Looking at colour (Part 3)

Flat out and bluesome

One aspect of model photography that occasionally gives me restless nights (apart from being sat on by felines and the ground shaking at 3am) is the generic mid-blue background beloved of photographers of models everywhere. It seems to have managed to become a bit of an institution and a bit of a cliche too.


Lovely Wingnut Wings Fokker DVII internals built for my forthcoming photography manual by Bruce Adam.

It’s widely accepted as the default background colour for many model websites and magazines alike, and of course, all those folks who wish to emulate the work of their modelling heroes.

On a basic level, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this colour choice. It looks clean, professional and requires little thought to set up. But have we ever stopped to wonder what that blue does to our model and how we perceive its colour?

Come with us now on a journey. . .

Our eyes and brain are very good at decoding light and colour (our digital cameras on the other hand aren’t so hot at this) but we also visually mix colour, (its how we are able to see 16 million colours made up from tiny little red blue and green squares on our display screens).

As we know from shopping for clothes or household paint with our significant others, colours work best when they are placed together in a balanced, sympathetic, or complimentary way. We should be aware that by using blue for every image, we could be doing our marvellous models a huge disservice.

Actually, blue doesn’t go with everything

So let's have a quick look at thinking just outside of our little blue box (while being involuntarily trapped inside a metaphorical one in these strange times).

First things first, we need to grab ourselves an artist’s colour wheel to visualise how colours work. We can find online interactive versions, but the adjustable card ones are great to keep handy in the workroom. They are relatively cheap and widely available from craft and artists supplies.

These really are excellent in an old school analogue Mk Ia version way of doing things (and they don’t require a computer to be started up or a web page or app to be navigated to either).

There are three basic ways (there are more, but baby steps for now. . .) to use colour in a creative and harmonious way, and enhance and compliment our wonderful styrene creations:

1: Complimentary – This is the easiest one to get our heads around. Pick the main or dominant colour on your model and pick the colour directly opposite it on a colour wheel. Complimentary creates strong contrasts, so if our model has strong dominant colour choose a background colour with a muted tone or shade of the complimentary. Similarly if our model is pale and interesting, try a strong complimentary for the background (support).

2: Monochromatic – a lighter or darker version of the main colour on your model. Sweet as bro!

3: Analogous – these are colours either side of of your main colour.

Whatever approach you choose, you need to be aware of contrast between the subject and the background. Essentially - if your model is light in tone (modern grey low viz schemes for instance), choose a darker background colour and if its dark and mysterious, then pick a pale background colour. How hard was that? And it's not blue!

The effect of a red/brown support has changed the way the Fokker sub assembly reads to our eye, It has a warmer feel over the blue original and also ties in with the era of the subject to arguably create a sense of age too. Get's us thinking. . .

So go on, experiment with something new, a nice dark green maybe?

A Tamiya Gloster Meteor lighting uses a home made soft box effect to give the old 'meatbox' a bit of Hollywood glam on a classy green background. Our eyes are used to green as a natural background colour (hey, blue is too! Who said that!) but be careful of shadows in the model taking on a green hue as the reflected light is bounced up into them.

All a bit too complex?

If its all a bit too much to work out then maybe just stick with white to start with. It’s classy, clean and another blog post tutorial altogether on white balance and making your whites come out whiter than white in the wash!

There's an in depth section and more about choosing colour and the impact it has on our model subjects in my forthcoming model photography manual as well as an in depth section on how to control white balance and colour fidelity for mobile phone cameras.

Thanks for looking

Anthony - Wellington - September 2020 (revised August 2021)

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