Color in photography composition made easy with the color wheel

Using color in photography composition is a wonderfully creative and often subtle way to create mood, add to the story of a photo and hold your viewer’s attention.

Even the simplest details can elevate a photograph from ordinary to eye catching. The best part is that so often the viewer doesn’t know what it is that drew them in and this is especially true with color in photography.

Composing an image carefully with knowledge of what makes it compelling is an art form in itself and this knowledge 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 theory in photography is one of these essential skills. The good news is that it’s not at all difficult.

Contrasting colors in photography composition

How to use color in photography

To understand how to use colors in photography composition, 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:

  • Blue
  • Red
  • Yellow

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

Primary colors

Add secondary colors

Then mix adjacent colors to get the hues in between, known as secondary colors. The secondary color falls between the two primary colors from which it is made:

  • Purple is made from blue and red
  • Orange is made from red and yellow
  • Green is made from yellow and blue

Color wheel showing complementary colors of composition

Warm and cool colors

You’ll notice that half the color wheel is warm colors (from yellow to purple) and the other half is cool colors (from purple to green).

You’ll see the value in this as we get into the details of color schemes in photography, also known as color harmonies.

Download my color wheel for free, print it and keep it in your camera bag or save on your phone until the knowledge becomes second nature and you don’t need to refer to it any more.

Subtractive and Additive color wheels

Just so you know, there are two color wheels, but they work the same way for color theory, even though the colors are slightly different. Color theory relies on where colors are placed on the color wheel.

Subractive color wheel

The color wheel that we’re using for this article is the RYB (red, yellow, blue) color wheel, made up of primary colors that we learned about in school. It’s also known as a subractive color wheel.

When you mix all the colors together you get black. It shows the color of reflected light and therefore the color we see in print and the world around us.

Additive color wheel

The other type of color wheel is the RGB (red, green, blue) color wheel, which is made up of the colors of light and is called the additive color wheel.

When you add all the colors of light together, you get white and this is what we see on digital screens.

Photography composition ebook

What is color theory in photography

Color theory is a lot easier than it sounds if you think of it in terms of using different color schemes to achieve the look and feel you want.

We decide on color schemes every day as we go about our lives.

For example, one of the reasons you chose the clothes that you’re wearing today is because of the colors and that they go together. The more fashion conscious among us pay more attention to this.

In fact, any time we design anything, we consider color schemes:

  • The carpet, curtains, couch and wall colors of your lounge
  • Company logo
  • Anyone that’s ever planned a wedding, knows how involved deciding on a color scheme gets for arranging venue and table decoration, bridesmaids dresses, flowers etc.

But getting back to color in photography.

The color scheme you choose goes a long way to influence the feeling of a photo. So, before you decide on the colors you want to include, you need to think through the feeling and message of your photo.

Once you’ve decided on the feeling you want, you have two options:

  • Choose the colors that fit with the theme, starting with the key color (the main color)
  • Choose the key color and then decide on other colors based on the color scheme that suits the feeling you want in the photo

Color schemes in photography

While there are a number of color schemes, and you can get really involved with color theory and color schemes, the four basic color schemes that we’ll touch on are:

  • Complementary (contrasting) color scheme
  • Triadic color scheme
  • Analogous color scheme
  • Monochrome color scheme

1. Complementary colors in photography

To make an image pop with color in photography composition, use colors that stand out from each other – these are complementary colors.

They’re opposite each other on the color wheel, so they’re also called opposite colors, or (confusingly) contrasting colors and complementary colors.

Because they’re opposite on the color wheel, one color will be warm and the other cool and this contrast creates dynamic photos.

Orange and blue complementary colors

Orange (between red and yellow) is opposite blue. Orange is therefore a complementary color of blue.

2. Triadic colors in photography

Triadic colors are three colors spaced evenly around the color wheel, forming an equilateral triangle.

The most well known triadic color schemes are:

  • Red, blue, yelllow (the primary colors)
  • Orange, purple, green (secondary colors)

Triadic color schemes are vibrant, but also well balance, because of the even spacing of the colors on the color wheel. 

3. Analogous colors in photography

Analogous colors are colors that lie next to each other on the color wheel. There’s no set rule for which group of colors they need to be, only that they should be next to each other for color harmony.

So, you could have, for example:

  • Yellow, orange and red
  • Blue, green and yellow

If you’ve ever walked through the woods in fall, you’ve seen one of nature’s finest displays of analogous colors.

Example of analogous color scheme in photos

The calm feeling of this image is enhanced by the analogous colors of orange, yellow and green on the warm side of the color wheel

3. Monochrome color scheme

This is the ultimate color scheme for unity.

It uses shades (darks) and tints (lights) of just one hue (color). So a monochrome color scheme isn’t just a fancy way of saying black and white, although that certainly would count as it’s shades of gray.

Monochrom color scheme

I could have taken the monochrome color scheme further by desaturing his skin tones slightly.

Pale and bright luminance of the same color

In this image, everything but the cake is pink, so the cake contrasts with the monochrome background.

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’ll be easy to start spotting colors that 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.

Color is an element of the principle of unity in photography composition. To really bring a styled shoot together, combine your color knowledge with these elements for strong, cohesive images.

All of a sudden, deciding on what colors to include just became a whole lot easier! And remember to use color theory for your lighting too if you like to add color to off camera flash.

No design degree needed for color theory, just a handy color chart …and knowledge of how to use color in photography composition.

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1 thought on “Color in photography composition made easy with the color wheel”

  1. Love your tips. I’ve been a follower of yours for a while. They are down to earth, understandable, and useful. Thank you for sharing your expertise.


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