Photography Tips » Color Theory For Photography (2021)

Color Theory For Photography (2021)


Do you need to upgrade your understanding of color theory in photography? Here is a little help on how to apply it to your photography. Even though the focus of this article is nature and landscape photography, you can apply these principles in every type of photography.

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When you’re starting out in photography, it’s fine to begin by experimenting and following your instincts. But at some point, if you want to continue improving, you’ll need to add a little theory. Knowledge of the color wheel is an essential part of any artist’s education, and very relevant to nature and landscape photographers, in particular.

Have you ever set up a well-composed shot, that just didn’t look harmonious in print? Have you ever wondered why some scenes call to you while others fall flat?

The way you combine colors and contrast them against each other plays a huge role in how we perceive images. In a perfect world, when you capture a photo, the color wheel should be on your mind.

You probably have at least some sense that certain colors “go together” while others “clash,” but those judgments often seem more like a matter of opinion or taste than rules to rely on. By understanding color theory, you’ll take the guesswork out of deciding which to place together in your landscape photographs.

Photographers Color Wheel and How to Use it

The color wheel is the foundation of color theory. The first color wheel was introduced by Isaac Newton in 1666, and artists of all kinds have used variations on it ever since. He divided the colors into categories and subcategories, like the primary colors, secondary colors, and tertiary colors.

Primary and Secondary Colors

Primary Colors

In color theory, the primary colors red, blue, and yellow cannot be created by mixing any other colors. Which is also the reason for them being called pure colors. You can essentially derive all other colors from these three pure colors. These colors are quite bold and dominating when you use them in large areas in a photo.

We can also argue that each primary color is a more dominant color than secondary colors and tertiary colors. Visual pull is the ability to draw the attention of the viewer, and primary colors are exceptionally great at doing this, especially red and yellow.

having a spot of red in your images created great visual pull

Including a spot of primary color created a great visual pull in the composition using a dominant color and white tones
Photo by Miriam Espacio from Pexels

Secondary colors

Secondary colors are made by combining two primary colors in equal amounts (50%/50%). For instance, 50% red combined with 50% yellow makes orange. Mixing 50% blue with 50% yellow gives you green. Mixing 50% blue with 50% red will give you purple.

Tertiary Colors

You can get tertiary colors by mixing a primary color and a secondary color.

The wheel starts with the three primary colors – red, blue, and yellow. They are called primary because red, blue and yellow can’t be created by mixing other colors.

By mixing the primary, you get the three secondary colors – green, purple, and orange. By once again mixing adjacent colors, we get six tertiary colors, for a total of twelve different colors. This version has become something of a standard in contemporary art theory.

Warm and Cool Colors in Photography

cool and warm color wheel

You can also divide the color wheel into warm and cool colors. The half of the color wheel from red to yellow-green is considered warm colors while the half from purple to green is considered cool colors.

One of the first things you should consider as you begin to include colors more intentionally is which half of the wheel you’re using. You can also do a combination of using a warm color and a cool color.

Warm colors tend to look vivid and create an energetic feeling while cool colors tend to evoke a calm, soothing emotional tone.

Create Harmony with Colors

No matter how much or little a viewer knows about color schemes, most people have an intuitive sense of which colors combinations that work and which don’t. That pleasant feeling of balance and order is called color harmony.

Some art is intentionally unharmonious, but those pieces are the exceptions. Color harmony is essential if you want to create a feeling of peace, tranquility, or joy, and it is often the best choice even for other emotional tones.
When colors are not in harmony, images tend to be perceived as either boring or chaotic. In both cases, the human brain naturally rejects the image, creating an unpleasant experience.

There are two main ways of creating harmony, although as with any art principle there are variations and exceptions.

Monochromatic Color Scheme

When we talk about monochrome colors, we talk about a color scheme that mainly uses only one of the colors on the color wheel, but with different shades, tints, and tones. 

What are tints, shades, tones of a color?

If you add white to a base color, it is called a tint. However, if you instead add black, it becomes a shade. Adding gray to the base color, you can then call it a tone of the base color. Photographers can use this knowledge from color theory to create fantastic-looking photos by only using a single color and variations of this.

If you take a look at the image below, you can see a practical use of this. By capturing the blue bathing house during the blue hour, with its blue light. Both the building, water, and sky appeared in different variations of blue. The vivid blue bathing house offers color contrast to the more muted colors of the sky. This made it a monochromatic image, except tiny amounts of red and some of the dark wood included in the image.

monochromatic use of color theory in photography

An easy way to use monochromatic colors is to go outside and take photos of leaves letting them fill the frame. The bright colors offer color contrast to the darker areas with more color saturation. It doesn’t have to be harder than that and you can easily create compositions photos using a single color range, composition, and light. Normally we often don’t think of this.

monochromatic color photos

Analogous Color Schemes and How are Analogous Colors Used in Photography?

One way of creating harmony is to combine analogous colors. Analogous colors are within two places of each other, and they tend to subtly flow into each other, creating a gentle, peaceful appearance. Analogous colors are often found in nature, as they have less contrast than complementary colors. This is great for animals that don’t want to be seen.

Using the color theory about analogous colors is quite easy as a photographer, but you need to be aware of it when you compose your shot. Yellow to green are analog colors, but also greens and blues.

It often works best when one of the colors is allowed to dominate the image, with the others providing accents or background. In the example below, the yellow of the leaf and the yellow-green of the moss are analogous colors. Notice how the image looks tranquil and natural while also holding the viewer’s interest.

When you use analogous colors, a good rule of thumb is to make one of the analogous colors a bit more dominant by letting it take up around 60%, with the supporting analogous colors taking up the rest of the palette but without being too balanced either.

color wheel - analogous colors
Any combination of three (or max five colors) next to each other are called analogous.
using the theory of analogous colors as a photographer is quite easy

Photo by Aleksey Kutsar from Pixabay

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Use Complementary Colors in Your Photography

The second way to create color harmony is by combining colors using complementary colors. Complementary colors are found directly opposite on the color wheel, which gives you the most color contrast.

As with the analogous, complementary colors look naturally harmonious and pleasing to the eye. However, they tend to create a crisper, sharper impression because they balance and emphasize each other rather than flowing together.

In this example, the orange-blue color combinations make the yellow-orange boat stands out against the blue tones in the water and sky because yellow/orange is a complementary color to blue. Even though pure rich orange would be a better complementary color for the blue tones in this photo, it still works very well. You can also correct this in post-processing and use a hue saturation slider to make the boat orange instead of yellow.

Complementary colors in the color wheel.
An example of complementary color. Any color that is opposite each other in the color wheel
Deliberate use of color theory by the photographer
A lonely yellow boat with a blue sky and blue waters. Taken at the Southwestern Coast of Zealand, Denmark.

Complementary colors also play an important role in black and white photography, as they tend to look good and have a lot of contrast when post-processed as black and white.

Related Articles:

Summary: How to use Colors in Your Photography

When capturing images think of these different color schemes and try to include them in your photography:

  • Warm colors or cool colors: Create your image using entirely warm or cool colors
  • Use only monochromatic colors in a single image
  • Create a composition using muted colors or a bright color contrasted against darker saturated colors
  • Use a analogous color scheme for color harmony
  • Create a little more intense image with complementary colors
  • Use a single primary color against a monochromatic or analogous color schemes for visually appealling composition that grabs the viewer’s attention.

Concluding words

There’s a lot more to color theory than just the basics covered here, but this will give you a solid start. As always the most important thing is to experiment, learn, and enjoy the process. However, being aware of how color theory works will enable you to create photographs that are more interesting.

In digital photography, the opportunities to use and control colors in digital images are so much more advanced, than in the old days of film photography.

How do you use primary, secondary and tertiary colors in your photography? How do you work with color contrast to create visually appealing compositions? Let us know in the comments below!

8 thoughts on “Color Theory For Photography (2021)”

  1. Hello. I have a question about the primary colors. You said yellow red and blue, but I know for another books, articles; the primary colores are red green and blue.
    And thanks for share that information is excellent

    • Hi Héctor.

      Thank you for the question. I don’t know how the other sources you mention explain it, but primary colors are those colors that you cannot get by mixing other colors. Remember much color theory comes from how paint blends together. You cannot get red, blue or yellow by mixing colors. Therefore, they are the primary colors.

      It would give a problem if green was one of the primary colors because you would have no way to make a yellow color from the primary. Blue+green gives you turquoise, green+red gives brown and red+blue gives purple.

      However, green color, on the contrary, you can get by mixing yellow and blue, which proves that green is not a primary color. You can easily try it out with paint.

      I hope it answers your question.

      • Hi Peter

        You’re right about Red Yellow Blue being the primary colors for artists and you cannot get them by mixing other colors, but you can make any other color by mixing variations of these three. This is called Subtractive color. The color you see reflected from a painting or photograph and in nature are subtracting/taking away light from the presumed white/light background paper. If you mix all colours together you approach black (the so called absence of color/light).

        Re. Hector read the primary colors listed as Red, Blue, Green which is correct when referring to Additive color. These were created to eliminate issues with some colors (yellow looks white and red appears black) when working with light emitting transparent mediums (back lit screens; camera, computers, movies etc and theatre lights etc.). The colors for these mediums are the effects of filters and ratios of Red Blue Green light particles and pixels mixing/added together to create the illusion of other colors. That’s the way color behaves when working with light – very differently from pigment. If you ADD all the colors together it creates white light. Photographers work with light and most of them think of Red Green Blue as the primaries.

        Then you also have the printer primaries and they are Yellow Cyan and Magenta. Apparently they translate the color of light (from your camera) best. Cyan and Mangenta do not appear in nature but in printing they are the Primary colors. They’re also called Subtractive because as you add more printer ink you eliminate/subtract more of the white/light of the paper.

        Being an painter first my bias and the reality is Red Yellow Blue are true primaries – just look at a rainbow how the colors gradually shift into the next. These last two “primaries” were very confusing to me. It took a lot of research and reading many arguments between artists and painters about “ real primaries” to pull it all together to make sense when my photography club asked me to do a presentation on color. Bottom line – there are basically 3 colour wheels with three different “pimaries” depending what medium you are working with – paint, light or printers ink. But in nature Red Yellow Blue are the true primaries.

        Cheers, Heather F.

  2. If we were talking about monitors, the primary colours WOULD be Red, Green & Blue, hence a monochrome monitor is a black & white one with shades or grey. And on the opposite side of the spectrum we have the colour monitor, most commonly referred to as an RGB monitor, cuz it produces its colours using Red, Blue & Green. And if we wanted to go a step further, using the same erroneous thought process, ( but it makes sence, I promise you!) the primary colours for a printer would be Cayan, Magenta, Yellow, & Black. Hence the cartridges in a colour printer are called CMYK. If you really want to take colour theory one step further, there are 2 types of colour. Physical colour, & Colour produced through light, which are the exact opposite of physical colours. In physical colours, the presence of all colors or pigments produce black. Yet with light, The absence of all colour produces black, and the presence of all colour produces white. Using physical colours, white is produced by the absence of all colour. Enjoy!

    • Hi Drewski,

      Thanks for bringing extra knowledge to this article; it is much appreciated.

      You’re right that there is a difference between Physical colors (like in paint) and colored produced through light (like a prism). In my article, where the focus is to show how one can use colors to create better photos, I aimed at keeping things a little simple. But it is great to get the extra depth that you bring to this post.

  3. Ps. One reason it is hard to get the colours you see on your monitor to print properly on paper, aside that most people don’t calibrate their monitors, is that printers & monitors use two different colour themes that don’t match, the monitor using the RGB colour spectrum & the printer using the CMYK colour Spectrum. Sorry for the rant, hope it helps some one, or at least produces some curiosity to learn more about colours, & thanks for the Dam-fine post on colour theory!


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