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How to Use the Color Red in Photography

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Color photography gave photographers a whole new world to play with. And every color has its own place in photography.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the rich history of the color red and its application in photography today.

Ochre to Carmine

Photo of a cave painting in the Altamira caves depicting bisons
Red bison painted with ochre in the Altamira Caves in Spain. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Red is a vibrant color, full of meaning.

There are many examples of red ochre pigment used in prehistoric and ancient times. The red ochre bison on the cave walls of Altamira in Spain is one of the earliest applications of red in ancient art.

People sourced cinnabar from volcanic veins and hot springs. They liked it because of its deep-brick to scarlet coloring.

In North and Central America, the Aztecs and Mayans made carmine (also known as cochineal).

During the 16th century, the Spanish conquistadors began exporting carmine to Europe.

Medieval to Modern Reds

Red is a color of authority and importance. Medieval artists used the color red to show status, the holy spirit and the blood of Christ and Christian martyrs. They used cinnabar, carmine and ochre.

Medieval artists also used minium. This was an orange-red pigment thought to originate in Ancient China.

During the Renaissance, red continued to signify Christian concepts. It was also used to command attention and create contrast. This hasn’t changed today, whether you’re painting or photographing.

In 1919, a patent was registered for the production of cadmium red.

Photo of a landscape with the left side of the photo in red hue
Photographic technology has allowed for the reproduction of vibrant reds. Photo by James Lansbury on Unsplash

Nowadays, modern reds are available in inks, paints and digital media. They allow artists to access affordable reds with permanence and vibrancy.

The color red thrives on human history, physicality and emotion. Its endurance in art is a testament to its vivid and immersive visual qualities.

Associations With the Color Red

Close-up photo of a red rose with blurry spots in the foreground
Photo by Marcus Cramer on Unsplash

The color red has become a symbol of multiple meanings and associations.

The color red is intimately tied to the experience of life and living.

By and large, red is also the color most associated with love.

Photo of many pairs of hands painted red forming the shape of a heart
Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

The color of blood, red has become symbolic of sacrifice, danger and violence.

Red is also recognised as the color of passion, seduction and sex.

Red can be viewed as an indicator of vitality, exertion, anger or embarrassment.

The color of fire, red can be a signal of destruction, warning or warmth.

Often used in celebration and ceremony, red has become a sign of status and royalty.

Red is present in autumn leaves, sunsets and flowers. Because of this it can also conjure impressions of beauty, seasonal change and time.

Using The Color Red in Photography

Color photography expanded visual language, giving artists a new medium to play with.

Early color photographers used colors already loaded with psychological associations.

Photographers have cultivated visual relationships conveyed in red tones. Examples include William Eggleston and Harry Gruyaert.

You can include red in any type of photography. Portraiture, landscape, food, abstraction and street photography are only a few. We’ll mention a few examples for each in this article.

Portraiture

Portrait photo of a woman with glasses sitting on a red sofa behind a restaurant window
Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash

Red is the color of drama and intrigue. It emphasises the dynamics that contribute to a successful portrait.

The vibrancy of the color red captures the attention of a viewer. It draws focus toward the portrait sitter.

Use red in portraiture to draw attention. Whether it’s through red clothing or a pair of blood red lips, your viewer will have to stop and look. Show passion and emotion through the color red.

You can also use red to generate engaging contrasts. A portrait with red aspects also appeals to our sense of physicality, narrative, and place.

Landscape

Landscape photo of a field full of red poppies with a forest in the background
Photo by Henry Be on Unsplash

Landscape photography documents the scenery that makes up our world.

Some of the most striking examples of red in nature include flowers and sunsets.

The complementary color of red is green. Photographing red subjects in a green environment can prove particularly compelling. It creates an appealing contrast.

Naturally occurring reds can be fleeting subjects. Plan ahead for the perfect photo. You may need to check out the best time of year for your shoot or do some location scouting in advance.

Food

Macro photo of red watermelon cubes
Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

Red foods include watermelons, strawberries, cherries and tomatoes. These are usually for seasonal consumption. They’re associated with freshness and crispness.

Munching on red watermelon slices on a hot summer’s day can hint at a carefree moment under the sun.

Warm tomato soup with a hearty slice of sourdough on a cold night is a soulful delight in winter.

In art history, red grapes and pomegranates have symbolised fertility. Red apples are a religious symbol, linked to the sin of Adam and Eve.

In photography and art in general, apples can symbolize the forbidden fruit.

Red food speaks to our natural attractions. It’s an appealing asset to any delicious spread that will draw attention.

Abstraction

A red background with cracked white lines running through it in abstract pattern
Photo by Matt Artz on Unsplash

Color plays an important role in abstract photography. You can use color to give your viewer a hint about what your photo means.

You’re free from depicting the objective world. Abstract photography aims to express emotion through abstracted impressions.

Our associations with reds lend themselves to the reading of an abstract image. It creates ideas and imparting emotions through visual experience.

An image with strong red contrasts can also create the illusion of texture. This will appeal to your viewer’s senses, making your photo stand out.

Street

Photo of a bar with red light reflecting on the window
Photo by Joshua K. Jackson on Unsplash

Street photography documents random and unmediated encounters within a public environment. This is also true of candid photography.

You can find the color red everywhere on the street. A few examples include lights, cars, fashion and signage. Architecture can also include red details. You can even photograph bright and colorful buildings.

It can be difficult to plan for a specific street photograph. But training your eye to identify potential moments is a good way of harnessing the art form.

Embrace red in your street photography. It’s an eye-catching way to illustrate the dynamics of the modern human environment.

Conclusion

From antiquity to modernity, the color red has shouldered the weight of artistic meaning.

It brings to mind notions of physicality, status, love, anger, violence and danger. Red is a color of great emotional and physical impact. Whether we’re looking at a photo of a blood-red rose, a delicate piece of red silk or a spread of delicious spices.

Incorporating the color red into your photography denotes passion and bold emotion.

Certain interpretations of red differ culturally. Visually though, red is a color that commands attention. It provokes an emotional response.

As a photographer, you can use this to make your photos stand out and get their message across.

Check out our posts on using contrasting colors orange and blue or understanding color theory in photography next!

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