to tone things down to allow the shapes to play a a greater role.
Interesting question about tone-blind or colour blind. As you say, either would be massively debilitating, both from a practical and an enjoyment of all forms of art point of view. I would unhesitatingly (OK – now that I’ve been provoked into thinking about it!) lose the colour.
An excellent point on the possibility that the ‘statement’ of desaturation can itself become the main theme of an image and over-power it. I alluded to that in my early reference about the perceived pretension of desaturation, but failed to really follow up on it – your point is most certainly well-made, and perhaps an argument for somewhat judicious desaturation rather than anything too obvious.
I’m delighted to have promoted active consideration of this. We all, I’m sure, have ideas which are partially formed but not necessarily articulated, even internally. I know I changed my views on various aspects of this once I started actively thinking about it – to me, that’s always a productive and useful thing!
I am an Art Teacher in a local Secondary School Mike. I specialised in Oil painting for my Degree and now teach Drawing, Painting and Ceramics. You can end up having some really cool discussions with the kids. What is colour, how many are there, what is black, how do our eyes work?, etc….
In respect of one colour affecting another, check out James Turrell’s ‘sky chambers’. Quite incredible if a little over priced :)
I can well imagine those being very interesting, provocative discussions – I like that sort of debate!
Thanks for the link to the videos – that is truly fascinating and astonishing work. I’ve watched the two parts you linked to and shall watch some more about Turrell – excellent, and I much appreciate you making me aware of his work :-)
Mike: two very interesting and thought-provoking blog postings here. Thanks for your thoughts on the subject. I like the rationale you give at the end here for generally preferring some level of desaturation – it makes a lot of sense. I don’t think I’m quite as certain about the issue as you imply you are (perhaps I should add: ‘yet’?), but I think that is partly also about the way in which we see our own photography developing.
Kind of you to say so, Michael. To whom would you be adding the ‘yet’: my position or yours? ;-) I’d say that what I’m certain of is that desaturating changes the balance of the various compositional components, as does boosting saturation. With that explicit certainty we can then choose what the important aspects are and modify things accordingly. In general, my current preference is in the desaturation direction. That may change, though I suspect that, for non-abstracts at least, it won’t.
Ha ha – the ‘yet’ definitely applies to me!
Of course, all ‘positions’ are constructions and therefore temporary… but that’s another discussion!
Very interesting Mike, I must read more of musings! I’m not as ‘deep’ as yourself and tend to process an image in a way that (to me) will show it at its best. I guess I’m still learning my way but enjoy colour as much as black and white. I remember many moons ago somebody telling me that if your image is ‘soso’ then convert it to B&W to make it Arty – probably the worst advice I’ve been given as to get a good B&W image you need to start with a superior colour image imho.
Glad you thought so, Andrew – thanks! I’m perhaps only coming over as ‘deep’ since I am deliberately and consciously making myself think about these things – I find the process of doing so interesting, not to mention fun :-) Plus, I like debates and stimulating them by putting out some ideas is also very rewarding.
As you say, simply converting to B&W doesn’t generally work – I’ve tried that. I’d also agree that whatever you start with has to be very good and to also lend itself to B&W. I’m hardly qualified to comment on that very much though, having not yet really attempted mono, and I think I may have convinced myself, in the process of putting these articles together, that desaturated has advantages over mono. That’s some effort saved then ;-)
[…] Post navigation ← Previous Next → […]
Hi Mike, some very interesting views; when I first ventured into landscape photography I was guilty of the oversaturated look and indeed this was picked up on in some of my early postings on Flickr. However, over time I have realised that toning down my images has resulted in a more subtle and “grown up” look and as a result I believe they have more longevity over and above the WOW! and forget. Having said that I do believe that as colour photographers we should stick as close as possible in respesenting to our audiance the reality of the scene in front of us at the point of capture, even if this means saturated images.
I think this is one of the main differences between colour and black and white photography; with colour any deviation from the “norm” causes a reaction whereas with black and white because (as you mention) it has already strayed from the “norm” any further manipulations are deemed perfectly accetable particularly by non-photographers. I remember when I held an exhibition of my work a while ago; there was a photograph of Harlech beach with the sand taking on the pinkish hues of the sky. Many people who viewed it seemed to have great difficulty is believing that that was the “real” colour and that I hadn’t manipulated the image despite assurances from myself that the image was an accurate representation of the scene.
Hi Michael, Agreed, it does tend to produce something which is more ‘mature’ and I do think that images of that sort will last longer in terms of holding interest. I think I’m probably less concerned than you sound about the actual realism. That said, I do think images should be reasonably credible if they’re in colour. As to real things being accused of unreality, I’m also familiar with that from similar experiences with late and early colour on beaches! Mildly annoying when that happens! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Hi Mike. Great article. Opens a very interesting debate and I have to say that I can find little to dispute in the balance of your argument and conclusions. My own feeling is that it comes down, in the end, to how the artist uses the tools at his or her disposal to make the statement/communicate the idea in which they are interested. Colour saturation, luminosity and hue are significant tools in our box of tricks. There are times when pushing up the saturation can make a significant point and communicate something important. I wonder if the association of over-saturation and poor-taste comes from our experience of images that use saturation to make an image shout “look at me” only to be disappointed when we do.
The clever use of saturation and hue to play upon the viewer’s psychology by using past associations with vintage images or filtered light conditions etc. can add a lot to the images ability to communicate and resonate. Sometimes the colour is a small part of what we need to say and is only getting in the way. The ultimate example of that is black and white.
That’s a great little stream of thought for a Saturday night. Happy to bed.
Great blog as always.
Hi Wytchwood, Kind of you to say so; glad you enjoy the blog.
I think you’re right that the association between type of taste and over-saturation is based on the sort of image which is ‘merely’ bright and colourful. It’s certainly true that playing around with hue, saturation, etc. can vastly change an image and yes, I agree that using obviously unnatural filters (physical or software) is a very effective tool. Sepia, as the most obvious example, gives that apparent patina of age through association with old prints, and that’s a really effective and valid input to creating the mood we’re looking for. I did almost stray off into this sort of territory at one point whilst writing it but stopped as the whole thing was becoming rather long and too multi-dimensional; hence my attempt to keep it to the change in balance associated with saturation changes! As you say, it’s an interesting area of thought and I’m sure I’ll come back to it.
It’s great to provoke thought in people so I’m pleased that this pair of musings seems to have done just that. The actual impact on anyone’s approach may be negligible, but consciously considering all the facets that go to make up an image seems to me a worthwhile pursuit at the abstract level – maybe it will feed into the subconscious and make subtle changes to the creative process without the heavy-handed implication of consciously thinking about saturation levels?
Thank you for the excellent, thought provoking and well-written piece. As an amateur photographer I find myself yearning to create images that have meaning and/or evoke feelings. Rather than simply create another pretty picture, I would much rather stir something inside the viewer. I am just beginning to realize the importance of post-processing choices beyond the aesthetically pleasing ones and am now pondering the choices to help convey feeling and provoke thoughts.
It occurred to me that often times a desaturated image has a calming if not depressing emotional response associated with it while a highly saturated one has the opposite effect, after reading your piece, I am now wondering if it may be a biological response to prepare us for the seasons. It has long been known that certain colors affect peoples moods, whole cities are now master planned with mood altering lighting to reduce crime and calm the citizens, as I sit here provoked to thought, I realize those same lights have the effect of desaturating the colors around us. If you have ever taken a night shot lit exclusively with sodium vapor lights you know what I’m talking about.
Thank you for provoking my thoughts, although your images may tend towards desaturation your writings are far from it!
Hello Ken, Thanks for a thoughtful, thought-provoking comment, and I’m pleased that the article did that since that’s a large part of my objective with the blog.
The observation about how certain types of city lights can desaturate is a very interesting one, and certainly I agree about the somewhat provocative nature of bright colours in generating emotional responses.
As you say, there is – or at least there can be – more to making photographs than simply the pretty and aesthetically pleasing. Whilst those things are fine, it seems to me that after a while the desire to produce reaction beyond this ‘pretty’ area is the thing that probably keeps many people making photographs; I certainly expect that to be the case for me!
Again, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, and my apologies for taking so long to moderate this comment; I find myself in a state of near-permanent motion right now with very little time to do the worthwhile things!