Colors in Photography: All There Is to Know about White

Colors in Photography All There Is to Know about White

This is the first article in our new series on colors in photography. We’ll delve into the role of colors and their significance in photography. We’ll also explore the psychology of colors, how they’re used for marketing, and take a look at their historical context. Let’s get started with a somewhat controversial color, one that is technically not even a color— white. 

White is formed by reflecting and blending all wavelengths of light simultaneously. It is the opposite of black, which absorbs all colors. For the sake of simplicity, it’s better to consider white a color, an essential color.

Colors in Photography: White
© Ondrej Čechvala

In essence, we perceive colors based on how light reflects off objects. However, if you examine each wavelength of the color spectrum, you won’t find white. Due to its achromatic nature, white proves to be incredibly versatile and contains a wide range of applications.

Colors in Photography: White
© Ondrej Čechvala

Using white as a neutral background or for creating striking contrast can enhance your photographic compositions.

Contrast can be achieved not only in conjunction with black, but also with any other color. Despite this versatility, white is associated with specific cultural patterns and rules, guiding us in more purposeful and creative uses.

Colors in Photography: White
© Ondrej Čechvala

1. The psychology of white

In Western culture, white primarily symbolizes purity and innocence, as well as simplicity, illumination, goodness, and peace. It is also a symbol of new beginnings, representing a blank canvas that offers a chance to start fresh.

These attributes have been associated with the color white since the ancient Greeks linked it with divinity. However, cultural interpretations vary. In China, white is connected with death, mourning, and sadness. Despite these peculiar connotations, it is still considered the color of all things pure and good. It embodies the principle of yang, balancing the darkness inherent in the yin principle.

Colors in Photography: White
© Ondrej Čechvala. A minimalistic white background accentuates a serene riverside scene.

However, using white in your photography doesn’t guarantee universally positive impressions. Like utopian sci-fi movies, excessive white in your photos might convey feelings of detachment, sterility, loneliness, and coldness. Therefore, exercise caution when using white in your photography.

Colors in Photography: White
© Ondrej Čechvala. The dark sea combined with white lifeboats can evoke an unsettling atmosphere.
Colors in Photography: White
© Ondrej Čechvala. White, a symbol of positive energy, is a part of our daily lives, especially in wedding ceremonies.
Colors in Photography: White
© Ondrej Čechvala

2. White for marketing and design

In marketing, white conveys feelings of reliability, certainty, safety, freshness, openness, and visual purity. It often serves as a neutral backdrop to emphasize other colors, textures, or objects. While minimalist designs are trendy, white can easily veer into feelings of sterility.

White is also a popular color for creating logos, because it forms a strong contrast with almost any other color. Consider logos like Starbucks, Coca-Cola, or Facebook, based on the simple interplay of white with green, red, or blue.

3. White in art

White has been present in art since Paleolithic cave drawings, making it one of the earliest known colors used in art. In Western tradition, white is strongly tied to the representation of the sacred, not only among the ancient Greeks and Romans but also in Christianity, which adopted this symbolism.

Colors in Photography: White
© Crucifixion with the Mournful Virgin and St. John the Evangelist
Rogier van der Weyden (1455-1465)
Colors in Photography: White
© Balcony, Édouard Manet (1868 – 1869)

In the twentieth century, white was extensively used by modernist movements to emphasize a utopian world of clean shapes, uniformity, equality, or infinity, as seen in Kazimir Malevich’s “White on White.”

Colors in Photography: White
© White on White, Kazamir Malevich (1918)
Colors in Photography: White
© Ondrej Čechvala. White is prominently featured in modernist architecture photography.
Colors in Photography: White
© Ondrej Čechvala. White isn’t only present in modernism. White has been intertwined with architectural trends continuously to this day.

4. Colors that complement white

A significant advantage of white is its ability to pair with a wide range of other colors. You may encounter various shades of white, such as ivory, cream, or pearl, each a combination of white with different color undertones.

Due to white being a neutral color, it complements any color. Black is complementary to white, creating a strong contrast, familiar in black and white photography.

Colors in Photography: White
© Ondrej Čechvala. White combined with subtle hints of blue and yellow.

In our series on color, we’ll gradually introduce all the primary colors and explore each aspect, from history to psychology.

Receive our weekly newsletter to stay on top of the latest photography trends

Subscribe to receive the best has to offer

Invalid email

By confirming the subscription, you consent to the processing of your personal data for receiving newsletter. Learn more in our privacy policy.

AuthorOndrej Cechvala

Photography is not only something I enjoy, but it also pays the bills. You’ll either run into me photographing a wedding or wandering the world, camera in hand. I travel everywhere, from the Arctic Circle to the Equator. To me, Home is anywhere where you can find people with a smile. I enjoy collecting stories of people and places which I later arrange into longer photographic series. Some of these can be found on my website.

Comments (0)

There are no comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *