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What is the color splash effect?

The color splash effect is a popular photography technique where most of the image is in black and white or muted colors, except for one or two elements that stand out in vibrant color. This draws the viewer’s eye to the colored elements and creates a dramatic, eye-catching image.

How the Color Splash Effect Works

To create the color splash effect, a photo is converted to black and white or desaturated so that only the selected elements remain in color. This is usually done digitally in photo editing software like Photoshop, though it can also be achieved in-camera on some DSLRs and mirrorless cameras.

There are a few different ways to isolate the color in Photoshop:

  • Using adjustment layers like Black & White and Hue/Saturation to desaturate the whole image, then selectively brush back color onto specific areas.
  • Making a selection around the colored area and creating a layer mask to hide the effect from the rest of the photo.
  • Using blend modes like Color to tint the grayscale image.

The key is controlling where and how much color appears in the image. With careful selections and blending, the color can be limited to specific objects to really make them stand out.

When to Use the Color Splash Effect

The color splash effect works best when there is a logical reason for certain elements to be in color. For example:

  • A person wearing a brightly colored shirt
  • A red flower standing out against green leaves
  • A blue car on a gray street

Areas of color that clearly relate to the main subject help tell the visual story and direct the viewer’s gaze. Abstract splashes of color that don’t connect to the content of the photo can feel random and distracting.

Tips for an Effective Color Splash

Here are some tips for taking color splash photos that draw the eye in just the right way:

  • Choose a complementary color – Select a color that contrasts well with the black and white parts of the image, like red with gray or yellow with blue.
  • Use color selectively – Limit splashes of color to one or two key elements rather than coloring whole sections.
  • Mask accurately – Take time to precisely mask around the colored objects to make the effect look realistic.
  • Make color pop – Boost the saturation of splashed color so it looks vibrant against the more muted backdrop.
  • Watch light and tone – Match the brightness and contrast of the color to the rest of the photo.

When Not to Use Color Splash

While color splash can be eye-catching, there are times when it may not be the best choice:

  • For everyday snapshots – Color splash works best when applied intentionally to carefully crafted photos.
  • When the setting doesn’t suit it – Black and white may not complement bright, colorful scenarios.
  • Poor technical quality – Heavily editing a blurry or noisy photo rarely looks good.
  • Concept doesn’t make sense – Random splashes of color can seem pointless without purpose.

The technique is most effective when the photographer intentionally envisions the color splash before capturing the photo in-camera. Trying to create the look by editing a photo not suited to it often gives underwhelming results.

Examples of Great Color Splash Photos

Here are some examples of skillfully executed color splash photography:

Photo Description
Red balloon A red helium balloon pops against a cloudy gray sky. The bright color and round shape draw attention.
Blue flower A vibrant blue flower stands out against a sea of green plants. The complementary colors heighten contrast.
Yellow license plate On a black and white city street, the yellow license plate of a parked car grabs the viewer’s focus.

In each image, strategic use of color splash highlights the main focal point and creates visual interest in the photograph. The effect directs the eye without being distracting.

Creative Color Splash Ideas to Try

Once you get the hang of basic color splash technique, try some creative ways to implement it:

  • Color gradients – Let color fade gradually from vivid to gray for a subtle effect.
  • Duotones – Tint the black and white base image with a wash of hue.
  • Grunge effects – Add film grain, vignetting, and scratches to give a gritty, vintage look.
  • Infrared style – Mimic infrared photography by tinting foliage red for an otherworldly vibe.
  • Selective desaturation – Remove color from everything except the splash elements for high contrast.

With image editing software, the possibilities are endless for putting your own spin on color splash photos.

How to Shoot Color Splash In-Camera

On some DSLR and mirrorless cameras, you can achieve the color splash effect without any editing required. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Set the Picture Style to Monochrome to shoot photos in black and white in-camera.
  2. Take test shots to determine the lighting and composition.
  3. Switch the Picture Style to Standard color and take the final image.
  4. In post, convert the color image to black and white except for the splash elements.

This technique ensures the lighting and tone are balanced for black and white conversion later. Elements preserved in color will stand out beautifully.

Should You Edit Color Splash Photos?

Post-processing can help enhance color splash images through techniques like:

  • Sharpening – Increase clarity around color edges
  • Noise reduction – Minimize grain in solid black or white areas
  • Dodging and burning – Lighten or darken parts of the photo
  • Color adjustment – Refine hue, saturation, and brightness

Done with a subtle touch, editing can make the color really pop without looking artificial. But take care not to overprocess – part of the appeal of color splash is its straightforward simplicity.


When used purposefully, the color splash technique can transform an ordinary photo into something much more captivating. The high contrast draws the viewer’s gaze to the most important elements of the image and creates visual punch.

With some practice and creativity, anyone can master the color splash effect. Adjusting the amount and placement of color can dramatically change the look and focus of a photograph. It’s a versatile editing style that never gets old.

So give it a try, whether shooting in-camera or applying the effect in post-production. Color splash is a fun way to showcase your photographic subjects in a memorable new light!