Why The Color RED Made Me a Better Photographer


I want some attention!

I want people to notice my photography.

I want my skills to be recognized.

It’s true isn’t it? We all crave attention.

You want your photographs to get noticed. I get it. So do I.

Photography is a challenging medium. No one will ever really master it completely. Like all art; it is constantly evolving.

When you think about “famous” photographers- for example: Avedon, Muench, Wolfe, Leibovitz, McCurry, Penn, Newton, Benson, Warhol, Newman, Bailey, Adams, Winogrand, and countless others… Had they completely mastered the medium? Or, did they simply get noticed?

Many world-renowned photographers will often say the medium cannot be mastered.

Is it conceivable that while Arnold Newman was shooting his world-famous portrait of Igor Stravinsky sitting at a piano- that perhaps Joe Middleclass conceived that same photograph, at the same time, in some un-exotic location?

Sure it’s possible. Getting noticed is where it’s at, especially in today’s online world. Getting noticed is what will elevate you, as a photographer, among your peers.

That brings me to a story that I really wanted to share with you, and that story initiated the thought behind this post.

For the last eight months, I have been very active on a photography “contest” website. They have ongoing contests, and you can enter as many as you want. As you attain a certain number of votes in a contest- you can earn an achievement, which adds up to your “rank” within the community.

I started doing this for fun, but it quickly turned into an obsession.

(That’s what my wife calls it.) It became my personal goal to earn the highest rank possible. Yes, I wanted my photographs to be noticed.

Many of you, that are active on the forums here on Lightstalking.com, probably are at least familiar with my name. For those that aren’t- I take my photography very seriously. I’ve been doing it a long time. I worked as a professional photographer for a number of years.

One of my favorite aspects of the photographic medium is composition.

Oh man… I can rattle on about composition at length.

But, I digress.

You want to know why the color RED made me a better photographer

Take a good look at this:

This is a screenshot of my profile page on the photography contest website. These are the first ten contests that I entered.

Now, in order to understand this, you need to know how the contest achievements work. The lowest contest achievement is Popular, followed by Premier, then Skilled, then Elite, and the highest level is All Star (which I didn’t even attain in my first ten attempts).

You could say that my ability to get noticed (at this point) was pretty low.

So… I began to study who was winning and why?

Something very unusual came to light! (Photographic pun intended.)

If you’re reading this- the next sentence should be very important to you. Composition is nothing more than working with the psychology of the mind. It’s the ability to ‘lead’ your viewer into seeing, and feeling, what you want them to see and feel.

You can study composition for years, and you’ll never understand all of it. It’s that complicated, but it’s also that much fun. It’s one aspect of why photography is such a great outlet for all of us, and it allows us to be recognized, because none of us sees the world in the same way. (The Shark Tank can attest to that.)

So, back to the contests-

I studied the leader boards in earnest, and I noticed something unusual.

Before I reveal that to you. Let’s look at how my revelation began to affect my results…

Here is a screenshot of ten contests from ‘after’ I had my revelation, and I began to put that knowledge to use.

Looking much better! Wouldn’t you agree? I was finally getting noticed.

I want you to really listen up. I’m sure you want to achieve a higher level with your photography. That’s why you’re reading this blog post. I see this all the time with photographers, especially new photographers; they aren’t really sure about the composition of their photograph- what’s working and what isn’t?

Now, as I said earlier, I’ve been shooting a long time. I’ve studied composition for decades. I’ve even written two books on the subject. (If you’re interested- you can check out those books here.)

You would think- that I would have easily known what I’m about to reveal to you. But, I didn’t. It didn’t click…

I cannot take complete credit for the ‘realization’ that occurred as a result of my studying these contests.

I have to give partial credit to my wife- who also happens to be a graphic designer.

Here is what I noticed about the leader boards on these photo contests.

I said this to my wife over dinner one night:

“I’ve been studying the leaders on those photo contests, and I noticed something strange. Any image that has the color RED in it garners way more votes. It doesn’t even seem to matter whether the image is that good or not, or what the subject matter is!”

A few days after saying this to her, she wrote me an email. She had been doing some studying of her own about graphic design, and she came across an article about composition in graphic design.

Here is what she sent to me-

  • Color
    Warm colors advance into the foreground and tend to weigh more than cool colors, which recede into the background. Red is considered the heaviest color.

Red is Considered the Heaviest Color

While composition is nothing more than working with the psychology of the mind, the elements of a composition are similar to a road map or a puzzle- and each element has visual weight.

The more ‘weight’ an element of a composition has- the more likely a viewer will be drawn to it, linger on it, remember it, and react to it. (And I guess vote for it!)

Knowing that fact- and knowing that the color RED is the heaviest color- gives us a lot of visual clout. Wouldn’t you say?

red betta fish
Image by Chevanon Photography

The top photograph, with the red coat, has received a 52% vote ratio on the contest website. In other words, 52% of the people who looked at this photograph- voted for it. In the bottom photograph, I changed the color of the coat to a vibrant green. It’s your call. Do you think it would have acquired the same percentage of votes? I don’t!

Stands to reason, if you want to become a better photographer? If, you want to become noticed, plan on putting the color RED into an image whenever you can!

Let me share with you some recent contests results after my revelation about the color RED- (as well as some other issues with composition that I began to implement into my submissions…)

Look at that! 9 out of 10 times the images entered into those contests reached All Star level-

https://farm2.staticflickr.com/1576/25103648211_a1e19aac71_b.jpg Photo by Kent DuFault

This photograph has received a “Yes” vote ratio of 64%. 64 out of 100 people that viewed it- voted for it! Did you happen to notice that two major brands are making use of the color RED?

Yeah! Now we’re talking.

The Color RED is a really powerful weapon in your photographic arsenal.

However- remember- that alone may not be enough.

There are many photographs that I see around the Internet, (or even over in the Lightstalking.com Shark Tank), where the photographer utilized only one aspect of composition. That rarely works. Sometime it works- but rarely- it usually takes at least three elements of composition to create a solid map for the viewer. And the visual weight of each element must be carefully considered.

There is obviously way too much information on this subject to be written here in this blog post.

But just to give it some perspective- here are some other considerations to visual weight…

  • The size of an element in comparison to other elements within the photograph
  • Contrast– light tends to attract more than dark… however dark can be heavier dependent on the balance of the image
  • Position – an element positioned higher in a composition tends to carry more weight than one positioned lower. Also, a center-positioned element can be extremely dominate depending on the balance
  • Texture – a textured element tends to carry more weight than a smooth element
  • Shape – an irregular shape is generally heavier than a regular shape
  • Focus – an element that is in-focus carries more weight than an element that is out-of-focus
  • Direction – an element that depicts movement will often create flow through an image- thus carrying strong visual weight

These are just a few of the many considerations for composition. And, as I said earlier, every photograph is an individual entity. What works for one, may not work for another. Where one image may only need one, or two, elements of composition – another might need ten to be successful.

The photograph above has reached ‘All Star” status three times, and ‘Elite” status twice. And guess what? It has the color RED! It also has FIVE other elements of composition- all working together.

The good news is- you get to have fun learning about composition.

It’s awesome knowing how to put the puzzle together for the best dramatic effect. As your knowledge grows- so will your stature within the photographic community.

You will become the one getting noticed!

If you’re interested in learning more about using composition techniques to improve your photography. Go here to check out my eBook “Understanding Composition” over at Photzy.com

In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for that color RED!

About Author

Kent is an occasional writer at our place, and also handles the weekly “Picture of the Week” contest. He has been involved with photography since 1974 and you can get to know him better here.

Sorry about that link. That’s an old website that is no longer active. If you’d like to know more about me and what I’m up to- You can find me on Facebook at “Kent DuFault Author and Photographer. You can also view my professional profile here on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kentdufault
Thanks for your interest!

I have seen the light. ( excuse the pun) Really, the puzzle is coming together. I remember sometime back taking portraits of my nieces out doors, stunning back drop beautifully framed by a tree’s bough. The photos were flat boring and unappealing. Why no red. Thank you Kent, I have something to work on.

Makes me think of Autumn colors in the forest. The changing of leaf color from greens to yellow, orange, red, brown and mixtures of all those warm colors is exciting. Indeed, people make vacations to the Northeast and the mountains to revel in the ‘happy’ colors. If it’s a less than spectacular color season, it may have to do with muted reds that aren’t so vibrant.

When the red leaves are strongly red, we have GORGEOUS fall colors!

Thanks for the share, Kent!

Using red is a classic Nat Geo trick. I always ask my husband to wear red shirts when we travel, since he is frequently my human in my shots.

It reminded me a story about the woman in a red dress who get much more complements then she was dressed in the same style of dress but in blue. Interesting….. It made my think why blood in our body is red.

Question… What “photography contest website” do you use for your analysis?

So much of what you talk about here is basic color theory. I wouldn’t say that RED is a predominate color at all. I studied color theory as a painter (and was also a teaching assistant). What I learned was that you can create a composition where any color becomes the predominate color.

In landscape photography, red is likely the most predominate color because the other two commonly occurring colors (blue and green) tend to lead our eyes to the back of the scene via tones. Placing a bright red dot in the middle will always call more attention to it. BUT to say that red is always a predominate color in any composition is just not accurate. So much of it depends on the overall scene and whether or not the background is light vs dark, cool vs warm, complimentary vs secondary, etc…

Hi Chip-
The contest website that I’m referring to is Gurushots.com. And no, I’m not saying that red should be a predominate color in every composition. I’m simply saying that when it is included (and not necessarily as a predominate color, it could be spot color)- it tends to garner more attention. So, if you have a choice in including it or not including- you may want to consider including it.

Red is complementary to green so it is especially powerful in landscape photography.
On the other hand if one person in a group shot is wearing red they are going to dominate the group- not always a good thing.

|Kent, you hit the nail squarely on the head with your statement… “Composition is nothing more than working with the psychology of the mind. It’s the ability to ‘lead’ your viewer into seeing, and feeling, what you want them to see and feel.” Great article and thanks!

Sorry, red green colour blind, red just disappears into the background and the green bike rider much more visible. Mind you that was really a 50/50 result anyway. But you are right, and I totally agree with you, best to have strong composition as well :0)

Thank you for sharing such an interesting article! I have art and architecture backgrounds and most recently I have concentrated mostly in photography because it’s preferred form creative wxpression.. Given all that I have studied and my knowledge of composition and color theory, I however, I had not deliberately (or consciously) thought of adding the “visual weight” to my photographs. I will now be enjoying and employing this new visual element!!

I have a photo wich I think is great, it has at least three of the elements but has a really low ability to attract people. I’m gonna put some red on it and see what happens!

They also get “hit” more. Seems there are colorblind folks who “back into a shadow”. My orange Volvo was hit 5 out of 7 times , when I was not driving.

How interesting! With a fashion show I have been photographing for the last 16 years they almost always close the last scene with a beautiful “RED” gown. Interestingly enough most of my images of the last red gown end up on the website, annual report, and other media. Makes perfect sense.

I have really only just started photography and have discovered from a photography course how garden design and horticulture are very similar in terms of photography. In garden design we use 3’s of plants in a scheme, symmetry, the colour wheel is very prominent In garden design, we use hot colours at the end to bring the gardens closer and cooler colours at the end to make a garden seem longer. So I’m finding this in photography also. We have to play with textures and heights so the plants stand out. In all honesty, Its come as a massive surprise to me

The only thing I remember from my Psychology of Advertising class almost 40 years ago is “If you can’t make it better, make it bigger. If you cant make it bigger, make it red”

Tracey, if you’re still interested… Shoot an email to Brett at this email address: [email protected]
Photzy is all about customer service- he will take care of you. And thanks for the interest in the eBook!! 🙂

What a great article, Kent. Thanks! It does ring true for me. A few years ago, just as a bucket list item, I was able to place three of my photographs in a gallery. The one that outsold the other two by 4x was a hot red adobe wall with three blue windows. It was my favorite, too. Your article has me thinking again! Thanks.

All this share share share, getting noticed, I have come to the point where i gained master on one site.
gained my 50,000 points on view Bug.
Not far off being a Guru on Guru shots.
has it got me noticed? I think not. Its all a damn ego. For what, And yes! me too photography as most became an obsession, costing me my savings, A life out in Borneo. and my wife, And can I get a job?
All the diverse photography I have taken. two publications in NG.
Still I cannot get work or sell my work. What good is it all to day, other then likes button being pressed by most who truly do not understand photography, And the reason why you create an image.

Thanks for the interesting perspective. I, too, am obsessed with online photo contests. I happened to be an over-achiever in Viewbug.com. I’m now going to add Gurushots.com to my daily routine!!!! Frankly, I love the contests where you get the vote or not….no critique is necessary.

Hi Kent,
very good test for this rule of composition!
I agree with you, but the rule isn’t really new.
Some days ago I heard the slogan (I think, in a YouTube-video of B&H): “If you want to make it good, make it big. If you can’t make it big, paint it red.” Red attracts attention, even the designers of road signs know that, at least in Germany, where I live.
By the way: the cyclist with the green coat has another disadvantage: the background also has green color, so it leaks color-contrast in addition to the fact, that it’s the “wrong” color.
Best regards

Sorry, but nothing new.

Every National Geographic photographer carried a pair of red (and sometimes medium-bright blue) windbreakers in their kit. If they had a shot they liked but it was missing that ‘pizzaz’, they would put the windbreakers on some locals and have them walk through the shot.

No need to be sorry Colin, good on you for providing some additional info. Might not be new to you but info is still valid and any additional info provided in comments is of benefit to all. Thx Kent for the post!

Kodak always had a red object in their promo photos also their logo is yellow and red. Just sayin’ Look back in to the 50s and 60s photos they put out also look as National Geographic in that same era.

Many years ago I took an informal watercolour course (at which I was pathetically unsuccessful), but one of the instructions was to put some red somewhere on the painting whenever you can.

I also have entered photographs on that site. Realize that the more you vote the more your images get viewed. Now here is the question.

Would you vote for the best pictures and have them edge you out of the composition?

Hi Kent, it is beautiful the way you explain the way you see. Thanks a lot for your sharing, lot of respect.
As a designer & painter using red color I know it is great. But there’s something New in your explanation and I feel lucky to receive it :-). Thank you very much

“Composition is nothing more than working with the psychology of the mind. It’s the ability to ‘lead’ your viewer into seeing, and feeling, what you want them to see and feel.”

Thanks Ken. Every composition book made or ever made should start with this sentence.

M favorite photography subject is food, and I frequently use red to add pop to the overall composition. It just seems to naturally heighten the beauty of the shot.

Wow. I’m feeling over the moon right now. Without knowing very much about GuruShots, I entered my first challenges this week, and reached All Star/Top 30% in one of the categories!! Holy smokes, how did that happen? I’m very inexperienced. Beginner’s luck, perhaps? I am feeling very good about my “eye” right now. It certainly wasn’t my photography skills. I’m shooting in automatic and barely know how to use my camera. I will give some credit to my ability to crop a photo well and the rest to my Sony RX 10. No red in any of those photos; however, I have noticed the vibrant shots I’ve posted in other challenges do seem to rack up the votes.

Yes but this isn’t the only modality and there were great B&W photographers (and still are) for whom this doesn’t apply.

Then again, i have some great colour photographs that are eye-catching that use, for example, yellow: a great yellow fire hydrant; a massive field of dandelions in the spring of daisys in the fall. But then again, you can make eye-catching photographs of the dripping greys and greens of a dank rain forest of you can find a subject of interest, and that doesn’t have to be red.

One test, I might suggest: with most B&W films red came out black. Would you image still be eye catching if shot with B&W film? If not, then you are using the red as a crutch, in place of creativity or composition.

Perhaps, I overlooked the point, but is red used as a filter on the lens, or added from a photo app. I used red in film (B&W) and it was a great changer especially with a lot of foliage.

If red wasn’t a powerful color would even consider it as the indicator to STOP on a sign of a signal. People need to see the visual that draws their eyes to the sign and signal, and that visual is red.

Hi Kent, First off I have enjoyed the article and it has made me think about my compositions further so much so I have asked my wife to either wear something red or bring something red when we go landscaping. I have also purchased a number of your e-books including advanced composition. I have found that referring to them occasionally has helped. Regards Ron.

Nothing made a Kodachrome slide ‘pop’ like some red in the image. A lot of amateurs carried red scarves, bandanas, etc., to jazz up a photo.

What a simply wonderful image. If you aren’t careful, one day you are going
to be very good with that camera stuff. The image reminds of a place down
the street from Miami… Coconut Grove.

Thank you for your work.

A friend of mine who was a cave photographer always carried a clean red shirt in his pack for his models to wear for his in-cave photos. Always stood out miles above the photos where they didn’t wear it.

I started reading your article and was really impressed with it. I even had an idea of the competition site you were talking about. I use that platform as well. Anyway, I plan on taking your advice and putting it to practice myself.

An excellent article, and it seems to confirm my observation of photo competition in general. For example, in Westways magazine’s (an AAA magazine) annual photo contest, I’ve notice the winners are those with orange and red as the predominate colors.

I do environmental portraiture on occasion and have a red umbrella on hand to add a bit of ‘drama’ to an otherwise green context.

“I want my skills to be recognized.”
“I want some attention!”
“We all crave attention.”
Does it really have to be all about having your ego stroked?
Don’t we already have too much vanity all around us these days? Selfies everywhere you look? Look at me, look at me; aren’t I pretty, smart, clever, etc.?
Can’t we aspire to excellence for more worthy, less shallow reasons?
Even just winning competitions or selling your books to make some money are more honest, deserving motives & have more fundamental merit, surely.
Yes we all like to be praised, recognised & encouraged, but too much of that is not healthy.
Can’t we just knuckle down & do our best like a good cowboy?

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