Do you ever look at a photo and wonder what exactly makes it so captivating? Maybe it’s the composition or posing that the photographer used. Maybe it’s the lighting. Often, these are the foundational elements that a photographer uses to create a technically sound photograph, but one of the least understood but most important elements of great photography is color theory.
(Complementary Colors - Red & Green)
To be able to utilize color theory well, a general understanding of how it works is key. Many of you probably already know that the primary colors are red, blue, and yellow (hello, elementary school art class!) and the secondary colors are orange, purple, and green, but how does this translate to creating harmonious imagery?
Because we see color all around us in our everyday lives, it can sometimes be hard to view it as an extremely important element of composition. I want to challenge you to look for it, observe it, see what colors you like when they’re placed together and others that you tend to avoid. Essentially, color theory is the study of how these colors relate to each other and change based on the other colors that surround them. All colors have relationships with each other, and these relationships play a huge role in how the overall image is perceived and the emotional reaction that we will have when we see it. One of the main ways that I incorporate color theory into my photography is through the choice of styling and location.
(Complementary Colors - Blue & Orange)
Complementary colors are colors that are directly across from each other on the color wheel (orange and blue, red and green, and purple and yellow). When these colors are next to each other, they add contrast and depth, making your photos more dynamic. This can be as simple as styling a client in a burnt orange dress and pushing your client up into the blue sky or when you shoot in a location with lots of green grass or trees, styling your client in a rust/red dress will draw the viewer's eye directly to them. Also keep in mind that there are varying hues of every color, so a burnt orange with a turquoise or a rust with an olive green is also a complementary color.
One of my very favorite types of color harmonies is an analogous color scheme. Analogous colors sit right next to each other on the color wheel and share hues. The easiest way to think about this is a warm group of colors (red, orange, yellow) or a cool group of colors (green, blue, purple). Putting these colors together allows them to smoothly complement each other where one dominates, one supports, and the other gives accent. They all have something in common, so they feel like they’re part of a family. An example of this would be styling a family with rust, burnt orange, and mustard yellow. Interested in adding in a fourth color for a split complementary? A blue/green accent will perfectly pop with a warm analogous color scheme.
(Tetradic Color Scheme)
Triadic/Tetradic Color Schemes
Want to play with more color? Try a triadic or tetradic color scheme. A triadic color scheme is one where you use a triangle shape on top of the color wheel (ex. Orange, rose, turquoise). This is also what you get when you have a client in a rust dress, blue sky and green grass. A tetradic color scheme is one where you draw a rectangle on top of your color wheel think (ex. Rose, denim blue, turquoise, yellow) - one of my favorite color combinations for the beach. These more complicated color schemes can sometimes seem overwhelming, so it often helps me to create style boards where I place everything next to each other to see how it all fits together.
Neutrals as a Base
Remember, our eyes are always trying to move smoothly through a scene, finding a natural place to rest amongst all the color. This is where neutrals come in. Neutrals are actually not represented on the color wheel because they are often a mixture of three or more colors together, which is why they go with everything. Neutrals are considered gray, brown, black and white and they contain trace amounts of any other accent color you choose. You can mix and match them with anything and they will always complement each other.
Lastly, contrary to what you might think, I generally desaturate many of my colors in post-processing. Colors in these harmonies already tend to exaggerate each other, so to keep a more unified look across the image, my saturation sliders play a huge role in unifying the overall image.
Ultimately, there is no right or wrong way to use color theory, it is simply another tool in your photography arsenal that you can use to control mood and using certain colors in your images will give you more control over the stories you are trying to create.
Fun Tip: Play around with
https://color.adobe.com/create/color-wheel to explore lots of different color options!!