Put Color Theory to Work in Your Photos

Learning color theory is traveling a road that, if you go too far too fast, will make you feel a bit like Alice — who, after eating a strange piece of cake and growing so enormously tall that she could no longer see her own feet, uttered the famous words, “Curiouser and curiouser.”


Origins of Color Theory

Depending on which books you read and how far in history you go back, the story of color theory includes, among other notable characters, Leone Battista Albeirti (c. 1435), Leonard da Vinci (c. 1490) and even Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who in 1810 published a 1,400-page treatise on color.

If you want to go back even further, you could drag in the ancient Egyptians, whose color theories were so strictly tied to religion that artists were told which colors they could use for certain subjects — and any variations from those options were severely frowned upon. And we all know just how severely the ancient Egyptians could frown upon things they didn’t like.

For photographers, however, perhaps the most significant study of color begins with Sir Isaac Newton, who in the late 1660s used a prism to divide light into the color spectrum with which we are all so familiar today (but that probably had some of Newton’s contemporaries muttering the word “witch” behind his back).

Newton, not being one to leave a good thing half done, then joined the ends of that linear spectrum into a circle, thus creating the prototype for the color wheel that artists and photographers use today.

The Color Wheel

The color wheel is essentially a visual representation of the colors in the spectrum, and it has many interesting uses. The primary practical use for photographers is to help us study the visual and psychological impact of various color combinations.

Pink and violet live in harmony on the color wheel.

It’s a fascinating topic — one you could spend a lifetime studying. But being aware of just a few of the potential combinations of colors will enable you to choose themes to enhance and manipulate the mood of your photos.

Here are five basic color themes:

1. Monochromatic color. This is the use of a single color (or very closely related colors) on the color wheel in various intensities and levels of saturation. If you were photographing ferns on the forest floor, for example, you might tighten the composition to limit your palette to a variety of shades of green. Monochromatic color schemes are often interpreted as very soothing or calm.

2. Analogous or harmonious colors. These are colors that are adjacent to one another on the color wheel. In the photo of petunias above, for example, the pinks and violets are very close to one another on the color wheel and, in fact, gradually merge into one another on blended color wheels. As with monochromatic colors, adjacent colors tend to create a feeling of harmony and peacefulness. Because these color pairs are often found occurring naturally in nature, landscape designers and florists are big on analogous color combinations.

3. Complementary colors. These are two colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel and that typically compete with one another. You might photograph a warm tone (yellow) ball of yarn contrasting with a cooler one (blue), for instance, in a still life. Complementary colors draw attention because of their inherent visual contrast.

4. Split complementary colors. This is where you use a particular color and the two colors adjacent to its complement. If green were your main color, for example, then red would be its complement. The two colors on either side of red would be the adjacent colors. A split complementary color scheme provides good contrast, but without being as brash as a straight two-color contrast.

5. Triadic colors. These are three colors equally spaced around the color wheel–red, yellow and blue, for instance. The combination of these three colors tends to create an interesting feeling of both contrast and harmony and tends to make compositions look more balanced. Still life and product photographers often use a triadic color scheme for that reason; it’s both vibrant and attractive.

There are actually a few more color combinations that you can read about online or in a good color book, but like I said at the outset, the further in you go, the more your head may begin to spin.

Not to worry, though. As with Alice, eventually your thoughts will shrink back to normal size and the world will start to make sense once again.

5 Responses to “Put Color Theory to Work in Your Photos”

  1. What a great post. It's high time I did some freashening up in the colour department. This is just the nudge I needed, thanks!

  2. Well put - nice n simple but covers a lot!

  3. Thanks Dale, I'm honored. I just looked at your site and your work is incredible! I'll be looking at your photos all afternoon 🙂 jeff

  4. Adobe Kuler is a great tool for finding colours that match in all the above themes.

  5. Hi Jeff,

    Nice article on colour theory and its application. You remarked"There are actually a few more color combination s that you can read about online or in a good color book" Can you tell us the links and book titles? I am interested to read further.

    Thank you for the article and your guidance.

    Santosh K. Patra

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