Are you confused about which colour combinations to include in your photographs? Using colour in photography correctly helps draw attention to your subject, creating a powerful visual effect that is pleasing to the eye.
As photographers, we have a lot of tools available to us: compositional rules, lighting knowledge, the exposure triangle, and so on. Colour is just another one of those tools. While it can be an intimidating element to a photographer, colour can help solidify a voice. Knowing and understanding colour theory — the way painters, designers, and artists of all trades do — a photographer can utilise colour to their benefit.
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Understanding Colour in Photography
The appropriate use of colour in photography adds a dynamic element to your images that is very pleasing to the eye. The correct use of it will allow you to create photographs to be proud of. Bold colours and bright composition in your photos result in images that sell. So use colour to your advantage.
At one stage, you thought filling the frame with lots of bold colours would make a dramatic image. Not so. Colours that clash cause confusion to the eye and result in a poor image. Too many clashing colours create multiple focal points, causing the eye to dart around the image, unsure what to look at first or what to focus on.
Instead, choose one dominant colour that becomes the focal point of the image and draws the eye of the viewer to it immediately. The greater the intensity of the colour, the more it’s going to dominate, so be careful that your subject in an image has the dominant colour. Otherwise, a secondary subject could overshadow it because it has a dominating colour.
It’s very important to isolate colours when trying to create a dramatic image. Using a telephoto or zoom lens will allow you to isolate a particular part of a scene that has a striking colour or combination of colours. Another technique is to use your feet and change the angle of view to isolate the colour from its surroundings. Getting in closer helps and allows you to combine colours that are more interesting and work well together, e.g. contrasting or complementary colours.
This was an interesting concept the first time I read about it. Colours at the warm end of the colour spectrum stand out and demand more of our attention. They are said to be advancing colours. Take red, for example; it is strong and bold and tends to dominate through its boldness and rich colour when viewed in an image. You’ll notice how strong it is when you have a scene with only a little red, like a postbox, yet it still has a dominating effect on the overall image. Yellows and oranges have a similar effect, although they aren’t as strong as red. So be aware of advancing colours so that they work for you and don’t upset an image. Another example would be a bridal scene where a red object is part of the image. It will take the attention off the bride, so be aware of this.
This concept is the opposite of advancing colours. They take a background role and are more like supporting actors in a film cast. They like the background and add to the scene creating beautiful images. This is why blues and greens, the cooler colours, work so well as backgrounds. They recede into the distance and help other colours stand out. Large areas of the blue sky do this together with rolling green hills. Use them effectively, and you will have great photos.
Warm vs Cool Colours
The two broad types of colour are warm and cool. Warm colours include red, orange, and yellow, while cool colours include green, blue, and violet. The two categories of colour have their own moods, and it helps to ask yourself which ones you’re photographing at a given time if you want to optimise how your photos look.
Warm colours are more active and emotionally charged. They jump out at the viewer, attracting attention and drawing interest. In general, warm colours are rarer than cool colours, so an image with even a small splash of warmth can stand out. This is one reason why photos at sunset and sunrise and fall colours are as popular as they are.
Cool colours, on the other hand, are more subdued and gentle. They fade into the background, particularly if a warm colour appears in the same spot. In general, they don’t attract the same degree of attention as a warm colour, though that certainly isn’t a bad thing. Warm colours can be overpowering; cool colours are more likely to appear soothing and calm. Much of nature is made of cool colours, although sunset and sunrise can turn even a blue landscape golden.
The six main colours – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet – as well as the emotions that are generally associated with each.
Keep in mind that emotion is a tricky part of photography to pin down, and you can take pictures that don’t have the following emotions simply by altering your choice of subject or composition. But the following effects do make a difference.
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Tips For Effective Use of Colour in Photography
There are three primary colours – red, blue and yellow. Secondary colours are produced when you combine these: green (combination of blue and yellow), purple (red and blue) and orange (red and yellow). If you further combine, you get the next level/tertiary colours.
The colour wheel is a diagram that shows how different colours relate to each other. They exist along a continuum, with each colour transitioning into the one next to it.
Colour harmonies are combinations that are visually appealing to the human eye. Colour harmony is when you have two or more different colours that complement each other. This is a key tool used by both artists and photographers to communicate with their viewers, as it is used to evoke a mood or emotion.
Just as important as individual colours are the ways in which they interact. This varies from simple colour contrasts to complex harmonies; the real world has almost endless variety in colour. Some of these relationships work better than others, though it will take a bit of practice – and often some post-processing – to get exactly the result you want.
Warm and Cool colours
The difference between warm and cool colours is an important one. When both types appear clearly in the same photo, they form a strong colour contrast that can be a focal point of interest.
In classic colour theory, every cool colour’s complement (opposite) is a warm colour and vice versa. Red and green are complements; so are orange and blue, as well as yellow and violet.
One important part of complementary colours is that they have inherent contrast when placed next to one another in a photo, similar to a composition that juxtaposes black and white.
One of the most important is the sky, where the warm cloud sits against a cool background. In the black and white version of this photo, there is very little separation between the two, and therefore not as much attention drawn to the top of the photo. In colour, the strong contrast draws attention to the sky, making it a very important element of the composition. Looking for a Yarra Valley wedding photographer? Look no further! Wild Romantic Photography has you covered.
Complementary colours and Other Relationships
Several other colour relationships are said to be attractive, such as a combination of the three primary colours (red, yellow, and blue). The same is true of colours between the ones listed above, like yellow-orange or blue-green, which have their own sets of compliments as well.
Although I don’t dismiss the idea that these more complex colour harmonies are often beautiful and emotive, the reality is that this discussion can get quite tangled when discussing three or more colours. Quite simply, real-world colours are not like painting. In most cases, you can’t choose a perfect blue-green to harmonise with equal parts red and orange; reality is messier than that.
If you want to delve into deeper discussions on colour harmonies and relationships, there is no harm in doing so and potentially some interesting information to learn. But my main recommendation is just to look at the scene in front of you and try to picture if its colour “looks right” to your eye. That is far from being precise, but there’s more value to a gut feeling in photography than in trying to match an ideal that you may not find in the real world.
The one exception is in the post-processing stage when you have a bit more flexibility to shift the hue and saturation of the colours in your image. In that case, it’s worth spending the time to edit the photo in a way that harmonises well, either by a colour wheel definition or, more probably, just something that looks good to your eye.
Monochromatic versus Analogous
While these two colour harmonies are similar, analogous offers subtle differences that set it apart. A monochromatic colour scheme or harmony uses variation in the lightness and saturation of a single colour. Analogous colour harmony is composed of colours that are adjacent to each other on the colour wheel. There is still one dominant colour, but the second colour enhances the overall look.
Both of these colour harmonies are easy to create and are very easy on the eyes. Monochromatic colour schemes are sometimes used to establish a mood because of their visual appeal and balance.
Analogous colours flow into each other, creating a more soothing look in your image. When you are outdoors, you are exposed to all the various colour harmonies, including these two. Think about a lush forest with its varying shades of green or the variances of oranges and red in an autumn scene. These tones are likely appealing to you, and now you have a little idea as to why.
Use analogous colours to add harmony to your images.
The colour contrast is good.
But sometimes, you’re not looking to create tension in your photos. Sometimes you’re not looking to make aspects of your photo really stand out.
Instead, you might want to keep things looking peaceful throughout your image.
Analogous colours are perfect for more subdued scenes, such as yellow and green trees standing together in autumn or a blue flower resting alone in a field. The harmonious colour combination will maintain that wonderfully serene feeling (as long as the rest of the composition is aimed at producing serenity, that is!).
Oh, and don’t be afraid of using three analogous colours together. You can always use combinations such as green, blue, and purple or green, yellow, and blue to create especially peaceful scenes!
So whenever you’re trying to capture a more subdued photo, look for analogous colours.
Complementary colours are directly opposite each other on the colour wheel. Thus the colour complement of a primary colour is a secondary colour (as shown on the colour wheel), e.g., red and green complementary colours work well together since they are highly contrasting. They can be quite dramatic when used at full saturation, as each colour makes the other appear more active.
Use contrasting colours to add pop to your shots. Now that you know the most fundamental tip for using colour in your photography, it’s time to look at specific combinations of colours that work well.
The most popular colour combination (and my absolute favourite) is contrasting colours.
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The Key or Dominant colour
The key colour is the main colour in an image. Often, the key colour in an image is that which is the most dominant. Allowing one colour to dominate can lead to a powerful image. This is stronger when a primary colour (red, blue or yellow) is the dominant colour.
Colours with greater intensity will draw (and hold) your viewer’s attention. Keep that in mind in relation to how it affects your subject.
Advancing or Receding colours
Advancing colours are the gamut of colours on the warmer end of the spectrum. These include red, red-violet, yellow, yellow-orange and orange. When advancing colours are dominant, they appear as though those objects are closer to the eye, as if coming towards you. Red is one of those colours that dominate and jumps right at you. Think about a scene with only a hint of red (e.g., a red mailbox), yet the red dominates.
Advancing colours can work well in an image or, on the other hand, can disrupt your scene by taking away the attention from your subject.
Receding colours are the opposite and take on a more background characteristic. Think about what blues and greens (the cooler colours) add to a landscape. They fall into the distance, add a feeling of depth, and help balance the stronger colours.
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If you’re capturing a photo with a clear subject, then you often want to make the subject pop off the background.
In other words, you want to focus on the viewer. You want to keep their attention on the subject of the photo.
And you can do that by using colour. You just have to make sure your subject features much more powerful colours than the background.
Start by finding a colourful subject. The colours should be bold and saturated—for instance, a red flower, a blue building, a yellow car, etc.
And make sure it’s positioned in front of a boring background—something with less colour, even something that’s all white or all black.
The lack of colour from the background, combined with the powerful colour from your subject, will ensure that it’s the subject that catches the viewer’s eye.
This is one of my favourite tips for using colours, simply because it creates such powerful images. Whenever I see photos that use a colourful subject on a plain background, my eyes immediately go to the subject; everything is clear and simple.
Feelings and colour
Colour provokes various emotional responses in people. So much so that we use colour to describe different emotions, for example: feeling blue, seeing red, tickled pink, or green with envy.
We connect to the warm colours of a sunset differently than we do to a cool blue morning. Colour in everyday life is used as a powerful psychological tool, and the same applies when using colour in your photographic compositions.
Remember that colour is subjective – the same colour can make one person happy but irritate another. Also, one colour can evoke different emotions if you change its hue and saturation or change the colour you combine it with. Orange, for example, can create excitement when it leans towards red and be more calming when it is more on the yellow side.
To make great colour photography, be deliberate about the use of colour. Give it equal weight to composition, framing, and technique so that it tells an important part of your photograph’s story.
Experiment with different combinations and play around with colours in post-production to create the mood and balance that best reflects your interpretation of the subject. If you’d like to work with professional photographers for your wedding, book with us at Wild Romantic Photography.
Use both your science brain and art brain to create beautiful colour photography with a touch of magic.