Half-week homework: Color your world with the Pantone color of the year

For the last twenty years, the Pantone Color Institute has gathered representatives from international color standardization organizations to declare a single* “Color of the Year.” It sounds almost arbitrary, but a great deal of analysis is made of current trends in color, mood, and international development to determine a defining hex code for Earth As It Is Now.

*Except for 2016, when two were selected after what was no doubt a heated discussion.

The process is a bit ouroboric—while the idea is to capture a sense of the worldwide zeitgeist in the simplest possible visual language, in practice it also sets a course for the coming year’s trends in fashion, product design, interior decor, and more. Well, if sneakers can take their inspiration from what is arguably the consortium on color, why not those of us practicing an art form consisting of capturing the colors of the world around us?

The Pantone Color of the Year for 2020 is 19-4052, “Classic Blue.” (That’s hex code 0F4C81, or R15 G76 B129.) Your challenge this week is to let yourself be guided by the trend and see what you come up with. For professionals, it would be worth bearing this in mind all year, as using it in your portfolio presentations may well subliminally improve their perception for those in the industry. For enthusiasts, it’s a fun way to keep your photographic experimentation fresh. Even B&W photographers might find new inspiration in trying a few Classic Blue monochromes (see more below) or even physically making a few cyanotypes.

Here are a few of my own recent photos, taken with an eye for the blue. If you get anything cool, I’d love to see the results. Share them on our Facebook page or on Instagram tagged #mymikescamera #halfweekhomework!

The philosophic justification presented by Pantone is a nice read, rooted mostly in the calming aspects of a simple blue color. In a time of great unrest, the constancy of a vast blue sky promises the existence of something greater than us, encouraging thinking both broad in scope and deep in meaning.

Of particular note is their reference to the color of the sky at dusk and dawn, reassuring us as the latter always returns after the former fades. For photographers, this is a direct reference to the Blue Hour. While the Golden Hour is by a large margin the best-known time for emotion-rich photography, the periods of time adjacent to those sunrise/sunset hours (in which a great deal of light is still visible but the sun itself is not) can be equally valuable.

The Blue Hour (or hours, if you’re up for sunrise) is less prized for two main reasons: the mood is more somber, making it less desirable for mainstays of commercial photography like weddings and family portraits, and the amount of light available is dramatically less. A tripod is highly recommended, though a flash or other external light is less useful as it would go against the whole point of capturing a specific natural effect. In any case, the moments before dawn and after dusk can be a great way to catch a mood with your camera.

The Blue Hour

Fortunately for those with busy schedules, there are also post-processing options for harnessing the power of the Color of the Year. You can selectively highlight a particular color, or transform the look of your whole photo to focus on the mood over “realism.” (B&W photographers—this is your process for creating colored monochromes!) Videographers are intimately familiar with extreme color grading as a critical step in creating a professionally-consistent “look,” but I think many photographers haven’t really explored the possibilities. Use a subtle touch to nudge your viewer toward the story you want to tell, or use a heavier hand for abstract art or for photos to be used on (for example) packaging or an advertisement, allowing you to use a detailed photo without distracting from its purpose.

The simplest possible way to add a uniform color shift to your image is probably to create a layer in your favorite image editing program and adjust the way that that layer blends with the photo beneath it. For Photoshop CC or Photoshop Elements users, it’s as easy as creating a new layer above your image, filling it with a specific color, and browsing the dropdown menu that says “Normal” by default, just above the list of layers. Note that Overlay, Soft Light, Hard Light, Hue, and Color are usually the most effective in this context.

You can get more involved by masking the overlay so it only affects a certain portion of the image or using a gradient or brush tool to vary the overlay.

No matter how you go about adding the Color of the Year to your toolkit, I hope you get some photos that inspire your soul… and maybe calm it, too, with this year’s. Happy shooting!

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