What is a neutral color?
It really depends on who you ask. There are so many different definitions depending on different topics, it’s hard to find a solid answer when it comes to neutrals in photography.
Simply put, “neutral” means lacking color.
Neutrals tend to blend easily with other colors. They aren’t bold or saturated, and are easy one the eyes.
The colors that easily come to mind when talking about neutrals are beige, tan, ivory, off-white, etc… Black, white, and gray are neutrals, too (they definitely don’t have any color).
How can I tell if a color is neutral?
Bold colors are easy to spot, but neutrals can often leave you thinking, “Well, is that really neutral, or is it just neutral-ish?” I think with all things art related, there is some room for interpretation. Here are some different examples of neutral color definitions from different areas of the art world.
This is the most basic definition that I have found. The root word for “neutral” comes from the Latin word “neuter.” So if you metaphorically neutered a bright orange, you would end up with a beige or brown.
These are color charts of just a few colors. At the top, the colors are very unsaturated. I’ve taken that part and stretched it out underneath so you can see the subtle differences in these sections. Since there is very little color, they are all neutral. I’ve also taken a few random color samples from each section and put them on the bottom as examples. They have very subtle hues, but they are still very different if you look closely.
In fashion, neutrals are things that go well with other colors and don’t stand out. Typically khaki, beige, white, brown, black, denim, and navy are considered neutral.
In home design, I think the rules are pretty similar to fashion. Houses are usually painted a neutral color (unless you live on a beach). Furniture, flooring, and interior paint are most often times neutral shades, too.
You might also hear neutrals being referred to as “Earth tones,” especially in the art world.
This one confused me at first, because when I think of Earth, I think of green and blue. A better way to think about it is what the Earth is made of- the literal earth under our feet. Sand, dirt, rocks, mud, etc… are (almost) always earth tones.
What about grass and trees? The more alive they are, they more vibrant they tend to be. When they die or go dormant, they become a neutral color. Spring has a lot of bold colors, but during winter, the outdoors tends to be a more neutral zone. Old/dead wood, leaves, and grass often have beautiful muted tones.
People and animals are usually neutral, too. Skin tones are all neutral. Sure, there are subtle hues of red, blue, green, and yellow in all of us, but basically we are all just different shades of orange, whether we are light, medium, or dark skinned. If anyone has bright orange skin, it probably isn’t natural. Most animals tend to be neutral shades, too, because it is beneficial for them to blend in to the environment.
How does all of this relate to photography?
Well, photography is art. Photography can also be fashion, design, and nature, so it’s hard to put it all in one box.
Neutral colors aren’t very colorful; they aren’t very saturated or vibrant. Just stick with that rule, and I think you’ll be fine. Can we use soft pinks, purples, and greens? Why not? As long is it doesn’t have a lot of hue, I think we can call it a neutral color. This is all my interpretation of it, though, so feel free to make your own definition of neutrals!
Oh, and don’t forget about black and white images! They will always be neutral, but I think the challenge is finding a way to bring in a little teensy bit of color into a neutral image.
This is the same image in black and white, neutral original, and pumped up saturation. The last one is the only one that isn’t that neutral. (It is only a little bit too orange though!)
Don’t sweat the rules that much, but the next time you hear someone say, “I prefer to work with neutrals,” you can be like, “oh yeah, I can appreciate your mild color tones, bro!” … or whatever cool photographers say to each other…?
I hope this was helpful! Let me know what you think @shootaloo on Facebook and Instagram! Tag me to show me your neutral work, I’d love to see it!