A Viewfinder Darkly

Photography tips and tutorials

How to Create a Colour Splash Photo with the GIMP

November 15 2012

by Philip Northeast

Colour splash is a compositional tool where photographers use a mixture of colour with black and white representation to separate the subject from the background in the photo editing process.

This technique can easily be overused, and this lead to it becoming one of photography’s cliches. This doesn’t mean never use the colour splash technique.

Red dress

Lady in a red dress with a black and white background

Photographers should try to only use it where the contrast between the coloured subject and the black and white background is part of the story of the photo.

Too often it is used in an attempt to fix poor composition where the photographer uses the colour splash technique to hide distractions, or emphasise a weak subject.

The photo of the blond in a red dress shows everybody is ignoring her.  The surrounding décor and clothes are predominantly dark and grey.  Showing her in full colour while the other parts of the image are black and white accentuate this feeling of isolation.

The principles of the colour splash technique use basic photo editing tools. Start with a full colour photo and select the area to stay coloured, then remove the colour from the rest of the photo. This is an application of selective editing that photographers use to perform a variety of adjustments to their photographs.

Because selective editing is a used in so many different areas there are a number of selecting tools in photo editing apps.  Even though the tutorial is based on the GIMP, a free photo editing package,  it still offers a choice of selection tools.

Red dress selection tools

The GIMP’s selection tools

The first step is to open the photo in the GIMP and save a copy as a an .XCF type file.  This not only provides a copy to work with, but as this is the GIMP’s own file format and it ensures that progress on creating a complex selection can be saved.

I prefer the GIMP’s free select, or lasso, tool for creating selections because it gives complete control over the exact positioning of the selection’s boundary.  Photographers use the computer’s pointing device, either a mouse or graphics tablet and pen,  to create a selection that is outlined by a marching ants outline.

There are two ways to indicate the selection edge. One is to click and hold the button to draw a continuous line, and this is ideal for complex shapes.  The other is to click, then release, and as the pointer is moved it drags out a straight line that is completed at the next click, reminiscent of children’s join the dots drawings.  This second method is well suited to large simple shapes. The two can be combined while creating a selection.

Red dress photo in the GIMP

The colour splash phot featuring the red dress being edited in the GIMP

In the tool options dialog box photographers can select an editing mode from a menu of icons.  This allows photographers to add new areas to the selection or to cut areas from it.

One advantage of manually creating the selection is in the shadow areas where the edge of the object is hard to define. Using a manual method to create the selection allows photographers to estimate the position of the object’s boundary based on their knowledge of the underlying shape of the object.

tool options menu

The GIMP’s tool options menu

To achieve accuracy use the + and – keys to zoom the view and hold down the space bar while moving the pointing device drags magnified image in the window.

It is prudent to keep saving the image while creating the selection so that a complex selection is not lost. This also allows the selection to be created over more than one session.

 invert selection menu

The GIMP’s invert selection menu with the initial selection highlighted by the marching ants outline

Once the selection has been created, and saved, then use the GIMP’s Invert selection option from the select drop down menu. This means any editing actions are now applied to the areas of the image outside the selected object.  Then desaturate the inverted selection using the Hue-saturation dialog box located in the Colours menu.


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