The Ultimate Guide to Color Theory for Photographers

Color is all around us, and when used correctly it can help your images come to life. Color has the power to transform your compositions; from dull and uninspiring to exciting and alive.

However, in some cases, color can negatively impact an image as well, causing it to swim with details and appear distracting, or even unrealistic. While it may be a thin line to walk, being able to use color effectively can help you to take your photographs up a notch, allowing you to create compositions that are eye-catching and exciting.

Developing an eye for color can take time, but it is something that’s worth pursuing with your photography. With this in mind, let’s take a look at color theory as well as some different ways that you can use color to bring out the best in your images.

Understanding Color Theory

There is a lot to explore when it comes to color theory, and how it affects our images, but understanding the color wheel and how the different colors work together and complement each other is a great place to start. Different color combinations provoke different feelings and responses; with some color schemes working together much better than others.

By understanding how different colors work together, you’ll be able to see things differently, and get the most from the colors around you. Here’s a basic look at some different color combinations.

Brightness and Saturation

When working with different color combinations, keep in mind that the brightness and saturation of different colors will impact the harmony of the resulting image. In most cases, you’ll want to pay close attention to the colors in the image that are bold or saturated as these are the ones that will generally attract the viewer’s attention. These colors work well for the subject or main focal point in an image.

Different Colors, Different Moods

As you probably already know, different colors tend to convey very different moods in an image. Colors that are on the warm side of the wheel – such as red, orange, and yellow – often result in an image that feels in bold or energetic, while colors that are cooler – think: blues and greens – tend to convey feelings of calm and tranquility.

Enhancing Color in Your Compositions

Now that you know a bit about different color combinations and how they work together, let’s take a look at some other ways that you use colors to enhance your images:


Use a Polarizing Filter

Using a polarizing filter is a great way to draw out colors especially when used at the right angle to the sun. These filters are often used to enhance the vivid blue of the sky, or to cut through reflections and glare causing leaves, water, or even skin to appear more saturated.


Get the Exposure Right

In many cases, adjusting your camera’s exposure can help the colors to appear more rich and vivid. Since your camera’s built-in metering system often chooses to use a lighter exposure, if you underexpose your images, just a little you’ll often be rewarded with a deeper color.


Work With the Light

The right lighting will help to naturally boost the colors in your images. For instance, if you shoot on a bright, overcast day, the colors will be more saturated resulting in stronger, bolder images. Shooting on a sunny day, on the other hand, will run the risk of harsh shadows, and potentially washed out images.


Watch the Background and Foreground

Always check your backgrounds! Your background always plays an important role in your images and can either enhance or distract from the focal point. Similarly, keep an eye out for foregrounds that you could use to add complementary or pleasing colors to your compositions.


Adjust Your Colors in Post Processing

Shooting in RAW will give you tremendous flexibility in terms of drawing out the colors more effectively in post-processing. Just remember to keep the context of the image in mind. In most cases, you’ll want to avoid over processing especially when it comes to nature shots, where you’ll usually want to steer clear of unrealistic color combinations. A good approach is applying brightness and color saturation to enhance the colors in isolated areas in a scene. For example, elements that are receiving direct light, such as colorful flowers or illuminated clouds can often stand to have their brightness and saturation enhanced ever so slightly.

There’s much to learn about color theory and taking the time to delve into the subject can be a fun study that will prove to be rewarding. Keep in mind, though, that at the end of the day, developing your photographic eye, and discovering what works well and what doesn’t is often a matter of trial and error as much as it is about learning theory. With a combination of knowledge and practice, you’ll soon become adept at telling which colors work well together, and which ones don’t and will be able to create pleasing color combinations without a second thought!

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