Science. Art. And everything nice. These are the ingredients used to understand color in photography. Whether you’re looking to improve the works displayed on your photography website or trying to kickstart your career in the field, learning how to effectively use color is an absolute must for any photographer.
Together with light, color is one of the most important elements of photography. It affects everything from composition and visual appeal to the viewer’s attention and emotions. To help ensure you’re making the most of every scene, we’ve put together a simple guide to understanding color in photography and learning how to use it effectively.
Here’s what you need to know about color in photography:
Order of colors
Types of color schemes
Advancing and receding colors
Psychology of color
Composing with colors
Light and weather
Accessories and tools
Color in abstract images
01. Order of colors
Let’s start with the basics: kindergarten art class. Remember how fun it was to mix up paint colors to make new ones? Turns out, this is exactly how color in photography works. The only difference between color theory in photography and finger paint in kindergarten is that light works with an RGB color wheel, while paint uses a CMY one.
All the colors we see are split into three different orders: primary, secondary, and tertiary. While these categories are not clear-cut, they can serve as general guidelines on how to use color in your photos. The more pure a color is - that is, the closer it is to a primary color - the more attention it will draw to itself on the image. This knowledge, paired with other factors discussed in this article, will allow you to create compositions that feel balanced and visually appealing.
You might remember from basic biology class that humans have three types of color receptor cones in their eyes, each of them sensitive to different wavelengths corresponding to blue, green, and red colors. These three colors are known as the primary RGB colors, and all other colors in the spectrum come from combining at least two of them.
Secondary colors are those that require the visual stimulation of two different receptor cones. For example, seeing the color yellow requires a balanced amount of red and green light.
Also known as intermediate colors, tertiary colors are those resulting from the mix of a fully saturated primary color with another half-saturated primary color, and none of the third primary color. You can also get them by combining a primary color with a secondary color.
02. Types of color schemes
In order to use color in photography effectively, one must learn how to create balanced color combinations. These combinations are commonly known as color schemes. There is a series of guidelines that will help you utilize color schemes to your advantage so that your images can achieve a cohesive look.x
The three most common types of color schemes are complementary, analogous, and monochrome. Here’s what each of them includes:
Complementary colors are those found in polar opposite sides of the color wheel. There are three main reasons why complementary color schemes are so popular in photography. One, the juxtaposition of the two hues results in a bold, vivid contrast. Two, colors that are complementary inherently balance one another. And three, they simply look good together.
Remember the “orange and teal look” photography trend that took the industry by storm a couple years ago? The two colors are opposite from each other on the color wheel, making them complementary - which can perhaps account for the success of the trend.
Analogous color schemes are those that use adjacent hues on the color wheel. They’re usually based on a primary color that serves as the connection between all of them, but in some cases the dominant hue might be a secondary color. The lack of strong contrast between colors results in images that feel balanced and calming.
Analogous color schemes are often found in nature, which makes them especially popular in the fields of nature and landscape photography. Think of the rich oranges and reds of a forest in fall, or the blue and green tones of the ocean.
When we hear the word “monochrome,” the first thing that comes to mind is probably black and white photography. However, monochrome color schemes refer to any composition that uses only a single hue, with variations of its tones and shades. This type of image can be really impactful, as the subject tends to dominate the shot while still feeling in sync with its surroundings.
In recent years, monochrome color schemes have become one of the most used in photography Instagram accounts, as creators aim to give their feeds a unified look and feel.
03. Color variables
Each color has a wide range of tones and shades, which transform a basic color wheel into the complete palette of the 10 million colors humans can see. Each of the unique colors on this broad palette has a specific name, tone, and shade, which are determined by the color variables of hue, saturation, and luminance respectively. These variables are commonly referred to as HSL.
Hue refers to the radial position of a color on the RGB color wheel. It determines the name given to the color, like red, yellow, blue, or purple, and is displayed in degrees ranging from 0 to 360.
Saturation refers to the purity or intensity of a color on a scale from 0 to 100. The lower the saturation level, the closer the color is to grayscale.
Also known as brightness or value, luminance determines how bright or dark a color is. It ranges from 0 to 100, with 0 being black.
04. Advancing and receding colors
The color wheel is split between warm and cool colors. Warm colors range from red to yellow, while purple to green hues are known as cool colors. This isn’t a clear-cut division as certain tones of green and purple may sometimes be considered part of the opposite temperature.
Warm colors tend to stand out, drawing our attention right away. That’s why, for example, danger and stop signs are often yellow or red. Because of this, warm colors in photography are also known as advancing colors. On the other hand, cool colors tend to fade into the background and are referred to as receding colors.
Knowing this, you can use color to give your images visual depth by combining advancing and receding colors. For example, a picture of a yellow fish with a blue water background gives off a much stronger sense of depth than the same shot with a purple fish.
05. Psychology of color
There’s no denying that colors have a strong influence over our emotions. Because of this, it’s important to keep color psychology in mind when shooting a photo, as the hues present in the image can completely change the mood of the scene. For example, a shot of an abandoned building during the photography golden hour will feel much more inviting than the same scene shot during a gray, cloudy day.
The main emotions evoked by color include:
Red: Passion, anger, strength
Orange: Cheerfulness, vitality, fun
Yellow: Happiness, warmth, joy
Green: Nature, health, calm
Blue: Balance, sadness, coldness
Purple: Wisdom, loyalty, spirituality
Pink: Playfulness, compassion, sweetness
06. Composing with colors
When talking about photography composition rules, it’s a common mistake to focus simply on shapes, numbers, and subject positioning. However, color plays just as big of a role in your compositions as any other element in the scene.
Color in photography is as powerful as physical objects, since we perceive different hues just like we do subjects. Thus colors can be used as leading lines, natural framing, negative space, patterns, and as a means to create depth.
07. Light, weather, and color
The time of the day and weather have a direct impact on the color of the scene you’re shooting. In addition to changing intensity through the day, light also takes on different hues as the sun travels from one side of horizon to the other.
As the sun nears its sunrise point, blue light starts to illuminate the day. Shortly after, the warm hue of the golden hour takes over as the first rays of sunshine reach the ground. With each passing hour, the color of light varies depending on the weather.
Since color in photography can transmit a wide range of emotions, it’s important to keep light conditions in mind in order to capture the right message. Luckily, there are several photography apps you can use to keep track of changes in the light throughout the day.
08. Accessories and tools
There are certain camera accessories and settings you can use to gain more control over how colors appear in your images. Here are some of the most popular:
Polarizing filter: In addition to reducing the glare of reflecting surfaces, polarizing filters increase the contrast and saturation of colors. This brings the colors much closer to what they look like in real life, minimizing the need for post-production.
RAW files: RAW files save images with minimal processing and no compression, which gives you complete control over the image editing process. Nowadays, you can capture RAW files with nearly any camera, even when it comes to smartphone photography.
White balance: One of the most commonly overlooked camera settings, white balance has a huge effect on color in photography. Different light sources have different temperatures, each of which casts a distinct color. By selecting the right white balance setting on your camera, you’ll ensure that your image’s hues remain true to life - or to your vision.
09. Color in abstract images
In abstract photography, color plays a particularly important role. As subjects and scenes become unrecognizable, the different hues of the image themselves become the subjects of the shot. Capturing abstract photographs can teach you how different colors work together to create balanced compositions, as well as the ways in which different hues serve as composition elements.
10. Post-processing color
One of the most important steps in post-processing is color correction. The tools present in free photo editing software programs are nearly endless, allowing you to tweak any little detail needed to bring your images’ true colors to life. But despite its accessibility, or maybe because of it, many photographers struggle to nail color correction.
One of the most important things about post-processing color in photography is knowing when to stop. You should aim to bring the hues as close to reality as possible, rather than making them brighter and more saturated so they’ll stand out. Another incredibly important thing to keep in mind is that your photography style should not be based on altering colors beyond recognition. If you feel tempted to do so, think about what the orange and teal trend did to landscape and portrait photography.
Above all things, remember that bad color correction can feel as off-putting as Oprah’s third hand on that one Vanity Fair cover.