How John McGraw Controls You With Color

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Editor’s Note: We’re going to be out through the August 19th, 2013. So in the meantime, we’re going to be republishing some of our favorite articles from the past several years. This article was originally published on July 11, 2011.

"Manhattan Bridge" by John McGraw

"Manhattan Bridge" by John McGraw

As I was just learning photography, my mentor used to tell us to look for color first and figure out a composition second. “Color is its own subject,” she would repeat. Interestingly, the format of the class was that we shot exclusively on black & white film, but that didn’t matter: Color was what we were trained to look for first and foremost. At the time, while working in black & white, I never really understood her intentions. But when I switched to color after the class, it all clicked. As I grew more experienced, I was able to see the colors even in black & white. I was able to understand and appreciate the tonal quality differences between the colors in my photographs (even if I was working in black & white). Color is a fantastic starting point. But photographer and Shutter Photo @ Flickr Group member, John McGraw, does not just capture color. He uses color to control you, to draw you in. McGraw has transcended the teachings of my mentor and used color in a way that is utterly fantastic.

The interesting thing about all of John’s photos that are exhibited on this page is that the color is used in a way that is perhaps a little less typical. In the case of Manhattan Bridge, for example, the color exhibited only helps to make the photo that much more appealing. The deep blue sky as a juxtaposition of the rich, warm hughes of our subject, the archway, is quite dramatic. Especially in contrast to the dark and otherwise subdued building in the background. The arch is enough of a subject unto itself. Without such a vibrant use of color, I would be hard pressed to say that this photo was weak. But McGraw has added an extra punch by pushing the color envelope. What do I mean by that? I mean that the colors are a bit more saturated than one would expect in real life. The human eye, which is far more skilled at seeing light and color than even the best of cameras, would not expect to see such vibrant colors in this scene. McGraw has introduced a bit of the surreal in an otherwise accurate photograph. And that is what makes the photo so much better and stronger.

"Observer in Louisville" by John McGraw

"Observer in Louisville" by John McGraw

Manhattan Bridge was certainly one of the first of John McGraw’s works that I discovered. It served as a nice introduction to his many great works. He is certainly talented in many forms and genres of photography, but I am most drawn towards his low-light works taken in the blue hours or even the hours just before sunrise. It is during these times that I think his skills really shine. Light is restricted, but it allows you to get that much more richness out of the scene before you. Many of these shots are long exposures, usually 1/10 or longer, which is a necessity of such low-light situations. He works with smaller apertures to get a nice crisp detail at any depth, but it also allows a lot of the brightest light sources to bleed out into his scene. Occasionally, he’ll introduce some context or a secondary subject into the foreground of his wide-angle shots. This secondary subject often provides some context and helps to tell a story. We’re not simply looking at a night scene, we’re peering into the mind of a casual on-looker who is possibly apprehensive about visiting the urban landscape before him. At least that’s the short version of the story I feel when I consider McGraw’s photo, Observer in Louisville. But again, look at the sky and the colors that are present in the shot. The city’s warm lights are carried through the river and mimicked in the deep colors of the clouds. The sky at this late hour does more than provides a simple textured background, it helps to set the mood of the shot. What do you think our observer is thinking and feeling? You may not truly know, but the colors in the photograph certainly help to steer you in a certain direction.

"Sunset in Cleveland" by John McGraw

"Sunset in Cleveland" by John McGraw

More than any other compositional building block, color has such an incredible impact on your emotions.  I wonder howMcGraw’s photo, Sunset in Cleveland, might appear if perhaps it was shot at midday, or well after the blue hour when the contrasting hues of the cold sky (and it’s reflection in the water) and the warm sunset does not influence the observer.  Would the drama be entirely lost?  Would the looming shape of this large ship appear so powerful and so dominating?  I suspect not.  It’s not that the color adds much to the sense of this ship’s scale.  It’s not that the sunset serves as some sort of visual cue.  It has more to do with the reflections on the side of the ship, along its underbelly and along the roof line of the ship’s bridge.  Without color, these reflections are still present, but not as obvious to the casual observer.  McGraw’s use of color makes these reflections obvious.  It brings them into the foreground and makes them a major aspect of this photograph.  The story of this photograph is the scale and power behind this ship.  The color helps to bring that story into the spotlight.  Once again, McGraw’s use of color helps to tell the story.

Nighttime skyline shots are always dramatic.  Such a shot is a celebration of place, but it is also a celebration of light.  Lighting is important in all aspects of our world.  In the world of architecture, people make careers out of architectural lighting design.  Capturing a well lit cityscape is easy.  It’s a matter of setting up a tripod and dialing in an exposure that won’t blow out the image. Capturing such a skyline with a with all of the color…that’s the challenge.  That requires planning, good timing and some research.  But if the result is a rich and as fantastic as McGraw’s photo, Brooklyn Bridge with Rocks (below), isn’t it worth all the effort?  For starters, McGraw used a wide-angle lens, just 24mm.  Such a wide lens is great for fitting an entire skyline into a shot.  But it’s also great for fitting something in close to the camera.  John’s close-up selection:  Rocks.  The rocks add context to the shot, clearly we’re standing on the shoreline opposite of the city.  But the rock’s also add color and framing.  Somewhere between the warm context of the rocks and the warm tones of the sky itself, the main subject takes the stage.  The bridge becomes the focus.  The warm tones of the sky and the rock is pulled into the bridge, into the faces of the brick and into the bridge’s underbelly.  The one building block that ties every aspect of this photograph together is color.  Color is the common denominator.

John McGraw is of course available on Flickr where his photostream exhibits all aspects of his talents and skills with the camera.  His work spans a wide range of genres from portraiture to photojournalism and architecture.  There’s a little of something in there for everyone, and his work is inspiring.  Additionally, you can find John and his work at his personal website:  John McGraw Photography.  If you aren’t already following John’s work, I would suggest that you do.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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