Collect art, science, and all the beautiful things. These are the ingredients that are used to understand color theory in photography.
Whether you’re a beginner trying to build your career in the photography field or someone looking to enhance the works displayed on their photography website, understanding colors and learning how to effectively use color theory in photography is a ‘Must’ for every photographer.
Along with light, color is one of the most essential elements for photography. It affects everything from the viewer’s attention and emotions to composition and visual appeal. To make sure that you bring the most out from your every click, I’ve articulated a simple yet in-depth guide to making you understand the use of color theory in photography.
Firstly, let’s understand.
What is Color Theory?
Color theory is both the art and the science of using colors. It explains how colors mix, match, and contrast with each other that stimulates the visual appeal and how humans perceive colors.
In color theory, colors are arranged on a color wheel in three different groups – primary, secondary, and tertiary. This traditional field of art helps photographers to choose the color groups that can focus on different feelings and emotions in a photograph.
Understanding Color Theory in Photography
There are 10 things that you need to know about color theory in photography:
1. Order of colors
Let’s go back to being children in schools to understand this part of color theory in photography. We used to mix the paint colors and get astounded with the new colors they’d form. Interestingly, that’s exactly how color theory in photography works.
The only difference between those magically formed colors in schools and the color theory in photography is that – paint uses a CMY color pattern, where light works with an RGB color wheel in photography.
All the colors we see are parted into 3 different categories:
While these categories aren’t a broad specification, they can serve as the basic guidelines on how to use colors in your photography. The more the color is closer to primary, the more pure your color is – that is – the more attention it’ll catch to itself in the photo.
If you were interested in science in school, or even in arts, you must’ve learned that humans have 3 types of color receptors in their eyes. Each of them sensitive to different wavelengths, corresponding to green, red, and blue colors.
These three colors are the primary RGB colors. All the colors that you’ll see in a color spectrum are formed by combining at least 2 of them.
Secondary colors are formed by mixing any of the two primary colors. These must require a balanced amount of any of those two chosen colors.
Tertiary colors are the result of mixing a fully saturated primary color with another half-saturated primary color, and none of the third primary color.
Simply put, tertiary colors are obtained by mixing equal parts of one secondary color and one primary color.
2. Color Schemes
To use color theory in photography effectively, you must learn how to create balanced combinations of colors. These combinations are generally known as color schemes.
There are three most common types of color schemes:
Mono means one or single. Monochrome color schemes refer to any composition that uses only a single color with variations of its shades and tones.
If you are into fashion, you must’ve come across the term ‘monochromatic looks’ where the person carries out all the items in the outfit that are of the same color.
In photography as well, this type of image can be very impactful. Here, the subject tends to dominate the shot while still being in sync with its surrounding.
This type of color theory in photography has gained a lot of popularity over social media, websites, and professional; runways, as creators aim to give their subject a unified look and feel.
These color schemes are those that use adjacent hues on the color wheel. Analogous colors are usually based on a primary color that serves as a connection between all of them. But, in some cases, the dominant hue might be a secondary color.
The lack of powerful contrast among the colors results in images that feel balanced and calm. Such color schemes are often found in nature, which makes them exceptionally popular in nature and landscape photography.
Think of the yellow and greens of the ripened mangoes or red and purple hues in the evening sky.
These colors are placed just opposite each other in a color wheel and are most popularly used when it comes to using color theory in photography. Why? Well, there are 3 reasons for it:
1. The juxtaposition of the two colors results in bold, vivid contrast.
2. Colors that are poles opposite, inherently balance one another.
3. They simply look pleasing together.
3. Types of color variables
Each color has a broad range of shades and tones, this transforms a simple color wheel into the complete palette of the 10 million colors humans can see. Each color on this wide palette has a specific name, shade, and tone. These are determined by the color variations of hue, saturation, and luminance respectively. These color variables are generally referred to as HSL.
Hue concerns the radial position of a color on the RGB color wheel. It determines the name given to a color, like red, purple, orange, and is displayed in degrees ranging from 0° to 360°.
Saturation refers to the purity of a color on a range from 0-100. The lower the saturation, the closer your color will move to grayscale.
Luminance is associated with brightness or value. It determines how bright or dark a color is. It scales from 0 to 100, with zero being the darkest – black.
4. Advancing and receding colors
This color theory in photography talks about the division of the color wheel between warm and cool colors. Warm colors include the range from red to yellow, whereas, purple to green hues are considered cool colors. This division may not be considered a fair one as certain tones of red and green may sometimes be associated with a part of the opposite temperature.
Warm colors often stand out, seeking our attention right away. That’s the reason why red and yellow colors are used for signals and danger symbols. Due to this, warm colors in photography are also called advancing colors.
On the contrary, cool colors tend to fade away into the background and are called receding colors. With this color theory in photography, you give your images a visual depth by mingling advancing and receding colors.
For example, a bright orange wish with a blue water background looks much more aesthetic than a purple fish.
5. Color psychology
Colors tend to influence our emotions in a lot of ways. We have our psychology to associate a few colors with certain emotions and feelings. Therefore, it’s important that we keep this color theory in photography in our minds as the hues present in the photo can completely change the mood of the scene and the viewer.
For example, a girl sitting by the ocean in the hues of sunlight like red, orange, yellow, and pink can exude peace, bliss, and calmness. Whereas, the same image with grey and black clouds with cold weather can exude a feeling of sadness and depression.
A few colors that evoke certain emotions are:
- Red: Passion, anger, danger, strength
- Yellow: Warmth, happiness, joy, energy
- Orange: Cheerfulness, vitality, fun, and zest
- Green: Nature, health, peace
- Blue: Balance, formal, sadness, coldness
- Purple: Wisdom, loyalty, spirituality
- Pink: Playfulness, innocence, compassion, sweetness
6. Color composition
When talking about composition rules in photography, apart from angles, shapes, and numbers, color theory in photography plays a major role. In fact, color composition plays the biggest role as compared to any other element in the photo.
Color theory in photography is as impactful as physical objects since we pursue different hues just as we do subjects. Hence, colors can be used as leading lines, natural framing, negative spaces, patterns, and as a medium to create depth.
7. Light, weather, and colors
As the intensity of the hues changes throughout the day, what time of the day you’re executing your photoshoot and what’s the weather, puts a direct impact on your scene. Light also takes on different hues as the sun travels from one side to the other side of the horizon.
As the sun begins to rise, blue light starts to illuminate the day. As the sun rays reach the ground, the warm hue of the golden hour takes over. With each passing hour, the hue varies depending on the weather.
As color in a photography can exude a wide range of emotions, it’s important that you be mindful of this color theory in photography to capture the right message using the given light conditions.
8. Types of tools and accessories
There’s not much you can do about controlling colors and mold color theory in photography externally. However, there are a few camera accessories and settings you can use to gain more control over how colors appear in your photos.
Here are a few adjustments that you can do:
White balance is vital, yet, it’s one of the most overlooked camera settings. It can put a huge effect on colors in photography. Different light sources create different temperature hues, each of which casts a distinct hue.
By selecting the correct white balance setting on your camera, you’ll make sure that your photo’s hues remain true to your vision as desired.
RAW files save photos with minimal processing and no compression. This gives you complete control over the photo editing process.
Additionally, to reduce the glare of reflecting surfaces, polarizing filters improve contrast and saturation. With this, your colors look much closer to what they look like in real life, reducing the need for post-production.
9. Colors in abstract images
Colors play an important role in abstract photography. This color theory in photography is best for photographers who love experimenting with shapes, colors, and designs.
As the subjects become unrecognizable, the different hues of the photo themselves become the subjects of the shot. It is important to follow this color theory in photography to learn how different colors work together to create balanced compositions.
10. Editing Colors
Photo editing is a rigid step in all kinds of photography. And to support the color theory in photography, color correction is one of the most important parts of the post-production process.
The tools present in photo editing software programs are almost endless, allowing you to fix any detail needed ro make your image look true-to-life.
However, despite easy accessibility, many professionals fail to understand the color theory in photography and end up ruining the image rather than fixing it in post-production.
Color-correction can be a very tricky process, therefore, I’d recommend that you hire a professional color correction service provider to achieve the most professional and accurate results. The professional photo editing service providers have all the expertise and knowledge it takes to correct an image at the time of post-production.
Apart from getting expert service, this can highly save your time, effort, and money. Being a professional photographer, you must be knowing that there are never enough photos that you can take during a photoshoot.
Out of the thousand clicked images, you end up with the best hundreds of them. And, it’s quite inconvenient to edit all those images. With fast turnaround time, hiring professionals can be a great investment in the long run.
The amateurs as well as the professional photographers need to understand the importance of color theory in photography. It helps you understand how the colors work with each other and how you can create a master composition that can take anyone off of their feet using colors.