Color schemes help us to create images with colors that work well together. All areas of art and design use these same concepts that are appealing to the human eye. One of the first color schemes we learn is complementary colors in photography.
What are complementary colors?
They’re colors that work well together. They complement each other are opposite each other on the color wheel, so they’re also called opposite colors, or (confusingly) contrasting colors.
Because they’re opposites, they’re considered complementary in terms of design.
Why use complementary colors?
Complementary colors each work to make their opposite color stand out more.
Colors that stand out from each other are dynamic and demand attention, so complementary colors are ideal for dynamic photos with energy and possibly also tension (good or bad).
Because they’re opposite on the color wheel, one color will be warm and the other cool and this contrast adds to the energy in the photo.
The more vibrant, and therefore saturated, the color is, the more dynamic the photo will be. So if you want the photo to be energetic, but not bouncing off the walls on a sugar rush, make one or both of the complementary colors less saturated.
Pastel mint green is still the complement of pastel pink, but calmer than green and red.
Further reading: Color in photography composition made easy with the color wheel
Remembering which colors are complementary
There are 2 ways to remember which colors are complementary and will therefore work well for a vibrant image:
1. Mix to get complementary colors
This method takes a bit of thinking. Imagine mixing two of the primary colors and you’ll get the complementary color of the third primary color. In other words…
- Blue + red = purple. Therefore purple is the complement of yellow
- Red + yellow = orange. Therefore orange is the complement of blue
- Yellow + blue = green. Therefore green is the complement of red
2. Refer to the color wheel
The easiest way to work out complementary colors is to picture the color wheel or refer to an actual color wheel (download it for free and save it to your phone).
The color wheel is also helpful for seeing which secondary colors are opposite each other. Opposing secondary colors work just as well.
Here are two complementary colors examples…
Purple (between blue and red) is opposite yellow. Therefore purple and yellow are complementary colors and will work well in an image where you want the color to pop.
What colors photograph well together?
For photos with color that pops you can use any combination of complementary colors, but the most common complementary color schemes in photography are:
- Blue and orange
- Red and green
- Yellow and purple
A split complementary color scheme example using orange, green and blue.
Split complementary color scheme
Now that you’ve got the hang of complementary colors, let’s take it up a notch with split complementary colors. The advantage of this color harmony is that it still has the pop of complementary colors, but it’s a little toned down and less dynamic for a calmer, more cohesive feel. But still more energetic than analogous colors.
With a split complementary color palette you select a color from one side of the color wheel and pair it with the two colors either side of it’s complementary color.
So, if you decide on blue, the complement of blue is orange and the other two colors would therefore be either side of orange, making them red-orange and yellow-orange.
Maximizing contrast of complementary colors
There are so many ways to alter and enhance color in all processing programmes.
There’s no exact recipe to editing an image, because it depends on the photo and your artistic vision for it. However, as long as you shoot in RAW, the possibilities are endless and fantastic for enhancing complementary colors in photography.
Before on the left and after on the right. Using Lightroom HSL sliders I altered the hue of aqua and blue to the left, increased contrast and vibrance, and finally I reduced luminance of orange, yellow, aqua and blue. It’s subtle, but it makes a difference and brings out the reflection.
Further reading: What is contrast photography and how to use it well
Minimizing color in post processing
Using color knowledge in post processing isn’t always about adding, or enhancing colors. We can also use this knowledge to change colors when we edit images.
When you combine two complementary colors digitally, they cancel each other out. So, green neutralizes red and vice versa.
Why would you want to do that you might ask? Well, what if your subject has a red mark on their skin or you need to tone down red cheeks?
In Lightroom you can paint over the red area with a green color adjustment brush and the redness will magically disappear. Of course you need to tweak the color and intensity, but just knowing this means that you can fix red skin really easily.
See the difference between her cheeks on camera left vs camera right? This little girl had the most delightfully red cheeks, but all the leaping about in the studio made her cheeks very, very red. So I toned down the red with a green color brush to bring her cheeks back to their normal rosy color. This image shows her red cheek as it was on camera left and the edited cheek on camera right.
White balance and complementary colors
If you’ve ever adjusted the white balance of an image, you’ve used a complementary color to neutralise its opposite.
When you cool an image down, you add blue, which makes the yellows cooler. Or vice versa. What about when the image is a bit pink? You’d adjust the tint slider to the right to make it more green, which reduces the pink.
Further reading: What is white balance in photography and does it matter?
The blue of her outfits works well with the complementary oranges of golden hour, when this was shot.
Color grading with complementary colors
One of the most popular color grading tricks you see all over Instagram (and the feature of many presets) is to add orange to the highlights and teal to the shadows.
Orange and teal are complementary colors.
And just to drive the point home about why complementary color knowledge is so helpful. Using the RGB tone curve tool in Lightroom to color grade is all about playing with complementary colors. To understand how to change colors using the tone curve, you first need to know that the opposite of:
- Red – adjust up to increase red or down to shift towards cyan
- Green – adjust up to increase green or down to shift towards magenta
- Blue – adjust up to increase blue or down to shift towards yellow
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