The power of Yellow

“How lovely yellow is! It stands for the sun.” Vincent Van Gogh

Today I want to dive into a lesson all about colour. I have already done articles on the colours purple and blue and one exploring many different colours.

I love to photograph colour, and am always ready to let colour take centre stage in my images. 

Because, and I repeat these quotes a lot, because I couldn’t say it better:

“Color is joy. One does not think joy. One is carried by it.” Photographer, Ernst Haas


“I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for.” Painter, Georgia O’Keeffe.

Even if colour doesn’t capture your imagination in the same way it does for me – because we live in a world awash with colour, you need to be able to work with the impact that it creates, and the power that it has, so that you can master using it in your compositions.

Just a splash of yellow in this photo – but doesn’t it make a huge impact?

You don’t want your photos to be hijacked by unintentional forces – and this is what colour that you haven’t fully considered, can do to your photos.

A splash of red can distract the eye, a dark grey sky can create a feeling of foreboding on a joyful subject and just the merest hint of green could create imbalance in an image. 

We want to be intentional about everything we are placing in the frame, therefore developing an awareness of colour is vital, so that we can be in control of our compositions. 

I like to think sometimes that we are just working with shapes and forms in different colours. It can make thinking about composition much easier. 

Even though Claude Monet is talking about painting here, this totally applies to photography:

“Try to forget what objects you have before you – a tree, a house, a field, or whatever. Merely think, ‘Here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow,’ and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives you your own impression of the scene before you”. 

We create the photos. We place all the elements that we want in the frame. 

Everything is intentional, and colour is really good to focus on because it’s one of the easiest compositional tools to become aware of and start working with. 

Today I want to explore a colour that is often associated with the feeling of joy, happiness, brightness, positivity. And that colour is of course YELLOW.

Now like everything in our universe, where there is light there is also dark. The ying and the yang. 

Yellow can also invoke feelings of decay, cowardice, fear, sickness and jealousy. 

But why do I talk about the feeling of colours? 

Because firstly – photography is all about feeling. Most photos don’t ignite any feeling because most of the photos we take are not good photos.

All excellent photos are made excellent because they create a feeling within the viewer. 

It could be any feeling – awe, joy, love, fear, apprehension, melancholy, desire etc. 

And this is because it doesn’t matter how great the photo is, your viewer will never remember it or take pleasure or interest in it if it feels meaningless, devoid of feeling.

“Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.” Don McCullin

I always like to ask myself:

  • How do colours make me feel?
  • How do they affect the scene and my subject?

Yellow is a warm colour and sits next to orange and red on the colour wheel. 

It stimulates the nervous system and energises us (and painter Kandisky said that if colour were a sound it would be a joyous one) but if overused it can feel nauseating, tiring and be a strain on the eyes (rooms painted yellow are quite rare because of this fact.)

So let’s dive in and explore the different ways you can use yellow to create different feelings and messages in your photos. 

Bright yellow is very powerful, and grabs your attention, even the merest hint of it. It is bold, joyous, positive and uplifting. 

Bright yellow is used to attract attention. For example the combination of black writing on yellow is one of the easiest colour combinations for the eye to see on things like buses and signs.

It is also the colour of warning and danger. This is because it is the first colour that is seen with our eyes and that is why it is used as a warning all over the world.

What does this yellow say to you? What about the combination of bright colours? 

These splashes of yellow are so strong and vibrant, right? Bright yellow is such a dominating colour that you only need a few suggestions of it for it to really create a powerful feeling in your photos. 

For example, this photo below is very busy – but look how how striking the yellow elements are:

How about the yellow in this photo I shot in Morocco – how does it interact with the other colours?

To me the line of yellow is so bright and happy it connects with the smiling boys, and contrasts with the more sombre face of the woman.

Look at the photo below. Even though this is also a bright yellow, how do the textures of the street affect how you think about the colour?

Now to Istanbul and its famous tulips. To me this bright yellow is a burst of joy against the dull light and the grey wall. It says to me, the beauty of nature is amazing, even on the greyest, saddest of days:

Now, how about this – yellow is playing a big role in the photo – as a contrast to all the blue – and blue and yellow are complementary colours (opposites). Doesn’t the yellow here feel a little melancholy?

Let’s jump over to Cuba now. I love to place people against bold, simple and colourful backgrounds. Especially when you can contrast the colour of the outfit with the wall:

The yellow in the photo above is not as bright, and to me not a joyful feeling at all. What does it make you think of?

This photo below is one of my favourite images, and it takes on that more melancholic- decay feeling that yellow can imbue that I mentioned earlier. 

Do you think it’s the fact that it is tape on the street or the shade of yellow that creates that feeling – or maybe both? 

Now to the glorious glow of sunlight on the sea below. It’s so rich and golden. It has such a different feeling to the bright yellow, no? 

To me this golden yellow feels so opulent. It’s like summer in one colour. You can feel the radiance of the sun, its heat and almost feel this rich light on your skin. 

Now, how about the yellow glow of this street light, a totally different feeling, right? You can feel the atmosphere it creates in the early morning.

So that finished up my mini-study about the colour yellow.

Did this help you think about the role colour plays in your compositions? I would love to know – please share your thoughts in the comments below.