Understand Color Theory in Photography to create visually appealing pictures

Widely ignored factor, the colors in a picture play a major role in building up the theme and the overall feel of the photograph. Each color signifies a different feeling, culture or thinking. Color theory is a way to use colors so that they look harmonious together.

Apart from the color having a major impact on any given scene, color has its own luminosity values, hues, and saturation, making it something vital to pay close attention to before your next shoot.

Color Theory is the best practice method for combining colors to evoke certain moods or emotions. It is proven by Science and Psychology that some color combinations attract you eyes while some are repelled. It is of utmost importance to choose the colors in your picture so as to produce a color harmony and a visually pleasing photograph.

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Using a color wheel makes it much easier to select colors that provide
harmony. Adobe Color CC is a free color wheel, check it out here! The colors extending from yellow, orange, and red, to red magenta, are
considered warm colors. The colors extending from magenta blue, blue, cyan, and green, to yellow-green, are considered cool colors.

The color wheel shows a 2D view of the Saturation and Hue Axis, while the
Brightness Axis is accessed using sliders on Adobe’s website.
● Full saturation and pure color ( hues ) are found around the circumference of
the color wheel.
● Moving directly inward from each hue decreases saturation and adds white
to the color, also known as tinting.
A Color transition moves your eyes through a photo by drawing them from warm
to cool colors or other color harmonies. This is accomplished using color contrast.
Colors can also add mood or emotion to your photos. Red and orange provide
feelings of energy or happiness, while certain colors of green and blue create calm
or relaxed moods.

Types of Color Harmonies

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There are 5 different types of color harmonies covered below which provide a
nearly infinite number of color combinations. AKey Color is the main color which is selected for use in a work of art or photograph. It is the most important color in a picture and dominates other colors.

  1. Direct or Complementary Color Harmony
  2. Analogous Color Harmony
  3. Triadic Color Harmony
  4. Split-Complementary Color Harmony
  5. Square Color Harmonies

Direct / Complementary Color Harmony


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A direct color harmony includes one more color that is directly opposite to the key color in the color wheel. Using a directly opposite color produces a high color contrast which creates a sense of depth. Photographers can remove attention from unwanted objects by darkening them in post-processing. This causes the viewer to look at the brighter & more vivid colors first.


Analogous Color Harmony

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Analogous colors lie directly next to each other on the color wheel. The key color is clearly orange in the above picture. Analogous color harmonies are often found in nature and work very well for pictures with high tonal contrast. Our eyes easily move around the picture due to the large numbers of different shades showing transitions from light to dark.


Triadic Color Harmony

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The Triadic Color harmony uses 3 or more colors from the color wheel, whose points create a triangle. Triadic color harmonies are vibrant due to the spacing of the colors.
The Key Color is dominant while the other colors are more subdued. In the above picture, key color is Green.

Split-Complementary Color Harmony

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The split complementary color harmony is found in sunrise and sunsets. After selecting the Key Color, find the complementary color that lies
directly across from it in the color wheel. The split complementary colors are found on each side of the complementary color, excluding the complementary color.


Square Color Harmonies

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By selecting a dominant key color and 3 subdued colors, spaced evenly around the
color wheel, the square color harmony is formed. This can be transformed to a Rectangular Color Harmony by slightly moving each color point in the color wheel.  The square color harmony is perfect for displaying the single most important object in a scene. All other subdued colors in the square are used to complement the key color and make the subject of the work stand.

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