Different shades of green

We call our home the Blue Planet, loosely building on what Carl Sagan once called the 'pale blue dot', after a photograph taken by the Voyager 1 space probe from about 6 billion kilometers away. The image, taken in 1990, has helped establish blue as the main color we use in reference to planet Earth. Not just from outer space, but also standing on the Earth's outer crust, blue is indeed the color that is all around us. One only needs to turn their gaze upwards to the sky and blue is what you see. If it is not covered in a blanket of grey clouds, of course. Add to that the fact that the majority of the population lives near the world's oceans and rivers and it is clear blue is everywhere. For me though, the color I associate most with our home in the universe is green. Forests, fields of grass, plants of all kinds, green is all around you if you pay attention to it. Wikipedia tells us that the wavelengths where the eye is most sensitive (both in dark and in light conditions) is smack in the middle of the wavelength we call green (495–570 nm).

Green sits in the middle of the wavelengths of visible light, as captured in this rainbow over lake Bolsena in Italy [Fuji X-T1, 90mm f2]

If that wasn't enough, the color green also plays a key role for all life on earth. The chemical chlorophyll is the pigment in plants that helps it absorb the blue and red wavelength light from the sun as the source for photosynthesis, reflecting the wavelength light back which is why we see plants as green.

Shades of green in the woods of southern Bavaria, Germany [Leica SL, 75mm Voigtlander f1,5]

In my photography, I have a sweet spot for the color green. I love layers of woodlands in slightly different shades of green, tucked away behind each other in a valley that stretches as far as you can see. To me, green seems to have a bigger range of greenness than blue has blueness. Not sure if that is at all connected to the wavelength sensitivity mentioned above, but that is how my eyes see it. Color science, or chromatics, is a fascinating field in which I am not trained at all. In this post, I just want to share my personal view on the color green in my photography and how I have become more aware of how to capture and how to use it.


Field of flowers at the Keukenhof in the Netherlands [Fuji X-Pro2, 35mm f1.4]

One obvious use of green is to contrast other colors to make them stand out. Red and yellows, but also blues come out nice and strong. In nature, green is the background, the base layer for plants and animals to hide in or stand out from. We instinctively associate green with background, which is why it works so good in photography to use it to bring all attention to the non-green. Sometimes nature will do the work for you, like in the flower shot above, and sometimes you need to orchestrate this effect yourself.

You won't see anything but the red pick-up against the green [Leica M240, 50mm Summicron f2]
A mirror image from the one above - contrast works both ways [Leica Q]

Green is the perfect background to highlight the shape of the main topic you want to capture. Take the detail of the Mayan temple below, I walked around it a few times to find an angle that would show the shape and details but without any distraction in the background. In the shot that I kept, the green naturally leads you to follow the slope of the grey structure.

Beautiful stonework at Chichen Itza, Mexico [Fuji X-T1, 90mm f2]

Even in more muted tones, this effect keeps working. Once in San Francisco, I wanted to capture the quintessential stairs of the classic, wooden houses. Walking in the streets around the famous 'painted ladies', my eye fell on this greenish mint staircase and I noticed a woman approaching in a bronze colored coat. I took out my camera and when she went up the mint staircase, I had the perfect contrast to highlight the staircase.

Classic San Francisco staircase [Leica SL, 50mm Noctilux]

Green can also help setup your subject in a different way. Through contrasts, green brings reds and yellows out in a formidable way. But in a more supporting and complementary way, green can emphasize other colors without the contrast you see with reds and yellows. This works especially well with blue. In the photo of the small Greek church below, the green serves as a pedestal for the blue and white to shine on, to be given a visual 'green' carpet towards the main event.

Greek blue and white emphasized by the green [Fuji X-E3, 90mm f2]

Framing is a classic method that works well with greens and blues too. Here are two examples below. The first was taken from a day bed in Mexico where I noticed the foliage created a frame above me. I waited for one of the large local birds to fly through the frame and even though I was a little bit too late, I liked how the green worked with the blue here. The second shot is the other way around blue framing green. Taken in a hotel on Ibiza, by focusing on the actual window frame, the greens in the landscape outside became a little like a painting.

Green frame helps the blue [Fuji X-T1, 35mm f1.4]
Green Ibiza landscape highlighted through the blue framing [Leica Q]

And then, there is green as the leading color, supported by the other colors. This week, I've been on holiday in the south of Germany, at the foot of the alps. The woods are intensely green, a mix of pine and leaf trees creating a variety of green tones that change as the sun travels across the sky. The shot below was taken from the lawn of our hotel and the fading sunset helps outline the two major tones of green here, the dark trees and the light grass.

The fading sunset setting up the dark and light greens [Leica SL 21mm Voigtlander f1.4]

I'll end this post with a photo taken in Scotland, on the isle of Skye. There are very few other colors in this photo and green is the main attraction here as well. But even without other colors, the shades of green work very well. The muted greys of the rocks and paths as well as the light and cold blue sky create space for the green to be both background and main topic at the same time.

I enjoyed reviewing some of my photos and paying attention to the role that green played in them, intentionally or not. It has taught me quite a bit and will help me with future color compositions. I highly recommend doing the same.

The beautiful isle of Skye in Scotland [Leica Q]




Sharing insights on the art of photography - Erwin Hartenberg Photo