In an instant, colour transports us. It’s the faded pink of an old building that recalls quiet chatter on a side street, and the green of trees that create a yearning for home. In this guide to shooting and editing colour, I pay homage to the palette of Sri Lanka, and share some insights on my photographic process.
Words and Photography by Mandy Sham
When I got off the plane from Bengaluru to Sri Lanka, the sky was already dark — a country’s most vivid offerings largely obscured, cloaked in a thin veil of moonlight. I remember the air having the smell and texture of ocean water. This was a treat in and of itself, but to wake up the following morning and see Sri Lanka in daylight was a feast — the sensuality of its tropical greens, citrusy warmth, and storefronts faded in a plethora of shades.
Sri Lanka for me is a living homage to colour, and I wanted to reflect my time there through its palette. The use of colour is a powerful element in my photographic work — it communicates every inch of emotional embodiment of a scene. Here, I’d like to share some of the ways I’ve used and shaped colour to inform my photographic identity.
Sharpen your eye
Photography comes with some universal truths: shoot, then shoot some more. Putting the art of observation into motion requires doing that very thing. But I’d also like to put out a reminder that the craft doesn’t stop when you put the camera down. In the same way that one actively listens, encourage yourself to actively observe as well — people, light and time of day, and especially colour.
I’ve never been a huge proponent of formalised learning, and while there are all kinds of things you can Google on what colours go together or how to edit them better, the bottom line is to ask yourself: when you’re actively observing day-to-day life, what stands out to you? What colours or colour combinations do you gravitate toward? Find what you like and lean into it. Don’t overthink the process too much.
“Start off by being more selective. Pick the colours you naturally gravitate toward and focus on them.”
Zoom in rather than out
When I first got into photography, my tendency was to shoot things from afar. The further removed I was from a subject, the more comfortable I felt capturing it in images. This is playing it safe — capturing the broad strokes of an experience instead of the details. With time, I realised that being more specific with what and how I shot helped my work resonate with more people.
This rule applies to colour too. When you involve all colours with no regard for how they relate to each other, you dilute the message. Colour is about focusing the message, so start off by being more selective! You can pick the colours you naturally gravitate toward and focus on them. Soon you’ll notice how they look in tandem with other colours, and inform the scene.
Dedicate experimental photo days to colour
We’re often bombarded with lots of factors as photographers. Is the light right? How about composition and exposure? Sometimes it’s too much to execute all of these consistently.
Spend a day shooting with colour as the isolated focus. The composition doesn’t have to make sense — just shoot colours that are pleasing to the eye! It can be the coordination of colours of adjacent houses on a small neighbourhood street, or the colour of flowers you find on the side of a road. Maybe a stranger walks by with an outfit that matches the palette of a wall.
Commit yourself to only shooting things with colour as the sole thing informing you. That will also train you to look for visual patterns and start capturing them more naturally.
Isolate colours when you edit them
Now to the real juice of where colour is best manipulated: the editing process. In my post-production process and with editing, I like to fiddle around with groups of colours separate from one another. We’re talking an umbrella of red shades that are separate from an umbrella of green shades. With that in mind, edit the green separate from the red. Don’t limit yourself to the ‘batch’ effects of editing filters and the all-purpose saturation tool (my personal opinion: don’t touch that one!)
Be exploratory with this process because it is often where you develop not just an eye but a preference for colour. Fiddle with them one at a time and make note of what difference it provides to the photo with that singular change — better, worse? What happens when you lighten the green colours, warp it into a completely different kind of green (from yellow-green to forest green, for example), or saturate that colour on its own?
In a place as lush as Sri Lanka, green is the predominant colour; it is without a doubt what first comes to mind when I look back on that trip. It’s evocative, but I also don’t give it a singular treatment. I’ll vary the tone of the green itself, depending on how it works with the other colours in the scene and how I’d like to remember it. (Throughout this process, you’ll also find over time that you gravitate to editing specific colours while not touching others. I almost always fine-tune the green, and often the yellow and blue, but almost never red or purple spectrums.)
“I gravitate toward warm colours, and will try to shoot in favourable light conditions where light is yellow or pale orange.”
Don’t forget other variables that affect colours
Tone, tints, shadows, highlights — they all inform the overall output! It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the myriad treatments you can apply to colours, but this is what’s great about editing them — the ability to take all these options and develop a unique style. And remember there’s no right or wrong treatment, or one singular template for it. Personally, I gravitate toward warm colours, and will try to shoot in favourable light conditions where light is yellow or pale orange. When I can’t, this is where editing becomes ideal. I’ll make images warmer in post-production, and fiddle around with other parameters like tone to achieve the look I want.
“Manipulating colour does not equate trading in the sincerity of a shot.”
Shoot and edit with resonance
For a long time, there were photos I’d balk at the before and afters of — with the ‘after’ scarcely resembling the initial shot. Ultimately though, the end result was what resonated most with me. Manipulating colour does not equate trading in the sincerity of a shot. When you are editing, I believe it’s a balance of reflecting the authenticity of the moment with representing how that place felt to you. Use colour to convey the relationship you have with what you’re shooting. As abstract as it may sound, I find this guiding principle very integral to my work. Really experiment until you reach a point where the photo resonates with you. Photography is about conveying an experience, and we all are most capable of doing that.
There’s a moment in Sri Lanka I won’t soon forget, not least because it evoked light and colour in such a surreal way. I was walking through a patch of forested hills that now and then opened up into vast fields, cascading down into a shallow valley. A sky obscured by clouds and mist had opened up briefly, allowing golden hour rays to filter down through the foliage and onto a largely empty, tranquil road. Capturing photos of this moment doesn’t compare to the magnitude of the real thing, but I’ll always cherish the ability images have to conjure the emotional imprint of an event. It’s the colours that speak to me most, in the end — that intangible bridge bringing you to the source of why you capture moments at all.