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Color Theory Guide - A Must for Photography

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Color Theory Guide - A Must for Photography

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colour color theories for photographers ultimate comprehensive guide

As smartphones have improved over the years, so too has photo-editing apps. The truth is, anyone can use strategic mobile editing to make just about any photo look better after it's been taken. However, if you want to spend more time taking fantastic photos and less time editing, understanding color theory is a great way to start. Continue reading below for our comprehensive color theory guide to capturing beautiful photos and find out everything you need to know to up your photography game.

Categorizing color

Before you can learn how to use color in your photography, it's important first to discuss how different colors are categorized in relation to color theory. As we go over the different ways color can be classified, we'll often be referring to the RGB color model, more commonly known as the color wheel.

1. Analogous

Let's start with analogous colors or adjacent colors on the color wheel. Analogous color combinations can consist of as few as two colors or as many as half of the colors on the color wheel.

2. Complementary

Complementary colors are two colors on the wheel that match well together by enhancing and emphasizing one another. On the color wheel, complementary shades are colors that are directly across from each other. Respectively, these color combinations are: yellow and purple, red and green, and blue and orange.

3. Split Complementary

When talking about split complementary colors, you'll be speaking in terms of your color palette more often than not. This is because split complementary colors are color combinations that include at least two complementary colors and at least one analogous color. For example, A palette of split complementary colors might have a mix of orange, blue, and yellow shades.

Expert Tip:

To offset overly contrasting complementary colors, try sprinkling in an analogous color to create a more harmonious combination of split complementary colors.

4. Triadic

Similar to split complementary colors, triadic color combinations incorporate several colors on the color wheel to form a balanced color palette. Triadic color schemes are made up of three evenly dispersed colors on the color wheel. Perhaps the most well-known triadic color scheme is that of the primary colors blue, red, and yellow.

Now that you have a more thorough understanding of how color is categorized let's dig into how you can use your newly acquired knowledge to improve your photography.

Improve your photos with color contrast

Consider, for a moment, your favorite black and white film. Chances are, regardless of what it may be, certain scenes stick out visually in your memory better than others. Often, this is because of one compositional element: color contrast.

Palettes including complementary colors, mixes of warm colors (reds, oranges, and yellows), and cold colors (greens, blues, and purples) are considered contrasting color combinations. To see the striking effect that color contrast has, you can look for examples of color contrast in nature, like a red rose with a green leaf, or create them yourself with household items, like a bunch of bananas on a purple background.

You can use color contrast to juxtapose compositional elements, isolating the subject, foreground, background, etc., to create a more distinct look and feel in your photos. Classic color contrasts you may want to consider experimenting with are: black and white, orange and blue, yellow and purple, and green and red.

Feature dominant colors for captivating photos

Generally, the best photographs are those that capture our attention and our imaginations. One way that you can do this in your photos is to tell a story through color,

The dominant color (also called the main or key color) is the most abundant and/or the most pronounced color in a photo. You can accentuate different aspects of your photos by implementing bold, vibrant hues as your dominant color to command and direct the viewer's attention.

Expert Tip: Experiment with different lighting techniques and exposure settings to naturally increase and decrease color saturation in your photos and help create the mood.

Compose strong photos using a limited color palette

In addition to using dominant colors and contrasting colors, you can also try limiting your color palette for strong, impactful photos. Limited color palettes might be monochromatic, dichromatic, or trichromatic but often don't include more than 3 or 4 individual colors. The key to working with a limited color palette is to use various shades and hues to hone the sense of harmony or contrast between the colors.

The next time you're taking photos with your phone, you can try the following exercise to test out working with a limited color palette. Walk around your home to find objects that are all one color and assemble them for a shoot. Try taking some photos with a contrasting color background, then take some with a background of the same color.

Once you've finished, compare your photos. How are the shots different? How are they alike? Does the story your telling or the message you're trying to get across change? Do they draw the viewer's attention to different aspects of your photos as a result? Asking yourself questions like these can help further your understanding of color theory and enhance your skills as a photographer.

Take advantage of color to create mood

When thinking about color theory, it can be helpful to think about colors in terms of emotions, especially when attempting to produce a specific mood in your photo. Particular colors, and even the absence thereof, have an intrinsic relationship with emotions and can heighten the overall vibe of your photos.

Warm colors are usually associated with energetic emotions like happiness, anger, hunger, and romance. In contrast, cold colors are frequently said to evoke lower-energy feelings like tranquillity, sadness, anxiety, and fear. The next time you're on the road travelling or watch television, take a look at different types of advertisements for some exaggerated examples of color used to influence mood.

Still, there are no fast and hard rules when it comes to art, and photography is certainly no exception. Feelings and emotional reactions are subjective, so don't forget to take your emotional responses to color into account when establishing the mood of your photograph.

Add style to your photography via color

Bearing in mind that mood is the overall feeling evoked from a photograph, let's look at how you can use color to add style to your photos. In terms of photography, a photograph's style can allude to two things: the distinctive way you take photos as a photographer or the different elements of your photo that contribute to its overall mood.

First, imagine that you have a glob of cherry red paint on a piece of paper. If you were to add white paint gradually, then the red would begin to lighten more and more until eventually, it would be pure white; this is the process of color tinting. If you were to shade your imaginary glob of paint, you would progressively add black, and the paint would darken until it became pure black. To tone the color of your red paint glob, you would repeat the process for shading and tinting, but with the color grey instead.

You can use shading and enhance toning to contribute to photos with sullen, negative moods. Conversely, for photos with a more upbeat or positive mood, you may want to try tinting your photos for a brighter, more luminescent aesthetic.

Expert Tip:
Split toning refers to adding two different tones, one to the highlights and one to the shadows, whereas color grading is when you add a third color tone to your photo's mid-tones.

Embrace color and explore your creativity

Congratulations! You're now on your way to being an expert in color theory! Remember to have fun, embrace color, and use it to explore your creativity the next time you're out taking photos. 

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