Triadic colors in photography (for a vibrant color scheme)

The easiest way to explain triadic colors in photography is to ask you to think of Superman and Wonder Woman. Their costumes are the ultimate triadic color scheme – red, blue and yellow! It’s not the only triadic color scheme, but it is the primary one as red, blue and yellow are primary colors.

All other colors on the color wheel (secondary colors and tertiary colors) stem from these three primary colors.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Child superhero costume with triadic color palette

Some years ago I did superhero mini sessions in my studio. I chose a black and white background and black floor so that my colorful subjects would stand out. My instructions to parents were to dress their kids in blue jeans and either a blue or red t-shirt and to bring wellies (preferably red or yellow). I then provided capes and masks for them to choose (plus music and a wind machine for epic vibes)

What are triadic colors?

As with all things relating to color theory, we need to refer to the color wheel.

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

In the examples below, do you see the equal distance between the different colors for each triadic color combination?

Example color wheels of triadic color schemes

The first triad color wheel is made of primary colors, the last (bottom right) is secondary colors and the other two are tertiary colors

Why use triadic colors in photography?

A triadic color scheme is vibrant and dynamic (just like our superheroes). So using triadic colors as a composition technique in portrait photography helps to create dynamic photos that get the viewer’s attention.

Speaking of composition, to really make photos jump out with maximum energy, combine a triadic color scheme of saturated colors with diagonal lines in photos. Your subjects will be leaping off the screen/paper.

Triadic vs other color schemes

Different color combinations create different emotions in photos. This is why knowledge of the color wheel and how it works is essential for good use of color in photography.

Balloons, background and clothing are primary triadic palette

My client is a confidence coach, her personality is loud and vibrant and her personal brand is colorful, so we went with a triadic color scheme for her branding shoot. The vertical line composition conveys trust

Here’s a brief summary of 4 color harmonies, with links so you can read more about them…

  • Triadic colors – are three evenly spaced colors on the color wheel. Because the color placements form a perfect triangle, they provide a balanced contrast, even though they’re visually striking.
  • Complementary colors – are on opposite sides of the color wheel. So a complementary color scheme is a contrasting color harmony and one color will be from the cool side and one from the warm side of the color wheel.
  • Analogous colors – are colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. An analogous color scheme consists of ideal 3 adjacent colors. Because they’re next to each other, they don’t clash, so create a unified, harmonious feeling in photos.
  • Monochromatic colors – are variations of the same color (lighter and darker). So a monochromatic color scheme creates the most unified look of all the color schemes.

How to use a triadic color scheme

How you apply the principles of color harmony is just as important as the combination of colors you choose.

To ensure your triadic color scheme is pleasing to the eye:

  • Select one dominant color to guide the viewer’s focus
  • Use the other two colors from your triadic scheme to support and enhance the dominant hue
  • Balance is key – too much of one color can overwhelm the others and cause imbalance

Child superhero portraits with red, blue and yellow

Going back to our superhero costumes…

  • Superman – the dominant color is blue, then red and a small amount of yellow as an accent color
  • Wonder Woman – the dominant color is red, then blue and a small amount of yellow as an accent color

So the next logical question, is how do you choose a dominant color (aka main color)?

Emotional impact of color choices

I mentioned earlier that different colors evoke different emotions – this is color psychology:

  • Warm colors (like red) – convey passion and energy
  • Cool colors (like blue) – suggest calm and trust

So when selecting clothing and deciding on the background of photos, choose colors to suit the mood and story you’re aiming to tell.

However, you might also need to be aware of cultural associations to colors that might influence the viewer’s emotional response.

Color editing to change color scheme

My client is a child nutritionist and her (analogous) brand colors are reflected in the image on the left. I edited her t-shirt colors in the image on the right for a triadic color image (purple, orange, green) to demonstrate how different colors change the feel of an image.

Triadic colors in practice

First I’ll show you a practical application of triadic colors in photography with a couple of examples from pirate mini sessions in my studio. Then we can get into the details.

Example triadic color photoshoot

I chose a blue photography background material to complement the orange (ish) wood of the banister, boxes and ship’s wheel. I added the parrot prop (see image below) to tie in the set with the children’s outfits.

I asked parents to dress their kids like pirates and provided props for them to use.

Then I crossed my fingers and hoped that it would work out! Luckily they all wore red, blue and/or yellow.

Subject's clothing is a muted triadic color palette

Above, the girl’s outfit is a muted triadic color scheme. Whereas in the image below the girl’s outfit colors are more saturated. Both are triadic color schemes and the soft vs vibrant color choices suited their personalities.

triadic colors from blue background plus red and yellow outfit

Create focal points

  • Decide on your triadic palette by choosing three colors that are equally spaced on the color wheel
  • Dress your subject in a dominant triadic color to ensure they’re the main focal point
  • Use secondary triadic colors in the background or as accents to balance the composition

Muted triadic color scheme color wheels

Combine different tones and shades

Not all triadic color schemes need to be packed with dynamic, saturated colors that scream for attention.

Color triads of less saturated colors (like pastels) are much calmer and more refreshing than the intensity of saturated color triads.

Alternatively, combine vibrant and soft colors. For a slightly reduced color contrast use:

  • One light color and two darker colors
  • One dark color and two lighter colors

Muted color scheme of orange, purple, green

I think child portraits suit a triadic color palette, but it doesn’t have to be screaming loud. Here I used the muted green grass, mauve blanket (and a small amount of purple lavender) and orange stuffed toys and basket for a gentle color combination

Planning a photoshoot with Triadic Colors

Color pallets in portrait photos aren’t based purely on what your subject wears. The background in photos is often a large part of the image, and lighting makes a difference too.

5 steps to plan a photoshoot outdoors

Step 1: Select a color palette

The colors should flatter your subject and also convey the mood of the photoshoot.

Step 2: Scout a location

The background must both compliment the subject and not be attention grabbing. So you need to consider background color when scouting locations for a photoshoot.

Step 3: Decide on outfits

Use your triadic color scheme in clothing, accessories and/or props. Remember to distribute the colors with balance, so have one dominant color and use the others as accent colors.

Step 4: Consider time of day

The golden hour is a riot of warm colors, which is one of the reasons it’s considered the best time of day for portrait photography. Light is cooler either side of midday and this too will influence your color palette.

Step 5: Consider the weather

On wintry overcast days the color temperature of light is cool, so needs to be balanced with warm color in your subject’s outfits. This pop of color will also help them stand out in dull light.

Extra step 😉

Oh and here’s another step – before your photoshoot read 5 outdoor photoshoot tips for professional looking photos

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If you have any questions about triadic colors in photography, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my color theory tips have helped you, share that too.

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