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Composition: color

Even the simplest details can elevate a photograph from ordinary to something the will make your viewer stop and look again. The best part is that so often the viewer doesn’t know what it is that drew them in. Composing an image carefully with knowledge of what makes a compelling image is an art form in itself.

A wealth of knowledge of composition, combined with technical skills, is why the best photographers can create phenomenal images with the most basic cameras. It’s not about the gear.

Knowing how to use color in photography composition is one of these essential skills. The good news is that it is not at all difficult.

We can use color in photography composition two ways:

  • Color contrast
  • Complementary (contrasting) colors

1. Color contrast

In color photography, contrast is the different in the luminance of a color. So, in other words how bright the color is.

If you’ve used Lightroom and played with the luminance slider to make your blue sky bluer, what you’re doing is adjusting the contrast of the blue. You’re making the blue brighter, more blue. Contrast is the difference between e.g. the pale yellow of pastel yellow and the bright yellow of canary yellow.

Increased color contrast for color intensity   Reduced color contrast
In the image on the left I've increased the contrast of the blue. Here we have bright orange next to bright blue. They are distinctly different colors, so the image pops with color.
Pale and bright luminance of the same color In this image we have pale pink balloons and medium pink background contrasting with bright pink ribbons. They are all pink, but differ only through color contrast, so while it is a colorful image, it doesn’t pop with color.

To make an image pop with color, use colors that stand out from each other, which leads me to complementary colors.

2. Complementary colors

To understand how to use complementary colors, you must first get to grips with the color wheel. Let’s start with the basic knowledge that all colors are made from the three primary colors of blue, red and yellow.

Primary colors

For example, mix blue and yellow to get green, or blue and red to get purple.

Colors that complement each other appear opposite each other on the color wheel, so they’re also called opposite colors, or (confusingly) contrasting colours. In this sense, we’re not referring to the brightness of the colors, as in color contrast, we’re saying that they are opposites and therefore complementary in terms of design.

Color wheel layout

The easiest way to remember the layout of the color wheel is to remember the three primary colors:

  • Blue
  • Red
  • Yellow

Add the other colors

Then think of the mixing next door colors to get the shades in between:

  • Purple shades fall between blue and red.
  • Orange shades are between red and yellow.
  • Green shades fall between yellow and blue.
Color wheel showing complementary colors of composition

Remembering which colors are complementary

There are 2 ways to remember which colors are complementary and therefore will work well in an image:

1. Mix the colors

Imagine mixing two of the primary colors to get the complementary color of the third. 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. The color wheel

Another way is to picture the color wheel. Or, if you prefer, you could download our color wheel for free, print it and keep it in your camera bag until it becomes second nature and you don’t need to refer to it any more.

The color wheel is also helpful for seeing which secondary colors are opposite each other. Opposing secondary colors work just as well.

Using complementary colors for vibrancy 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.

Using colour as a photography composition tool Orange (between red and yellow) is opposite blue. Orange is therefore a complementary color of blue.

Getting used to thinking about color in photography composition

Take note of the colors around you at the mall, in advertising, in magazines and even company logos and you’ll start seeing the color wheel being used in everyday design.

Then it will be easy to start spotting colors that will work well together when you’re out with your camera. When setting up a styled shoot, plan it so that the colors work as an extra layer of composition in your images to make them blend or pop, depending on what you want to achieve.

All of a sudden, deciding on what colors to include just became a whole lot easier! No design degree needed for color theory, just a handy color chart.

Keep a lookout for our follow up post on how to use colors to convey emotion in your photography. You can also register for weekly updates of our Through The Lens Bulletin so that you never miss out on great photography tips and tutorials.

If you have any questions about using color in photography composition, let us know in the comments.

Also, we love good news, so if our photography tips have helped you to understand how to use color, share that too.

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