Colour Contrast: Making the Most of Orange and Blue

Colour Contrast: Making the Most of Orange and Blue

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Colour contrast: using orange and blue

One of the principles behind using colour in photography is that of using contrasting colours. To understand the concept we need to look at a colour wheel – a type of diagram used by designers to show the relationships between colours:

Colour contrast: using orange and blue

Diagram by Wikipedia contributor Jacobolus

Contrasting colours are those that appear on opposite sides of the colour wheel. Today I’m going to look at two specific colours, orange and blue.

Why these two? They happen to be very useful colours to work with because they appear a lot in nature (even though you might not be aware of it). It’s all to do with the colour of the ambient light, which ranges from cool blue to warm orange, depending on the light source.

Incidentally, this is reflected by the colour temperature slider in Lightroom. One end is blue, and the other is orange:

Colour contrast: using orange and blue

Blue light

In low light, in fog or rain, or at twilight the natural colour of the light is blue. In these conditions, any photo you take has a blue colour cast.

The easiest way to see a colour cast in your photo is to set white balance to daylight. If the colour of the light is blue, then it will come out blue in your photo.

If you use auto white balance the camera will warm the photo up to compensate for the blue colour cast of the light. That’s useful sometimes, but it’s not desirable if you want to create a moody image.

Blue light is atmospheric. That’s because some colours evoke an emotional response, and blue is one of them. It is a cold colour – it connotes cold, misery, bad weather, even depression.

Colour contrast: using orange and blue

I took this photo in thick fog.The natural colour of the light is blue. The blue colour cast in this photo creates mood.

Orange light

Orange coloured light also occurs naturally. Light originating from the sun in the late afternoon, early evening or at sunset has an orange colour cast. So does light emitted by tungsten bulbs and burning flames.

Anything lit by these light sources will have a warm orange colour cast. Again, you will see it clearly if you set white balance to daylight.

Orange is another colour that evokes emotion. It is the colour of warmth and energy. It reminds us of things like the heat of summer or emotional warmth. Like blue, the psychological effect can be quite powerful.

Colour contrast: using orange and blue

The light source in this photo is the tungsten bulbs inside the lanterns. The natural colour of this light is orange.

You can see that blue and orange are opposites in many respects. They are opposites on the colour wheel, and also in the emotions and feelings that they represent.

Combining blue and orange

One way to show contrast between two things is to place them together. There is a famous photo by Annie Leibovitz of a jockey and a basketball player, side by side (you can see it here). Placing both sportsmen side by side emphasises their respective height, and the difference in stature between them.

It’s the same with blue and orange. Include both in the same image to add to the power of this colour combination. The coldness of the blue tones emphasises the warmth of the orange ones, and vice versa. Here are a few examples:

Colour contrast: using orange and blue

Most of the scene is lit by fading daylight, which has a natural blue colour. There is some warm light coming from the right, where the sun has set. The orange streak of light over the horizon comes from a plane flying by during the exposure.

Colour contrast: using orange and blue

This photo was taken when it was nearly dark. The landscape is lit by the fading light, which has a natural blue colour. My model is whirling a burning object around. The light from the fire is orange.

Colour contrast: using orange and blue

Finally, here is a photo created using the steel wool spinning technique. It’s taken at dusk, and the landscape is lit by the blue coloured light of the fading daylight. The light from the burning steel wool is orange, and so are the lights from the distant city buildings over the water.

If you want to try steel wool spinning yourself, click the link to read an article I wrote about it on my website. Please pay attention to the safety instructions in the article – steel wool spinning is potentially dangerous.

Mastering Photography

Colour contrast: using orange and blue

My latest ebook, Mastering Photography: A Beginner’s Guide to Using Digital Cameras introduces you to digital photography and helps you make the most out of your digital cameras. It covers concepts such as lighting and composition as well as the camera settings you need to master to take photos like the ones in this article.

By the way, the cover photo is another great example of using the orange and blue colour contrast. The building and flag are lit by the setting sun, so they have an orange colour cast. The summer sky is deep blue. You can take this sort of photo just about anywhere during the golden hour at the end of the day.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer and photographer living in New Zealand. He is the author of over twenty photography ebooks – please join his monthly newsletter to receive complimentary copies of The Creative Image and Use Lightroom Better.

  • The azure blue skies and sea of the Mediterranean certainly give a very blue background to give contrast

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Portugal-Algarve/G0000n_wp_qjUxVQ/I0000biUT1ly7J_o

  • Here’s some recent light painting work, using the combination of blue and orange. They work really well.

    http://jeffejensen.blogspot.com/2013/06/painting-with-friends.html

  • Beth Hutter

    Was just in Utah last month and the combination of orange-red rock and cobalt blue skies made for great pictures![eimg url=’http://bb-photography.com/p415584057/h6213a55a#h6213a55a’ title=’h6213a55a#h6213a55a’]

  • On our recent trip to Utah the orange-red rock, golden hour light and cobalt blue skies made for a great combination![eimg link=’http://www.flickr.com/photos/hutterstravel/9043995962/’ title=’Window View’ url=’http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7405/9043995962_95a8868881.jpg’]

  • Kyle Czech
  • Interesting article and useful comment on contrasting colours. I was a little confused about the colour names and the use of orange (rather than yellow) being considered the complimentary to blue. I am also more familiar with the names Red/Cyan (Red/Aqua) – Blue/Yellow (Blue/Orange – Yellow in the colour wheel) – Green/Magenta (Lime/Fuchsia). I am not saying these are wrong but most photography literature I have come across use the additive and subtractive colour names of Red-Green-Blue and Cyan-Magenta-Yellow.

    I am not meaning to be critical however this might clear up some confusion for others who are used to different colour names.

  • i took this photo at the roof deck of our office.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/alienscream/3101494763/

  • Cy

    That was great! I want an orange dining chair and a blue wall… U think it will look alright?

  • Saleem Shaikh

    very interesting and very important information.. this make me clear lots of doubt what i had formerly regarding color combination and temperature thanks Andrew Gibson 🙂

  • So for those bottom two photos: Are the colour temperatures warm or cool?

  • tebobski

    very informative. Here my take on this topic…. https://www.flickr.com/photos/95977979@N08/14539926981/

  • Feenix

    This is a rusty stormwater grate. It was in the shade on a sunny day and as my WB was set to daylight it came out bluish. I increased contrast and saturation to bring out the rust. The final image was accepted into a juried art show.

  • prashantsakerkar

    Excellent article on Contrasting colors.

    Can we evaluate these Contrasting colors for zebra crossing on the road?.

    Thanks & Regards,
    Prashant S Akerkar

Some Older Comments

  • Joey Rico July 23, 2013 07:26 pm

    i took this photo at the roof deck of our office.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/alienscream/3101494763/

  • Don Burt July 6, 2013 10:47 am

    Interesting article and useful comment on contrasting colours. I was a little confused about the colour names and the use of orange (rather than yellow) being considered the complimentary to blue. I am also more familiar with the names Red/Cyan (Red/Aqua) - Blue/Yellow (Blue/Orange - Yellow in the colour wheel) - Green/Magenta (Lime/Fuchsia). I am not saying these are wrong but most photography literature I have come across use the additive and subtractive colour names of Red-Green-Blue and Cyan-Magenta-Yellow.

    I am not meaning to be critical however this might clear up some confusion for others who are used to different colour names.

  • Mridula July 2, 2013 03:32 pm

    Nice pics and tip.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • Kyle Czech July 2, 2013 08:51 am

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/97677350@N08/9179597062/

  • Beth Hutter July 1, 2013 10:20 am

    On our recent trip to Utah the orange-red rock, golden hour light and cobalt blue skies made for a great combination![eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/hutterstravel/9043995962/' title='Window View' url='http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7405/9043995962_95a8868881.jpg']

  • Beth Hutter July 1, 2013 10:17 am

    Was just in Utah last month and the combination of orange-red rock and cobalt blue skies made for great pictures![eimg url='http://bb-photography.com/p415584057/h6213a55a#h6213a55a' title='h6213a55a#h6213a55a']

  • Jeff E Jensen June 30, 2013 06:40 am

    Here's some recent light painting work, using the combination of blue and orange. They work really well.

    http://jeffejensen.blogspot.com/2013/06/painting-with-friends.html

  • Steve June 29, 2013 05:38 pm

    The azure blue skies and sea of the Mediterranean certainly give a very blue background to give contrast

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Portugal-Algarve/G0000n_wp_qjUxVQ/I0000biUT1ly7J_o

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