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Yes Please

Ok, so I’m going to get some bad feedback for this post, but please, bear with me. I only thought to write this post when I found that it’s a bigger problem than I thought, after posting my 10 commandments of photography, one of which was ‘thou shalt never use spot color’, and I got a lot of feedback that people liked using it. Hopefully this post should help to clear up why you shouldn’t use it. Basically ever.

Here is my belief system when it comes to any artform that requires interpretation: If you have to explain it, it doesn’t work. I could tell you my favourite joke, but if I have to explain the punchline for you, then it’s not funny. You could take what you deem to be a good photo, but if you have to use spot color to draw the readers attention where you want it, then it’s clearly not doing the job it’s supposed to.

The main thing that spot color does in photography is to draw your attention towards certain parts of a photo, without asking the question, why? It’s a simple question, which is all too often ignored. What makes that part of the photo so important.

How many of you have seen spot color used in something like prom photos? I know I have. It’s usually on something stupid like a flower, or a handkerchief. This draws us towards the handkerchief, but raises a very important question at the same time, what’s so important about the handkerchief? Nothing, that’s what. It was just a nice bit of color in the photo, that the photographer thought would stand out nicely. The problem is though, it’s drawing us away from the important part of the photo, which is the subject’s themselves.

Ok, so we have two problems so far, by using spot color, we’re explaining where the viewer should be looking, and then we’re often sending them in the wrong direction. Just one of these problems is bad enough, but what else is wrong with spot color? Well, this takes me back to my original point; you’re explaining the photo. Either to a person who doesn’t understand it enough to get it, or because you’re worried that people won’t get the photo, because it’s not a very good point. I’ll get to all of this in the next section.

Finally, part of the reason that people do it is because they think it just looks nice. I do not, but I’m not here to argue about personal taste. All I suggest is that you look at the work of the photographers you admire the most, and see how much they use it.

Spot Color in Use

Here’s a photo that I took the other day, where I’ve used a little photoshop to hide the camera, you can check out the article here. There is no use of spot color, because this works well as a photo. You look exactly where I want you to look. Firstly by looking at the face (eyes contain a large amount of visual weight), and then the hands, and then at the arms, working your way in and our of the photos down the diagonal lines

Now lets start playing with spot color. Lets say for some reason that you want to focus the attention on the face, it might make sene to spot color the face and have everything else black and white. I see no justification for this photo to be in black and white, but alas, lets do it anyway. Doesn’t it look pretty #sarcasm? 

You’re basically telling the viewer that you want them to look at the face. The problem is that they were already going to look at the face, now you’re telling them not to look anywhere else as much. I could do it for anything in the photo, the picture frames perhaps? (ps. points for noticing my grandma swearing at the camera in one of the photos). The point is that a lot of time this is used, it sends people looking in the wrong direction. 

I’ve seen some bad spot color in my time, thanks to sites like YANAP, but lets not get too carried away. A much more reasonable use of spot color that you would see with a photo like this would be to have one side of the mirror color, and the other side black and white, like in the photo below. But what is this telling us? Have a look and then scroll down for my thoughts below.

I can imagine a photo like this having a caption not too dissimilar to ‘reaching into the past’. That’s the gist of the feel of the photo with the black and white. But think about it, what do you think when it’s in color? What if I were to change my facial expression to express a certain emotion, such as regret? Would you not feel the same without the use of spot color? Is spot color necessary? Or is it just an excuse to make something out of nothing, in post?

Lets say you’re worried about someone seeing a poing you’re trying to make, so you want to make it clearer. Take my photo below for example, there’s a pretty clear juxtaposition going on. It’s actually two men sitting in the heat in Croatia, putting crimpers on wristbands for a festival, while watching ‘The Wire’, but that’s not what it looks like. It’s two potentially naked men sitting under a giant heart to most viewers.

Theres a chance that you may not see the juxtaposition in your own photos right away, so to make it obvious for readers, you slap on a bit of spot color to really make it stand out. The photo has gone from subtle and understated, to downright obvious. By explaining how the photo works, it no longer works, as all the charm is removed from the photo. 

Whether you’re using spot color for ‘artistic’ purposes, or to help direct your viewers, you always have to ask yourself why?

Lets talk about artistic purposes for a bit. I get that some people don’t use it because they want to help direct the viewer’s attention, but rather because they think it looks nice. I’m not going to argue about personal taste, but I will talk about the side effects. By using spot color, you’re not only changing the color of the photo, but you’re directing the viewer without even realising it (most of the time), and usually without reason.

Perhaps you’re familiar with how you’re directing the viewer, and you like the spot color, and you like how it makes the photo stand out. I’m not going to tell you that you should never do it, because my opinion isn’t more important than yours, but I feel that it’s important that you understand composition first, by researching eye-lines, balance, visual weight, single point (very important for spot color users), and depth. If after all of that, you think that spot color is still necessary, then I have nothing else to say to you. Use it and enjoy it.

Now, I’m aware, that I’m probably upsetting a lot of photographers who have read this post, and likely not made it this far before commenting. If you do have something to say, positive or negative, I want to make sure you’ve read the whole thing first. If you leave a comment here, or on the fan page, include the word beer in the comment, so I know whether to take you seriously or not.

Why You Should Never Use Spot Color

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Hey I'm Josh, I'm Photographer in Chief here at ExpertPhotography, and I'm in charge of making sure that we provide you with the best content from the most knowledgeable photographers in the world. Enjoy the site :)

  • v

    Good post! I’d never really realised how it was ‘bad’ before until I read your ’10 Commandments of photography’, then I realised that what you raised is true. This post has helped to further clarify it. Thanks for writing 🙂

  • Becky Tate

    I totally and utterly ‘beer’ agree. Thank you for saying it and putting it out there!!!

  • D. Wilson

    Well thats your opinion but a dont think its for you to say what people should and shouldn’t use. Because you don’t like it doesn’t mean other people dont’t like, it,s not your style ok we get it. But a think you have tried to raise this point before. Look it gets done by some who I have seen and worked with to very good effect and it’s sells to those who want to buy it. Some people might be of that opinion of your photographs there is nothing special about them no different than what other people shoot. Expert photography a bit contradictory that in your 10 commandments of photography if you are still learning you have to cocky at your age to call yourself an expert as I don’t mind seeing any of your work anywhere of note. Remember MY OPINION !!!!

    • 2 things. 1, I’ve never called myself an expert, it’s was just a good, available URL. 2, you haven’t read the whole post, so I don’t think you’re really in a position to comment on what I’ve said about the use of spot color, and how there are better ways of influencing viewers.

      • An expert is someone afraid to learn something new because then he wouldn’t be an expert:-) I enjoy your articles, Josh. I may not agree with you on all points but your topics get me to think. Thinking is how I learn since I am also a self-taught photographer. I don’t know what I don’t know.

  • D. Wilson

    Yes I have beer a think you’ll find some of the purpose of selective colour is to draw the veiwers eye towards a point of intrest. This is the point if it is used properly. I take on board what you are saying if the shot that interesting and has a good composition we shouldn’t need to. But sometimes the subject is the focus and everything round about it is not of intrest which is why the focus is on i.e. the child the flower what ever. Again you say good composition why state 10 commandment when to break the composition rule ???? I have worked with many a good pro photographer and never in a sentence or in conversation the word expert whether it be a good url name or not would ever be used. I understand the points you make valid maybe but to say you should never use this style is a bit strong. You have people that use photography as an art form what about them. It,s like the pop art I dont like it wouldn’t use it but I know a lot that do.

    • Expert Photography was chosen because it’s a popular search term that ranks well with Google, and if I’m going to put all this work into the website (160+ posts now), I want people to read it. Almost a year of running this, and this is the first time anyone has every brought it up (rather surprisingly). I say to break the ‘rules’ of composition, because they’re not technically rules. There are no rules to photography or composition, but they’re set as guides to help you learn. You can read more about it here:

      I believe I’ve said enough on the matter of spot color to not have to explain my reasoning any further. It’s ok to disagree on matters, but I would suggest people learned about other ways of influencing viewers before opting for post production techniques.

  • Ren

    Beer – I totally agree with you on this. Spot color looks pretty horrible 99.9% of the time and I never really thought about why before, so your post definitely helped me understand the reason behind my great dislike. I have to say though, I have on an occasion or two seen examples of spot color that actually work really well, so I’m wondering if maybe there’s actually some special technique that only 2 people in the world know for making spot color images that are actually good. Or they were just flukes.

  • I totally respect your opinion, but still feel it adds a certain touch to the processed photo. Here’s a shot I did today with selective coloring:

    I don’t know, it’s more fun this way, isn’t it? 🙂


    • It’s a pretty cool photo to begin with, nice shot.

    • Michael Clark

      It works because in the back of our mind we are questioning if the door and wall are really that gray and colorless or not.

  • As someone who used spot color before, I can certainly say that is a sublime form of kitsch in all cases with only one exception: Waleed’s photo above. That is the only photo I ever saw where spot color actually works, co congrats SIR, you’ve just ruined my theory :=)

    There is no real reason to use spot color and this technique is so abused nowadays… You see it in wedding photos (flower bouquet anyone?), baby photos (I am going to desaturate the baby face and saturate this cute headband and the flower a bit more because, who cares about the baby anyway).

    From my point of view this is up there with “babies hanging on trees and slings”, or “100 new ways of contorting a newborn that otherwise will not look cute”.

    I know, I am taking a huge risk taking a jab at the trendiest style in newborn photography… But anyway, great article Josh.

    A very good way of illustrating your arguments.

  • Ohhh, darn. Beer!!!!!

  • Mark Miranda

    I occasionally use spot color in the right image. Sometimes is not about drawing attention to a specific part of the image. Spot color can force a viewer to examine other parts of an image by comparing the stark contrast you’ve created with spot color item. As far as explanation…Have you seen some of Picasso’s works? Tell me they don’t needs some explaining. I know he was a painter, but still an artist. Your mirror image above requires explaining. I think you’ve missed the boat on this. You or I cannot challenge the creativity of another photographer’s intentions. Creating photographic images is an art form, and its creative nature differs from person to person. Sometimes I like to create an image in a way that will require the viewer to scratch their heads and ask themselves “What the…” I think your blog is great. But I think you have to be careful telling the world what is acceptable and what is not. I had a photography teacher/mentor/friend for a few years. We had a gallery opening last year on a collaborative effort we worked on for 5 months. That was the last time we spoke. I finally got tired of hearing that everything I was doing was wrong because I didn’t do everything the way he did. We did drink a lot of beer though.

  • Waleed Alzuhair

    Josh, Lucian, thanks..

    More than 99% of the time, one gets a cheesy picture 😉

  • I am a fan of beer, especially the dark Irish stout kind! Imagine trying to use spot colour on the black stuff. I have to admit I have used spot colour. What was I thinking? In it’s defence the punters like it. Maybe saying “never use it is” a bit harsh. Beauty is after all in the eye of the beholder!

    • Seed

      Ummm, Stew. I have heard it said on good reform that, “Beauty is in the eye of the ‘beer’ holder”…

  • Don

    Thanks for the input on spot photography. I never did like it either. It usually draws your attention away from the main interest of what the photo should be. Spot photography is a very tacky way of producing a photograph that is not so good to start with and making it worst. If you have a really good photograph to start with, why mess with it? The same goes with HDR that is overdone or too

  • Don

    Forgot to add on my just sent comment that I enjoy a good beer at times.

  • Luke

    I also think a good photo shouldn’t need spot colour to explain it or to direct the viewer’s attention so I just enjoyed it when people clearly hadn’t read the article. Unfortunately I’m too young to drink beer legally.

  • mmmmmmmmm….beeeeer *drool* (Homer Simpson voice)

    I’ve played with spot colour, and while I often think awww that looks nice, I’ve usually ended up thinking NAH! Whats the point? But SO many of my clients ask Hey! Can you do, like make the photo black and white but make a little bit of it colour, and I grit my teeth and say SURE! For some reason, many people love it. So I will do it if they really want it.

    I like the comment about about making a bad photo worse. Ironic that it’s often used to try and make a bad photo better.

    Not sure I agree that Waleed’s photo is better for the colour. I think it would be much better with an eye looking out of the door and no selective colour

  • Spot toning does belong in the same boat as HDR. It’s something that gets over used but CAN look good if used subtly and at the right time. There is one time it is always right though, when a paying client asks for it 🙂

    Out of interest has anyone else tried spot toning in a darkroom?

    Beer, just because I had too.

  • 9inchnail

    I’ve used spot color before but I have to admit, I always used it when I intentionally wanted to achieve a little cheesiness. Examples would be cards for Valentine’s day or something like that. I have seen pictures using spot color that actually worked but I wouldn’t use it myself if I had any real artistic aspiration. It can be fun but is not part of any professional photography workflow. But to each his own. I always say, if you like your photo, that’s half the battle. If you put it online though, brace yourself, a shitstorm is coming.

  • JeremieP

    Before getting up to go get myself a other beer, i’ll just say that i totally agree with what you wrote. I use spot coloring just for fun, not for art.

  • I don’t like beer either, but you know whatever. I will say before reading this post, I liked spot color… Now not so much, I just did a shoot with a couple who have these piercing blue eyes and made everything but their eyes black and white. I don’t think I’ll be using that photo publicly.

    • JoshDunlop

      Haha, good to hear!

  • Katharina Bordet

    If I like one of my photos, I consider that a good start. I know spot colour is overused and often looks just plain weird. There is a part of me that thinks many use it because it’s a “thing” and not even think so far as drawing the eye of the viewer or art… but that’s only my opinion.
    As far as my own are concerned, there is only one where I liked the spot colour – this one:×681.jpeg
    And sorry, I don’t like beer. 🙂

  • AmberSwanepoel

    This article has ‘opened up my eyes’. I used spot coloring a few times and now regret it. I never thought of it as drawing attention I just thought it was beautiful. But now that I know it is drawing away the viewers attention from what’s actually important I won’t do it. Unless its a photo of beerbeer 😀

  • jeff

    I don’t particularly like spot-color edits but at the end of the day, I’m paid to take and deliver the photos that my clients ask for. Can anyone say “heart hands”? That’s so much more sickening to me than spot color. The customer isn’t always right and I try to point them in the right direction, but this is a service industry and people who approach it as ONLY an art-form need to have a BEER and chill out. I try to separate my art from what pays for all of my equipment. Two very different things.
    And by the way, I hate rules and other people’s opinions what what is artistic. I guess that makes me a rebel. meh. Any time I see a post or a thread on a blog that says “X number of things you should never do in a photo”…well, that makes me want to put all X number of things in one photo and tell them to stuff their opinion. Having said that, my opinion means about the same as yours. zip/zero/nada
    Thanks for the article and making me smile at the beer gimmick. Kudos on that.

  • Jessica Hunt

    I agree that in a well composed photo, the subject should be clearly stated and the idea should be equally as clear without having to “explain it” using selective color or other such tricks. However, I have been known to use this technique in a different way. I use the color left in a photo to emphasize motion and for symbolic purposes.

  • Thank you for this after someone commented on a picture of mine saying that the photographer (me) should make the whole thing black and white with the flower headband colour I wanted to rip my eyes out, this is a much more articulate and polite response with good explanations…. oh and beer 😉