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]


Showing project (WRKXFMLY)

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We are privileged to be able to participate in a national photography project, the “Showing (Work & Family)” Assignment.

Description (from the website):

“The Showing (work x family) story could not be complete without the perspectives of young people who live it. We developed WRKXFMLY, an original assignment for high school students formally studying photography, to bring their unique and important perspectives to ShowingIn the assignment, students create pictures and write statements addressing the overlap of work and family in their own lives. We encourage students to consider broad definitions of “family” and “work.” Their photographs are then considered for inclusion alongside professional work in our traveling exhibition. We also offer opportunities for regional student exhibitions.”

Mr. Gooder and Mr. Cataldo will post select work (and what you write about it) here weekly: CCHS Showing Photoblog. Check it to see your work and the work of your fellow photographers! Hopefully, friends, family, teachers and other members of our school community will check it often as your work evolves. Remember, your black and while film based work can be scanned and uploaded too!

If selected, student work may be exhibited in at Framingham State University next year.

Big Ideas & Essential Questions


Untitled © 2015 Desiree Bustos, WRKXFMLY Assignment, Walden Grove High School, Sahuarita, AZ

Big Ideas

  • In the United States, work and family life often overlap in many ways, both obvious and nuanced.
  • There are all kinds of families and all kinds of work. Every family experience is different and valid. There are no right or wrong answers. There is no “normal.”
  • Photography and the written word can express and explain the various realities of work and family life and illuminate how they intersect.

Essential Questions

  • How do work and family overlap in your life, especially for your parent(s)/guardian(s)?
  • How can photographic images and text communicate the ways that family life and work life overlap?

As part of the assignment, a professional photographer, Tsar Fodorosky, will be visiting our students three times: first to explain the project, about a month later to look at student work in progress, and for a final critique. This is a unique opportunity for advanced students to get real world feedback and help with their photography work. See Ms. Fodorosky’s work here:

For more information and student work samples:

Instagram account: @wrkxfmly  #wrkxfmly

Facebook page:

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The Voiceover Project

I wish Morgan Freeman could narrate my life...
I wish Morgan Freeman could narrate my life…

Essential Questions:

  • What are the possible ways words and images can interact to tell a story?
  • How can voice over narration be used as a storytelling device in film?
  • What mode of voiceover narration best fits a particular character and plot?


  • Complete a 3 – 6 minute narrative short film by the end of the quarter
  • Produce a film with advanced sound and picture quality
  • Work with Colonial Sound to record original foley effects and a narrative voiceover; if inclined, produce and original music score.
  • Work with a crew of 2-4

Steps: (with your crew)

  1. Identify crew positions (and duties) for pre-production, production (shooting) and post production (editing).
  2. Write a voiceover script or a screenplay (in screenplay format)
  3. Draw a storyboard to go with the script
  4. Pre-produce the film:
    1. Cast actors
    2. Find locations
    3. Schedule voiceover session and shoot dates
  5. Record a voiceover (in Colonial Sound)
  6. Edit the film to the voiceover track (adding music and other sound)
  7. Plan and record foley sound effects (in Colonial Sound) and music (optional)
  8. Add special effects (as needed) in post production.
  9. Add titles and credits
  10. Screen your film in class for critique

Options… This project can take many forms:

  • Internal monologue (the character we see on screen narrates the world around them, as it’s happening, in the first person; could include more than one character)
  • Retelling the past (Character narrates a past experience, which we are seeing)
  • Dream (can be looser, more abstract, or seem very real)
  • Poem (narrate a poem you wrote, or by someone else; bring it to life with moving images)
  • Non-fiction (record a real person or group of people, rather than an actor reading a script; create images to enhance what they say)


photogram lecture.024


–Learn about the darkroom–procedures and technology (enlargers, chemistry, paper, exposure)

–Play with design — positive and negative space, opacity, designing within the frame

–Create meaning through the selection and arrangement of objects you find or bring in.

–Work individually to design 3 photograms

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Download the lecture (which contains examples, hints and the assignment) here: photogram lecture

Recommend your Favorite Short Films!

screen-shot-2016-11-30-at-10-05-42-amIn class Assignment Description: Using the website, find short films to watch and review. Your picks will become part of a class database of recommended films, found here: Film Recommendation Google Sheet. You will use class time when not otherwise occupied editing, shooting or planning your films.


  1. Watch films. One film must be a documentary. Hint: Select “Channels” and then scroll down to find Award Winning films (as well as films grouped by genre, topic, medium, etc).
  2. Recommend any film you think your teacher or peers should see.
  3. Fill out all columns, including your name, a description of the film and if you feel it’s a good film to show in class.



The Identity Assignment (Portraits)

Charles, Vasa, Minnesota by Alec Soth, 2003
Charles, Vasa, Minnesota by Alec Soth, 2003

Essential Questions:

  • What defines you as a person? Is it: Culture? Personality? History? Gender? Your interests or activities?
  • How can the visual medium of photography be used to represent these aspects of identity?
  • What do you wish to share about yourself? What do you wish to keep private? How much can a photographic portrait show about a person?

Directions for Shooting this Assignment:

  1. With a partner assigned by the teacher, shoot one portrait in the studio. You will photograph them, and they will photograph you. For this image, think about one specific theme in your life (rather than every aspect of your life–that might be impossible to capture in one image!) You need to bring one prop or clothing item that shows a theme in your life. The quality of the light (direction, intensity, hardness or softness, color) can also help express your personality.
  2. With a partner of your choosing, or on your own, shoot a photograph on location, using natural light. You photograph them, they photograph you. Choose a location that says something about you. Other elements you include in the image can give us a visual clue: time of day, props, and of course your expression, gesture or body language. How you shoot can be used to add meaning or emotion: focus, depth of field, freezing or blurring motion, use of light, lens choice and framing. Finally, how you edit and print the image will affect our reading of it (saturation, contrast, color vs. black and white, and so on). You may use your camera’s timer and a tripod to shoot this image by yourself if you choose.
  3. The third photograph should say something about you without you in it. This can be a real challenge! Is it a place? A thing? Something abstract that communicates a mood? Something special to you and your identity? Again, think about how the elements and design of your images communicate both information and emotion.
  4. Remember: the images can be serious or humorous. Either way, they should reflect something essential and important about who you are as a person.
Josef Sudek, “The Poet of Prague,” thinking about photography

Directions for your Blog Post (including the Writing):

  1. Select one or two images from 1,2 and 3 (above) — so one or two portraits taken in the studio, one or two on location, and one that says something about you without you in it.
  2. Do not make a slideshow gallery for this blog post. Instead, you need to post the images in a large size and add your writing about the images under each image (or each pair of images)
  3. Write about your identity, and how you expressed it through these images. One paragraph per image (or pair of images). Look back at the essential questions, at the top of this assignment. What are you showing about yourself in this image? Why did you make the decisions you did as a photographer for these images? What was the experience of making these images like for you? What did you learn about photography and yourself through this project?

Download the lecture / slideshow on Studio Lighting with examples here: 



Portrait Assignment

Students in Introduction to photography will explore taking portraits of people–people they care about and people they’ve never met before, but want to.

Kurt Cobain by Mark Seliger

Students will also shoot studio style portrait a friend acting out an emotion or idea.

Actress Meryl Streep by Annie Leibovitz, 1981

Download and read the slideshow from class for more examples and information about the assignment:

Portrait Assignment Lecture