There is a wealth of information for every step of the photographic process, but one area that drastically improved my work some years ago is also one of the areas discussed the least.
I'll caveat this by saying that this tip isn't for veterans and experts, but rather for beginners and intermediate photographers looking to push their work to the next level. While I am far from the most successful photographer in the world, I have attracted clients in the two key areas I set out to: commercial photography and editorial portraiture for magazines. Both of these areas require a higher caliber of work and supreme quality. To get to that level, I had to dissect a lot of the leading images in the industries, and identify which areas I was lacking.
Many of the areas I realized were and are crucial, are somewhat obvious; proper exposure, the right level of sharpening, attractive composition, and so on. But then there was a nuance that I hadn't already had rammed down my throat from every tutorial and piece of advice already available. It was shrouded under the general umbrella of color.
The Deceptive Depth of Color
Color is one of the few fundamental areas of imagery. While images that are monochromatic or black and white can do without most of them to great effect, if your photograph has color in it, it's important. There are plenty of mistakes beginners make when it comes to color. One that I constantly attempt to correct in anyone I tutor in photography is monitor calibration. It's one of the most boring ways you can spend money, but at the same time, it's one of the most important.
It will come as no shock that with the vast number of monitors, phones, tablets, laptops, and other devices that images can be viewed on, there are going to be as many discrepancies when it comes to the representation of the color in your images. I first found this out when I printed an image, and it was heavily leaning towards blue, rather than the neutral tones I had seen on my monitor. The white balance was more or less correct on my screen, but shock-horror, my screen was wrong. I remember putting the image in Dropbox and then downloading it on every phone, tablet, and laptop in my house to see how it looked, and it was at least partially different in every instance. So, I bought a Datacolor Spyder (and a better monitor) and never looked back. So, before you go any further, ensuring you are seeing accurate colors when you look and edit your images is paramount.
Then, of course, there are the other many color-based mistakes beginners make, like over- (or even under-) saturation, fringing, incorrect white balance, and spot color. Yes, spot color. It's not an artistic decision, it's a mistake, so stop it. But, as much as there is to not do, there are subtle maneuvers with the color you ought to do. The first is well-covered territory, and so I won't waste too much time on it: complementary colors. Learn about them and try to implement them whenever you can; they're powerful. The second, however, is the premise of this article.
Limiting Color Palettes
In editorial photography for magazines, both digital and print, and in commercial photography, there was always this synergy to the best images. For quite some time, I couldn't work out what it was. I remember saving the cover image of a Vogue Spain issue which was just a woman on an old Spanish street. It had warm tones, but it was so simple. There weren't complementary colors, there weren't really many colors at all; everything was just a shade of orange in what was — or more likely had been made to look like — golden hour. I still have this image somewhere, and I can trace my later revelations back to this seed.
It was when I started shooting commercial work for clients that it began to dawn on me. At first, I thought what I was looking at was color grading, and that was what I needed to learn how to do to create the best possible images. I was half right, but what I was actually seeing was a limiting of the color palette in an image. What I mean by that is the final image had far fewer colors than most. This wasn't always the case and shouldn't always be the case; there are plenty of examples where a wide and vibrant color palette is the play. But typically, colors were limited to just a few, and it gave this sense of synergy I was after. I realized that if you shoot with a few colors in mind, and avoid or remove unwelcome ones, the final image was drastically improved.
One example that I have used time and time again over the years in my commercial photography is the color blue. I wrote an entire article on this at some juncture, but it was a simple enough observation. In my images of jewelry, the color blue was creeping in everywhere. It dominated the glass, the hands, and all other reflective surfaces. Even if I shot with warmer lights, which wasn't always possible when shoots were on location, it would creep back in. So, I started removing it and the improvement was drastic.
This isn't just applicable to commercial and editorial images; it can have a big impact on all genres, including landscapes. Some of the best landscape photographers have a brilliant sense of which colors are adding to the scene and which colors are not. If they are not playing a part in the final image, adjust how much of a feature they are. Our own Mads Peter Iversen does this to great effect. Take his image of Lofoten below:
You can tell that the orange glow of the buildings was stronger than that, but he has stripped them back because he wants your eye drawn to the Aurora Borealis above. He wants the cool tones of greens and blues to set the mood, and orange, while close to complementary here, would distract from that.
Examine the role of every color in your final image and whether it is serving a purpose or just distracting and making the final image more complex and messy than it needs to be. If you want your overcast, stormy landscape to have muted, earthy tones, perhaps the blue natural light could be dialed back or even removed. If you want your wintery portrait to feel cold, perhaps adjust the warmth and warmer tones creeping in. Limit your color palette to those that are serving a purpose and give your final image a sense of cohesion it might not have had otherwise.