You will never realize your full potential as a photographer…

unless and until you understand the basic elements of color theory. I know this sounds scary, a bit geeky and just over-the-top, but hear me out.

The Difference Between Observation and Creation.

I love music and really appreciate many different styles from heavy metal to classical, but I won’t be a good composer or serious musician until I understand at least elementary music theory. My upbringing was filled with music. My mother played the piano and my dad was the church choir director, so it was natural for me to gravitate toward music in self defense.

I joined the High School band and learned the technical aspects of reading music and played several brass instruments. I practiced and learned a lot about breathing and eye/hand coordination. I eventually developed really good technique. But when I enrolled in a music theory course in twelfth grade, I was amazed at how much I didn’t know about music. By the end of the semester, the lights came on! My level of understanding of music skyrocketed. I finally understood the “why” premise behind the “how” technique. All the sudden music started to make perfect sense. I understood the framework beneath the discipline and what was once a chore and a challenge suddenly came into clear focus… and it flowed naturally. Why hadn’t I taken this course as a Sophomore?

Years later I moved to Nashville where I worked around professional musicians for more than a decade. I can promise you that if you want to play serious music with the big boys, you need to get with the basics program. Since I had studied music theory in High School, I understood that “tonic” was more than a liquid medicine, a “bridge” wasn’t necessarily a physical structure, and that an “augmented fifth” wasn’t a doctored bottle of alcohol.

The base principles and disciplines of any science (photography is both an art and a science) are based on laws and theorems that govern that science. Laws are structural, and are restrictive for a good reason; safety, for instance. You shouldn’t arbitrarily mix chemicals together without understanding (the laws of) chemical compounds. Nor should you build large structures without fully understanding load-bearing principles of material physics.

Why do some photographers always produce such great pictures? Unlike me?

Perhaps because they understand the primary element behind photography– light! You can certainly enjoy color photography without knowing color theory, and you can get good results simply by learning about your camera, but if you wish to consistently produce powerful and moving images, you’re going to have to learn about how color and light behave. Capturing light, like capturing anything else in the wild, requires knowledge of its habits and behavior.

There is a difference between documenting an occurence (snapshots) and capturing the emotion of a scene (photography). Taking a picture requires little more than pushing a button on a camera, but photography requires a knowledge of how light behaves in different environments and how to best use the illumination to capture an emotion. For example, one of the color settings on your camera (known as “white balance” or WB) is a tool that allows you to shift the existing color in the scene. When you understand the premise of color temperatures, and that a scene’s existing light can be shifted slightly, right there in your camera, you can shape light to deliver a specific emotion. A ounce of color theory will save a ton of editing time in Photoshop!

A variety of unique psychological triggers can be pulled in the viewer’s mind when a photographer captures scenes with this knowledge. The choices of light color and intensity, angle of view, depth of field, highlight and shadow placement, internal contrast, and the kingpin issue of mid tone placement (among others) allow knowledgeable photographers to convey a thought or tell a story with great effect. This is why one good picture is better than a thousand words. 80% of everything you experience enters your brain through your eyes. And for a photographer, it all starts with a solid understanding of basic light and color.

There is, after all, a significant difference between shooting something and capturing it. Shooting only requires a target and a weapon, while capturing requires much more knowledge and skill.

You have a choice with your camera; you can either shoot events or capture and communicate moods. Invest in you, and do it now. Don’t wait until you’re a senior!

Wanna learn more about light and color? Please join me in this blog. We’ll talk.


About Herb Paynter

Herb is a published author, photographer, retoucher, color reproduction specialist and a regular writer for Digital Photography School. Download his iBook "Digital Color Photography: A Deeper Look" from the iTunes store and view his Light and Color Fundamentals video series at
This entry was posted in Uncategorized, Underpinnings and Core Issues and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s