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Add Contrast to Your Images by Using Complementary Colors

When looking at something as cognitive human beings, we naturally get a response. These responses could be emotional, physical, intellectual, etc. There is a whole range of how we respond. This range of reactions is essential for the photographer, no matter if you are shooting wedding photos professionally, landscapes for a hobby, or street photos as a traveler. Just as there is a range of photographic intentions there are ranges of how we interpret what we see. So, how do you see, and what makes you more likely to push the shutter button here and not there?

001 Red and green

From a market in Korea this green sea veggie and the red baskets they are placed in show how saturation can be achieved through color contrast

One reason is color! Colors can be striking, bold, subtle and muted, or they could be vibrant, luscious, and soft. The descriptions of colors goes on and on, as does the names of colors. Pick up an elementary school crayon box and what you’ll notice that what used to have eight colors when I was young, doubled to 16 and now there are even boxes with 152 different colours (I did look back into Crayola history and found they were sold in metal tins of 48 crayons). So again, we could make this as complicated as possible, but I can’t keep track of all those color names, can you? Nor do I want to. I just want better images.

To keep it straight forward and simple we will look at the traditional color wheel. Color wheels for printing and or mixing colors (e.g., oil painting), are not the same, so our focus is simply on what looks good to us, not the pigment mixing of paints, for painters and printers. If you look at the traditional color wheel, the complementary colors are the ones opposite of each other. When these colors are both present, called contrast, then it is pleasing to the eye.

Why, because the different colors excite different cones (or color receptors) in our eye which in turn sends signals to our brain giving us a feeling. As mentioned above colors are described in a variety of ways, as too are feelings. Sometimes complementary colors are more soothing, and sometimes they are more powerful. That often depends on the context and perspective that the colors are in (the surrounding colors), along with their tone (dark or light). Simply put, complementary colors vibrate themselves and give us feeling.

002 Yellow and purple

The contrast of the yellow to the purple direct the eye towards the center of the water lily along with selective focus. Combine color with other techniques to help guide the viewer. From Changchun China International statue park.

One reason that complementary colors tug our hearts in one direction or another is because the complementary color is actually a blend of the other two primary colors. Thus, each primary color has one complementary color which is a mix of the other two primary colors. The traditional complementary colors are red and green, yellow and purple, and blue and orange. Red is a primary color and its complement is green (i.e. a mix of yellow and blue—the other two primary colors). Thus when using complementary colors you are actually stimulating all of your color receptors but in a slightly deceiving way. If we look at the complement of yellow, it is purple. What are the two primary colors that create purple? You got it, red and blue.

003 Blue and orange

The blue background of the volcano after sunset in Guatemala really highlights the orange lava bursting out. A much different feeling would be created if the picture had been taken at golden hour, rather than blue hour.

If we look at many Dutch master painters they were very skilled in the art of light and dark. Using lighter areas to attract your attention to certain areas of the photo, and using darker tones to push areas back into the shadows. If we move forward in the impressionist era, Monet definitely shows his use of complementary colors in his painting Impression, Sunrise (Impression, Soleil levant) in 1872, of the orange sun with the blue seascape. In the post-impressionist era, Van-Gogh’s Starry Night in 1889 of the yellow stars, and the purple night sky is maybe one of the most famous examples of the use of complementary colors.

So back to photography, what does this all mean? Well for one, print out a color wheel and put it in your camera bag. You can never look at color enough. Even back in ancient Greece, Aristotle pondered color and how it seemed to change based on the light around it. Moreover, if you look in the shadow of a primary color you will see hints of its complement. Color is one of the most subjective forms of visual art, and thus, it is very much open for interpretation and experimentation. Like most concepts in photography it is best to know the “rules” then to learn how to break them.

004 No blue

No blue: by subtracting one of the primary colors you can still achieve vibrant and dynamic results.

005 No Red

No Red: Because there is no red, the other colors seem to create more contrast.

006 No Yellow

No Yellow: In a very colorful scene, eliminating one primary color brings continuity to the photo.

Go out and see the world, armed with a little more understanding of what and how we perceive the world around us. Don’t be afraid of color in the natural world. But don’t expect to get it right by just ramping up the saturation slider in post-processing. Colors are vibrating wave forms all around us. Placing complementary colors next to each other gives your photo a little bit more energy.

Looking for the right colors might help you broaden your portfolio and prevent you from over-valuing leading lines or the rule of thirds. It might also help add punch to your textures, rather than sliding that saturation bar all the way up. Complementary colors naturally create contrast so you don’t need to try to create it in post-production. Let complementary colors complement your other strengths as a photographer.

007 color circle from 1708

Traditional Color wheel from the early 1700’s.

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Branson Quenzer
Branson Quenzer

has chased bygone eras in a vastly changing Chinese landscape for over a decade. He has a Master’s Degree in Economics, whereby he uses a paradigm of seeing the world through a system of interlinking processes and changes, to explore photography and the world. Please visit his website to see more or contact him through Facebook.

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