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How to Use Color Isolation in Photography

written by: •edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 2/25/2010

Want a way to make your photo pop? Color isolation is one of the most effective techniques to bring out the subject of your photo and make it stand out. This article explains the concept of how to isolate a single color in your photographs.

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    Why Color Isolate?

    So, you took a picture, but that one part of it that you really wanted to stand out... doesn't. Maybe the rest of the scene is too cluttered, maybe it's simply too big. Maybe you just want something that makes a striking impact, or maybe you want to further differentiate and alienate your subject from the surrounding scene. In any of these situations, color isolation can be a powerful tool, and certainly one worth experimenting with.

    Color isolation can be used with, or without, different techniques for adding emphasis to the subject, such as vignetting, and it's worth mixing and matching different techniques to see what combination works best for a single image.

    Also, be aware that color isolation makes an image feel very conspicuously processed, which some people find displeasing when compared with more natural-seeming photography. This by no means invalidates color isolation as a technique, however! Experiment and see what suits you.

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    Color Isolation Examples

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    Multiple Subjects

    You may want to isolate color in multiple parts of the image, and not just a single, centralized subject. While you should be aware that this may clutter the image somewhat and make it confusing to the beholder's eye by drawing their attention very powerfully to two different parts of the image, this can also be a powerful technique. One can either use this to unite two disparate items in color harmony—or making them appear to be literal opposites with the use of color contrast.

    Somewhat more unusually, you can also make the background or some other large swathe of the image in color, while the portion you would like to emphasize in black and white. While this is generally more difficult to pull off, as the eye is naturally drawn to color over shades of gray, it can provide an interesting effect in an image.

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    Color Isolation Examples

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    Which Color?

    As you might imagine, the color of the object you're isolating can be critical to the feel of the image, arguably even define it. A rainbow in the midst black and white might feel brightly rebellious, whereas red might feel like a dystopian warning—or a call to romance. There are deep and powerful connotations associated with different colors in different cultures, and by drawing attention to that particular color or set of colors, you'll inevitably be sketching out a message to the viewer.

    Bright, eye-popping colors contrast the most with black and white, and will bring out your subject the most. However, a little subtlety might go a long ways as well: faded, toned down versions of the color may introduce a feeling of nostalgia, with the subject not so very much differentiated from its surroundings. Play around with different effects and see what you get!

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    How to Color Isolate

    While the technical parts of the technique will vary by your image editing software, here's the general idea. First, use a selecting brush to select what you want to remain in color. Then, invert the selection and turn everything into black and white. It is a good idea to adjust contrast and value separately within these two regions of the photo, so working within one selection at a time is probably best.