Spot Color Theory and Tips for Photographers

The luxury of owning a copy of the latest photo editing software doesn’t come with the automatic right to ruin a perfectly good composition using weird spot color effects. Similarly, if the composition is way off there is no way to salvage it using spot color (sometimes referred to as selective color). Unfortunately, that is exactly what many photographers do. In this video, Chelsea Northrup aims to educate beginner photographers on the aesthetics of using spot color:

There are really three things to know about using spot color: why, how and when.

Why Use Spot Color?

Really, the primary reason to use spot color would be to enhance the aesthetics of a photo. But remember, this technique will not improve an image that is poorly composed and lacks the basic implementation of the rules of photography. This is not an alternative to poor photographic skills either.

How to Use Spot Color in Photoshop

spot color technique

The easiest way to use spot color is by using the hue/saturation tool.

The easiest way to implement spot color in Photoshop is to use the Hue/Saturation tool. Simply slide the saturation tool all the way to the left to turn the image to B&W. Next, click the Mask tool, making sure you have black selected. Choose your paintbrush tool to paint the color back on to the picture.

If you have been sloppy, simply select white and erase the color (while bringing out the B&W from underneath). That’s it.

When to Use Spot Color

While the technique of using spot color is rather simple, an understanding of the aesthetics that goes behind it is not. Most people would do it for the sake of just doing it, regardless of whether or not the effect will look good on the photo. Spot color should only be used when it adds to a photo’s impact.

Tips for Using (or Not Using) Spot Color

1. Remember to use the rules of photography. Spot color will only accentuate your photo and is not a substitute for poor photographic composition.

2. Don’t use spot color to highlight something in a composition that is not the main subject of attention.

what not to do when using spot color

The last thing that you should do is spot color objects that are not the intended point of interest.

3. Especially for food photography, try to avoid using the technique on areas that are not the best bits..

spot color technique subject of focus

Here is a better implementation of spot color technique, highlighting the subject of focus.

4. Finally—the ultimate tip—when in doubt, don’t use spot color!

“Is spot color my favorite now? No, still not. But there are ways to do it so that it’s not cheesy.”

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