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How to Add Warmth to Your Photos

written by: •edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 12/21/2009

Adding warmth to a photo is a wonderful way to make your photos feel full of life... but how do you do it? There are two main methods, physical changes to how the image sensor perceives the scene, and then what you do with the digital file afterwards. Here are 10 easy techniques.

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    Subject Matter

    This may seem a bit obvious, but this is the single easiest way to create a photo with real warmth. Yellow leaves in the autumn, use of subtle blush on a model, all are ways to bring a little warmth to your photos. While some subjects obviously can't be altered, like the side of a building or the color of snow, specifically seeking out warm-toned subjects for a photo that you desire to feel warm will make the process much easier.

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    Warm subject=warm picture. Credit: Ally ChevalierCandelight. Credit: Ally ChevalierDawn lighting. Sunset lighting. Dawn Lighting.
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    If you're working in controlled settings, simply using warm lighting will give everything a warm cast. Avoid LEDs, which are cool and blue, and use warmer feeling lighting. Candles provide a beautiful glow to any scene. If you don't want to invest heavily in candles, try filtering cool light through a fine skin- or other warm-toned cloth, such as pantyhose (though note that this will also provide a slight diffusing soft glow effect.) Reflecting cool light off of warm surfaces, for instance the walls of a salmon-colored room, will also work. Going outside during warmly lit periods, such as cloudy days, or during sunset or dawn, will also give you a fine palette of warm colors to work with.

    Be careful, however: the photo might turn out too warm with such lighting. How to deal with overly warm photos are discussed later in the article.

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    Color Contrast

    Want to bring out the warmth in your photo? Add in some cold. Throwing in cool-colored elements, like a crisp winter sky or blue clothing, will make the warm colors pop all the more. A cool background will make a warm subject stand out all the more. It doesn't have to be overpowering contrast either, just subtle little things like a scattering of blueish slate tiles on a garden path, or water droplets reflecting a cold gray sky.

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    Contrast! Contrast. Contrast.
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    Camera Lens Filters

    If you're into using lens filters on your camera, this is an easy way to create warmth in your photos. Find warm colors, yellows and oranges and reds; there are many glass filters produced specifically for this purpose.

    However, keep in mind that it is difficult to reverses any changes made with lens filters. Additionally, these tend to be a bit pricey. While you can also make your own for cheap, as this DIY color filter article outlines, they also tend to be bulky to carry around and time consuming to take on and take off. It's also quite limiting compared to many other means outlined in this article, as the intensity of the color filtering is preset and unalterable.

    And now, onto adding warmth through digital means...

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    Tips on Adding Warmth to Your Digital PhotographsThis is page two of a two page article that describes how to add warmth to your photos, here through digital means. Careful use of white balance filters on-camera, including weather filters such as the cloudy day, sunny day and indoor filters, can add warmth. Editing your photos on the computer, there are numerous ways in which you can edit your photos to include more warmth, either by using preset color filters or by manually adjusting color balance and levels. Use of sepia may also provide the ultimate in warmth. Using multiple methods in conjunction with each other can be highly effective, although be careful not to have too much warmth.
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    On-Camera Digital Filters

    People tend to forget the power of the digital filters that your on-camera software provides. Depending on the camera, there are often straight warm and cool modes to, for instance, achieve different skin tones. Many cameras also allow you to create custom color balances—check your user manual for how to take advantage of this. Every camera is a little bit different!

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    Lighting Condition Filters

    Don't have specific color filters on your camera? Those lighting condition filters may also be utilized. Using a cloudy day filter when it is in fact sunny will wash your photo with warmth, or sunny day whilst indoors. The options available vary considerably by camera, as will the precise mixture of yellow and red. Vegetation filters tend to be quite warm, for instance, in a different way than cloudy day filters. Experimentation and eventual familiarity with your camera is needed to take advantage of these easy options.

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    Yellow filter. Reddening filter. Yellow filter. Yellow fitler. Yellow filter.
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    Computer Color Filters

    Image editing programs provide arguably the most simple yet most intricate way to add color to your photos. Degrees of manual control vary: some options are completely preset, while others such as Google's Picasa provides a literal color thermometer you can scroll on, or with precise adjustment of color balance. To discuss more specifically:

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    Preset Color Filters

    Many photo editing programs, such as Photoshop, have preset color filters that you can apply to your photos. For some programs, these precise color filters may be downloaded on the web; some photographers will even provide their particular color balance on their website!

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    Levels & Color Balance

    Want to do something a bit more specific? You can manually change the warmth of your photo by adjusting the color balance of a photo. For instance, in GIMP, you can adjust color balance in three tiers, shadows, midtones and light, along three axes, cyan-red, magenta-green, and blue-yellow. This allows you much control over the precise temperature picture in your photo.

    Adjusting levels is another technique to adjust colors, albeit one that requires a bit more delicacy and a bit more patience—and a lot more experimentation. Instead of adjusting shadow-midtone-light, you adjust the gradient of the line with multiple points. It takes a while to get the hang of, but it's well worth it because of the sheer control it gives you over the color balance—and especially warmth—of your photos.

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    Sepia is the essence of warmth, and a very specific technique with which one may add warmth. This may be achieved through a variety of means, primarily with digital editing techniques either on-camera or on-computer.

    Color distinctions fade away with sepia; it is monochrome, after all. It is best to use sepia on photographs that have compositional and textural differences between elements of the photograph, and that don't rely on color to create . Use of sepia also provides a connotation of age, of antiquity, of the vintage, of the traditional, so keep this in mind when trying to shape the mood of your photo.

    This article provides an excellent look at the overuse of sepia tones, here specifically with wedding photography.

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    Of course, using multiple methods in conjunction with each other is perfectly OK, even complimentary. Just keep in mind all the different variables you're introducing to the situation. Sunset lighting on a model with heavy blush might make the image feel sunburnt rather than sunwashed. Similarly, using a sunny day filter indoors may result in artificially orange figures rather than glowingly alive.

    Be careful that you don't make your photos too warm. This article provides an excellent photo editing software technique for taking out some of the warmth of photos to make it feel more natural and not just more cool-colored.

    For more information on the effect of different colors on the mood of a photo, such as cool colors or specific combinations of yellow-green and red, check out this article.