Whether you are a photography enthusiast with an expensive DSLR camera or an amateur with a smartphone, knowing the basics of color theory can drastically improve your photography. Color theory sets the guidelines for color combination and harmony. It first appeared as early as the fifteenth century in Leone Battista Alberti’s writings and the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, and now it is widely used in all forms of visual art, including photography.
Let’s start with understanding the makeup of a color wheel, the foundation of color theory. The color wheel begins with three primary colors spread evenly around a circle: red, yellow, and blue. Then, mixing each two of the primary colors produces the secondary colors located between the primary colors: orange (red and yellow), green (yellow and blue), and violet (red and blue). Further mixing the adjacent colors, both primary and secondary, produces the six tertiary colors: yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green, and yellow-green. Now, the color wheel consists of twelve different colors evenly spread around a circle, and this is when the magic happens. While some colors appear chaotic together, others produce a harmony that pleases the human eye. These harmonious relationships between colors, or color harmonies, can be described with different formulas, and the color wheel can demonstrate them in a geometric manner. Here are three basic color harmony formulas that can be easily utilized in photography.
Complementary colors are two colors located at the opposite ends of a color wheel. For example, red and green, violet and yellow, and blue and orange are all complementary colors. In the case of my photo of the mango here, I used the complementary colors blue and orange. Notice if I change the blue to green in the picture, the colors seem less harmonious together because they are no longer complementary.
A triad color scheme uses three colors evenly spread around the color wheel, which means that you can draw an equilateral triangle to interconnect the colors. For example, the three primary colors, red, blue, and yellow forms a triad harmony. Take my picture of the flowers for another example–the triad harmony consists of orange, violet, and green. If I change the purple petals to pink, then again, though still pretty, the photo will look a bit off compared to the orignal.
Analogous color schemes use three colors adjacent to each other on a color wheel such as violet-red, violet, and blue-violet. In my photo of the sandstone, the colors consist of orange-yellow, orange, and red-orange, all located right next to each other on the color wheel so that they produce an analogous color scheme in my photo.
Now, knowing these three color harmony formulas, how do we apply them in our photos? First, search for color harmonies in the composition, and nature can be surprisingly full of them. Take sunset for example, the orange glow of the setting sun and the blue sky produce a perfect complementary color scheme together. Also, sometimes without even realizing, our eyes will be drawn to color harmonies. When I took that picture of the flowers, I knew nothing about triadic colors; the colors simply looked good. It was only later that I learned the color theory behind the photo. Second, use post processing to emphasize color harmonies. Depending on the amount of editing preferred, we can adjust the hues of the colors in our photos to our own likings. Maybe the colors in a photo are just a bit off from forming a perfect triad color scheme; then adjust the hues to make it perfect! Lastly, use color theory to convey a mood. Different colors put together produce a different mood in photos. For example, I deliberately chose the blue to complement the orange of the mango to make it look elegant, and that’s the fun with colors. One can express so much emotion through the mere combination of them. Therefore, armed with the knowledge of color theory, whip out your camera and go out to capture those color harmonies!
Photo of the Month Announcement
To give you guys, our readers, more chance to share your photography works, we are excited to announce Photo of the Month! Each month at the end of my article, I will announce a theme for you to take pictures of. Your work will have a chance to be featured in my next article, on OpenMic, and on the clay Instagram account. In order to participate, just fill in this Google Form and upload your photo:
The deadline for submissions is the 25th of each month. If you have any questions, feel free to ask me in the comment section!
The theme for this month is: Color Theory
Choose any subject you prefer and utilize color theory in your photo. Try to identify the color harmony used in the “Description” section of the submission form if you can–for example: complimentary, triadic, or analogous. Have fun taking pictures!