Defining Color

Digital Photography 101: The basics of color theory

How to use color theory to improve your photography, part 1

Can you imagine a world without color? It’s such an intrinsic part of our lives that sometimes we don’t even notice it. We only stop to think about color when we encounter a particularly jarring or particularly pleasing combination. But for a good photographer, color is a integral part of the constant image processing we do in our heads. We don’t just see a composition in terms of lines and shapes; we see the colors in it and the way they work in harmony or opposition.
“Orphaned Rhino” from Saving Africa’s Great Animals, National Geographic Magazine. Photograph by Ami Vitale, (United States)

It’s well known that color can affect mood and, like particular shapes and lines, can be used to evoke feelings of calmness and serenity or of tension and passion. Color can make or break a photograph, so it’s a good idea to have some clue what it’s all about. In part 1 of this two-part series, we’ll explain the basics of color theory. In part 2, we’ll go into more detail about how it applies to photography.

Defining color
First, a bit of technical explanation. Color, as we know it in regards to photography, is usually discussed in terms of hue, saturation, and brightness.

Hue is the color part of color. When we say a color is blue, purple, or yellow, we’re generally talking about hue. Technically, hue is “the degree to which a stimulus can be described as similar to or different from stimuli that are described as red, green, blue, and yellow (the unique hues).” Makes perfect sense, right? If you really want to get into the nitty-gritty technical definition, check out Wikipedia’s entry for hue — but for our purposes, it’s enough to say that hue is the actual color of the color.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL 01:09:2014 People playing soccer at sunset at Ipanema Beach. The sport was especially popular as Brazil prepared to host the World Cup. Yasuyoshi Chiba:Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL 01/09/2014 People playing soccer at sunset at Ipanema Beach. The sport was especially popular as Brazil prepared to host the World Cup. Yasuyoshi Chiba/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Hue can be adjusted in image editing software such as Photoshop or Gimp. In the images on the left, the top left image is the original photo. In the other three quadrants, we’ve shifted the hue by varying degrees, moving it more toward green, red, or blue. This can be particularly useful both to adjust for interior lighting or simply for artistic purposes.

You’re probably familiar from childhood art classes with the traditional primary colors of red, yellow, and blue  — those reflected light colors are known as painters’ primaries. If you’ve worked with software like Photoshop or played around with your monitor or TV color settings, you might have noticed a different set of primary colors: red, green, and blue, abbreviated RGB. Those are the transmitted light primaries, and they create the colors you see in digital form in your camera or monitor. Printers work with yet another set of primary colors: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, abbreviated CMYK.

Brightness (sometimes called lightness, value, or tone) refers to how light or dark a hue is. Again, the technical definition gets complex, but the basic concept is simply how much white or black appears in the color. In photography, this is easily adjusted by the exposure; an overexposed image is very light, while an underexposed image is very dark.

BELLE PLAINE, MINN. 04/30/2014 A lockdown drill to address the threat of school shootings interrupted an eighth-grade gym class. Alec Soth/Magnum Photos

Saturation (also called chroma) is the degree to which a color is colorful, as opposed to grayscale. According to Wikipedia, “the saturation of a color is determined by a combination of light intensity and how much it is distributed across the spectrum of different wavelengths. The purest (most saturated) color is achieved by using just one wavelength at a high intensity, such as in laser light. If the intensity drops, then as a result the saturation drops.” Just how blue is that blue? A more saturated color looks more pure, while a less saturated color looks more dirty or diluted. Most colors found in nature are relatively unsaturated — natural, pure color is fairly rare.
Spinning through the color wheel
You may have seen a color wheel before — in it, you can see each of the primary colors, separated by wedges (or triangles, as in this example) of the various hues that result from mixing the primary colors to varying degrees. The color directly opposite each primary color on the wheel is called its complementary color  — those colors are green, violet, and orange.

Since colors and their complements are opposites, combining them creates a very strong contrast in an image and can create either harmony or tension, depending on the composition of the image. Combining colors that lie next to each other on the color wheel is called analogous harmony. For example, blue-green, blue, and blue-violet are analogous colors.

Intensity and harmony
One might think that we would logically see colors of the same saturation as having the same intensity, but that’s not the case. On the color wheel, we see yellow as being much more intense than violet, and orange as much more intense than blue. To build a harmoniously colored composition, you might want to include more blue than orange, because the orange is more intense.

DETROIT 04/30/2014 Theodore Roosevelt Pritchett Jr. in his home, which is flanked by two abandoned houses. Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Warmer colors are more intense than cooler colors, and they tend to appear to advance toward us, while cooler colors appear to recede. It has been theorized that we perceive colors in this way because in nature, most things that are shades of blue or green are harmless, whereas bright yellows, oranges, and reds frequently indicate poison or other danger. This is why warning signs are commonly colored yellow, orange, or red, because we naturally pay attention to those colors.

Part 2: How to use color theory to saturate your photographs

A few weeks ago, we gave you a basic overview of color theory. This week, we’re going to go more in-depth and explore how you can use color theory to enhance your photography.

Mood lighting
The most obvious effect that color has on photography is creating and enhancing mood. In the pair of photos below, the image on the left is the original photo, taken on a bright, overcast day; the image on the right has been altered in Photoshop to more of a warm sepia tone. The coloring of the photo below evokes feelings of nostalgia, and one might even think the scene took place many years ago.

MANHATTAN 09/26/2014 Wendy Whelan, a senior ballerina with the New York City Ballet, a few weeks before retiring from her 30-year career. Béatrice de Géa for The New York Times
MANHATTAN 09/26/2014. Wendy Whelan, a senior ballerina with the New York City Ballet, a few weeks before retiring from her 30-year career. Béatrice de Géa for The New York Times

In contrast, blue tones tend to give a somber, cool, somewhat sad feeling. These responses are purely psychological, of course, and everyone reacts to color in slightly different ways. But generally speaking, warm colors such as yellow, gold, and greens that fall toward the yellow end of the spectrum make photos seem inviting, friendly, and happy. Cooler colors like blue and purple tend to give a more aloof, chilly feel.

Create colorful movement
You’ve probably heard it said that some colors “pop.” This effect is referred to as advancing and receding, and it’s most easily seen in bright blues and reds. Cool colors like blue tend to be seen as receding, whereas warm colors like red look like they’re advancing toward the viewer. You can use this theory to your advantage by putting elements with advancing colors like red in the foreground of your photos. This will add to the feeling of depth in your image.

Some colors are also associated very strongly with certain concepts. Red, for example, is frequently used as a warning, telling us to stop or be careful. Our eyes are naturally drawn to red in photographs, and we pay more attention to red objects than those of other colors.

KIEV, UKRAINE 02/19/2014 Antigovernment protesters burned barricades to keep riot police officers from storming Independence Square. Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Be complementary
Complementary colors are those located on opposite sides of the color wheel. These colors work well together in images meant to feel lively and energetic, because the two colors compete with one another. The photo of a yellow egg yolk on a purple plate is a great example of complementary colors.

Work together in harmony
Harmonious colors are those that are adjacent on the color wheel, such as red, orange, and yellow, or green, blue, and violet. Harmonious colors, as the name implies, work very well together and bring a peaceful feeling to an image.

Keep it simple

Monochrome commonly refers to what we also call black-and-white images, though technically the correct term is grayscale. However, monochrome can also be used to refer to images that use mainly either a single color or a small range of colors on the color wheel. The most obvious situation where this occurs naturally is in a summertime forest, where the leaves, moss, and warm summer light make a world of almost entirely shades of green.

Moss, Washington State
Moss, Washington State, December 2014 (photo by Adam Gooder)

To keep a monochrome photograph from looking dull or flat, try to find different saturations and shades of your chosen color, to add a sense of depth and movement.

Spot colors keep it interesting
One of the fun things that’s pretty easy to do with image editing programs like Photoshop to create an image that uses spot color. Usually this is done by cloning a part of your image and keeping it the original color while desaturating the rest of the image until it’s grayscale. You can use this technique to draw the viewer’s attention to a bright yellow flower, a model’s ruby-red lips, or a colorful balloon.

The inverse of this technique is also possible, where all but one part of a photograph is in color. When the grayscale part of the image is a person, this can lend a ghostly, surreal quality to the scene.

Whether you’re a fan of serene black-and-white photography or deeply saturated hues, a basic understanding of color theory will help you visualize color combinations that work and compose even more striking photographs.

[Writing Credit: Katherine Gray; posted on]