Colour is something that haunted me for the first few years of my photography life. No matter what I tried I could never get great colour images. Most of the time I ended up reverting to black and white to get something out of the image. It wasn’t until I consciously started to learn about how colour theory works that I started to find my colour photography vastly improving. In this guide I want to talk you through the very basics of colour theory and hopefully give you some practical advice on how you can utilise the properties of colour in your own images.
Complementary colours are those which fall directly opposite each other on a colour wheel. Complementary colours often contrast each other but work well in harmony when paired together. Complementary colours make it easy for the eye to separate elements as they make each other pop and can be used for great effect in portraiture and vivd landscapes.
Take for instance this image of Shwadagon Paya in Yangon, Myanmar. By shooting the image just after sunset I managed to get the deep blue and purple hues to complement the golden, orange tones of the pagoda. This contrast of colours gives the shot much more impact than it would if the background was grey for instance.
Other combinations like red and green can also work well together to produce a nice balance within your imagery. A green background normally makes red stand out really clearly and draws the viewers eye almost immediately.
In this image the golden colour of Shwedagon paya is complemented by the blue and purple hues of the sky.
Analogous colours are 3 colours that are adjacent to each other on a colour wheel. Analogous colours often convey a particular feeling or mood and can transform the dynamic of your images. Two of the most common analogous colour schemes would be warm colours such as red, orange and yellow and cool colours such as purple, blue and green.
Analogous colour schemes show strong colour harmony but generally low colour contrast in an almost monochromatic way. This can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you use it. Often if I want to focus more on the lighting and tonal contrast I will try to use analogous colours to reduce the impact that colour plays in the image. This works very similar to a black and white image but instead you can retain the colour whilst keeping a focus on the differences in tone.
In the image below I wanted to focus the viewer on the dramatic lighting that accentuated the girl’s strong facial features. By placing her against a background that was very similar in colour to her clothing and skin tone, I ended up with an almost monochrome colour palette that doesn’t distract from the lighting.
In this particular image I used a neutral background that was analogous to the colours in the girls clothing. This allows me to focus the viewers eye on the dramatic lighting instead.
Reds, oranges and yellows are colours that generally represent high energy and strong emotional connections such as anger and passion. They are also representative of sunsets, sunrises and autumn which mean that we commonly associate them with warmth and change too. Warm colour generally energise an image and grab the viewers attention.
The analogous reds and orange colours in this image give the image the impression of an inviting, warm atmosphere.
Cool colours are generally less vibrant and energized compared to warm colours. They are often thought to represent subtlety, coldness, and early morning/night time. They generally give a sense of relaxation and calm when used. Cool colours generally take on a more subtle role in comparison to warm colours and don’t dominate images so much.
The cool, neutral tones of this image give it a colder, frigid feeling but with a sense of serenity and tranquility.
EMOTIONS AND COLOURS
Red is a very powerful colour. In western culture Red can indicate violence and anger but also love and passion. It is often also used to signify danger and stop signs and is a colour which will overpower other colours around it. In Asian cultures red is more commonly associated with good luck and happiness.
Orange is often associated with earth and nature but also with sunsets, sunrises and autumnal leaves. Orange, like red is a strong dominant colour but is less imposing than red and can often symbolise change.
Yellow is a colour that represents energy. It is the most vibrant of the warm colours and is often associated with sunlight and summertime along with happiness. Yellow is sometimes used in warning signs but often in a pairing with black, much like the colours of a bee
Green is the colour most associated with the natural world. It is associated with new things and live but can also signify jealousy or envy. Green can be both vibrant and strong (bright greens=) or subtle and calming (dark greens)
Blue is a colour that represents calmness and solitude. In photography blue is also often associated with early mornings or late evenings.
Purple often symbolizes wealth and noble status. It can also be used to signify romance and to symbolise comforting warmth.
The deep red of the young girl’s sari draws your eye immediately when placed against the dark blue background.
Neutral colours like creams, browns, greys and of course black and white can often be used to highlight both warm and cool colours. Their characteristics generally depend on the colors they are paired with.
Black can be construed as a mysterious colour. It is also symbolic of elegance, power and also death and evil things. Black can be used in shadows to strong shape and texture as well as to guide the eye through the image to stronger more vibrant colours.
White is a very clean and clinical colour. White generally shows of other colours well and allows the focus of the image to be on the strong colour. White on its own is normally associated with cleanliness and can be used to offer contrast to darker hues of primary colours.
Grey can be used much in the way of white and black to give emphasis to other stronger primary and secondary colours. Grey is slightly more versatile than black or white because the effect it has on other colours is dependent on whether it is a light grey or dark grey.
Brown is much the same as warm colours in that is often indicative of warmth and earth. It does however lend its self to pairing with other images as it is much less dominating than red or yellow.
Cream is a colour that has the cleanliness of white with a small bit of the warmth of muted warm colours and browns. This allows it to be less contrasty with other vibrant colours than white and generally will produce calmer images that are less ‘in your face’ than those that have lots of white in them.
As you can probably see colours and their relationships are extremely complex. As a photographer you do not need an in depth knowledge of colour theory. I certainly am not an expert at this and everything I have written here has been learnt from reading and studying the work of great photographers and their use of colour in their images.
However when I am shooting I am consciously looking for combinations of colours that will work well to complement or contrast each other. If I am trying to convey a sense of peace and tranquility I will maybe try to shoot early in the morning when the light is softer and the sky is generally filled with cool pastel colors which evoke the emotion I am trying to show.
If I want to shoot a strong impactful, vibrant portrait of a man wearing an orange turban I may search out a strong vibrant blue background to contrast the colour of his turban, as in the image to the left. On the other hand I may want to take away the impact of a certain colour in which I will try to find a background that is a similar colour to reduce the colour contrast.
At the end of the day it is important to consider the impact that your colour choices may have on your images but it is not worth looking for complementary reds and greens for the sake of it. As with using depth in your images, it’s important to understand why you are using these combinations and not just using them because you can. Heck, the image might even work better in black and white if you are using light and dark to convey a mood.
Now it’s your turn! Do you consciously consider colours when shooting? Do you shoot black and white to avoid colour? Drop a comment in the comments section below on how you use (or don’t use) colour in your images.