The Critical Importance of Knowing Why You Do What You Do.

If you are a photographer, chances are that you already know good color when you see it. But knowing what good color looks like is just one part of the color photography equation, producing good color in an efficient manner is the other. You know that producing great color involves adjustments to both color and tonal ranges in Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture, Elements, whatever. But knowing exactly why you shape that color and why you should make certain tonal adjustments is even more valuable than knowing how you make them.

The truth is, a clear understanding of how colors are related, why certain colors behave the way they do, and why certain tonal and color adjustments are necessary for each media will definitely improve your “how to” editing skills. Efficiency is the result of knowledge and planning.

There are numerous on-line and live resources (books, magazines, conferences, and seminars [and even blogs]) that provide instruction on how to master the tools in Adobe Photoshop, but if you want to consistently and efficiently produce accurate color pictures, you must first open your eyes to the basic DNA of light and color. Flying without seeing the landscape is never a good idea.

Even if you understand all the newest tools and latest editing techniques, if you’re not aware of simple digital color basics, you will undoubtedly spend way too much time repairing your images. An ounce of knowledge is worth a zillion pixels.

Knowing your way around Photoshop and/or Lightroom in today’s digital photography world is not a bonus, it is an absolute necessity! If you’ve been around more than two decades, you remember the comfort of knowing that your professional lab would pull your tail out of the ringer.

The days of professional photo labs and color separation houses covering the miscues of photographers went the way of silver halide. It’s time to face the ugly truth… you are your own (and perhaps only) color professional now. Unfortunately, many photographers know far more about Photoshop Tips and Tricks than they know about the solid principles of color. And this means they spend far too much time fixing images and less time shooting (and selling) them.

Put your horse out in front of the cart. Learn the basics of tonality and color in the digital world and boost both your efficiency and your bottom line. When you engage your shooting and editing techniques with a healthy grasp of how your camera interprets light and records color, then you’ll have the big picture solution.

Theory is a word that is sometimes misunderstood and therefore deserves a little explanation. Generally speaking, a theory is the fancy way to describe an idea or a guess. It sounds much better to call something a hypothesis than to label it a guess. That’s one definition of the term. That’s not the kind of theory I’m prescribing.

In color science, general theory describes known factual underpinnings; that set of proven theorems and postulates that replaces trial and error with disciplined certainty. Color Theory is the tried and proven collection of absolutes that allow you to meet your photo-related goals. Color Theory is the why of knowledge that must precede the how of technique. Remember the adage: plan your work and then work your plan. Too, too true.

Color Theory explains the behaviors of lightwaves; the fundamental truths that make photography sense. It is foolhardy to invest serious time and valuable resources in your photography, without first understanding the 2+2=4 basics of light and color. And it’s never too late to learn.

ProfessionalsCan you imagine a surgeon who is very skilled at using a scalpel but didn’t bother to understand human anatomy? How about a fireman who dresses the part and handles the hose well but doesn’t know what makes things catch fire? Or an airline pilot who knows the instrument panel like the back of his hand but doesn’t think weather is anything to be concerned about?

In each of these professional examples, knowing why things happen gives purpose and confidence to both decisions made and actions taken. In addition to all the technology and facilities these professionals have at their disposal, they all understand the science behind their decisions.

In your case… simply having the latest camera technology and knowing all about gigabytes, megapixels, LEDs, CPUs and whiz-bang software doesn’t guarantee that you’ll produce color efficiently. You’ve invested a lot of money and effort in your photographic equipment, now make a serious investment in knowing Color Theory. Make your next learning experience a fundamentals one.

There are numerous resources available online that can help you grow in your understanding of digital color. In addition… if you have an iPad and are interested in learning more about practical color theory and the fundamentals of digital color photography, you might take a look at my Accurate Color iBook in the iTunes Store

One way or the other, get it done.

See you next time, Herb

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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
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