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Colour Contrast: Making the Most of Orange and Blue

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
Andrew S. Gibson

is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He’s an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

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