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5 Tips for Using Color to Improve Your Photography

tips-for-using-color

In this article, I’m going to give you five tips for using color.

Tips that will immediately take your photos to the next level.

Because here’s the thing:

Color is one of the most commonly neglected aspects of photography.

It’s also one of the most useful.

So, if you can learn to master color…

…your photos will instantly improve.

Let’s get started.

tips for using color blue and yellow

50mm | f/6.3 | 1/400s | ISO 250

1. Keep colors simple for the best compositions

When it comes to tips for using color, this is a big one.

Because colors are like compositional elements of their own.

And if you add too many compositional elements, you’ll overwhelm the viewer and cause them to turn away.

The trick is to keep the colors simple. Try to photograph scenes that only have a few obvious colors.

Three colors are okay, especially if one of them is dominant. In the photo below, you’ll notice strong blues and greens, with a slight orange on the building.

Image: 24mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO 400

24mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO 400

Two colors are even better.

And one color can work, too, such as when framed against a white backdrop.

In fact, when in doubt, reduce the number of colors. As you approach a potential composition, think about how you can simplify the colors.

That way, your composition will turn out looking beautiful: strong, simple, and artistic.

2. Use contrasting colors to add pop to your shots

Now that you know the most fundamental tip for using color in your photography, it’s time to look at specific combinations of colors that work really, really well.

The most popular color combination (and my absolutely favorite) is contrasting colors, like this:

tips for using color roseate spoonbill

400mm, f/6.3, 1/1250, ISO 250

You see, contrasting colors are colors that sit opposite one another on the color wheel.

(These are also known as complementary colors.)

And they look great together because they can create powerful tension in your photos. Plus, each complementary color works to make the other pop.

Some common contrasting color pairs are:

  • Green and red
  • Blue and orange
  • Purple and yellow

Now, the more equal the amounts of each contrasting color, the greater the tension in your photo.

Image: This color wheel shows the opposing (contrasting/complementary colors).

This color wheel shows the opposing (contrasting/complementary colors).

So you can play with the extent to which both colors are featured in order to create different looks.

A lot of green and a lot of red creates an obvious clash.

But a lot of green with a few spots of red feels much more balanced (though the red will still pop powerfully off the screen). That’s what I did in the photo above; I combined the red of the spoonbill with the green of the background, for a balanced image.

Make sense?

Note that you don’t have to be super precise about choosing complementary colors. Color contrast is a spectrum, not an absolute. So if you end up with a green and purple pair as opposed to a green and red pair, you’ll still get a sense of tension.

It just won’t be quite as strong as the true complementary colors.

3. Use analogous colors to add harmony to your images

As I explained in the tip for using color above:

Color contrast is good.

But sometimes you’re not looking to create tension in your photos. Sometimes you’re not looking to make aspects of your photo really stand out.

Instead, you might want to keep things looking peaceful throughout your image. Like this:

Image: 50mm, f/3.2, 1/400s, ISO 250

50mm, f/3.2, 1/400s, ISO 250

In cases like the one above, you should avoid contrasting colors, and instead use analogous colors.

These are colors that sit next to one another on the color wheel.

Some common analogous color pairs are:

  • Green and yellow
  • Purple and blue
  • Red and orange
  • Green and blue
  • Red and purple

And see what happens when you put some analogous colors together:

They convey a sense of harmony. Rather than clashing with one another, analogous colors keep the peace.

tips for using color dahlia

105mm, f/7.1, 1/250s, ISO 320

That’s why analogous colors are perfect for more subdued scenes, such as yellow and green trees standing together in autumn, or a blue flower resting alone in a field. The harmonious color combination will maintain that wonderfully serene feeling (as long as the rest of the composition is aimed at producing serenity, that is!).

Oh, and don’t be afraid of using three analogous colors together. You can always use combinations such as green, blue, and purple or green, yellow, and blue to create especially peaceful scenes!

So whenever you’re trying to capture a more subdued photo, look for analogous colors.

4. Keep your subject more colorful than the background to focus the viewer

If you’re capturing a photo with a clear subject, then you often want to make the subject pop off the background.

In other words, you want to focus the viewer. You want to keep their attention on the subject of the photo.

And you can do that by using color. You just have to make sure your subject features much more powerful colors than the background.

Image: 100mm, f/5, 1/125, ISO 250

100mm, f/5, 1/125, ISO 250

Here’s how it works:

Start by finding a colorful subject. The colors should be bold and saturated. For instance, a red flower, a blue building, a yellow car, etc.

And make sure it’s positioned in front of a boring background. Something with less color, even something that’s all white or all black.

The lack of color from the background, combined with the powerful color from your subject, will ensure that it’s the subject that catches the viewer’s eye.

This is one of my favorite tips for using colors, simply because it creates such powerful images. Whenever I see photos that use a colorful subject on a plain background, my eyes immediately go to the subject; everything is clear and simple.

Bottom line:

Don’t always feel like you need a colorful background to complement a colorful subject.

It often pays to keep the background much less interesting!

5. Include colorless areas to add a sense of balance

Here’s your final tip for using color in photography:

Don’t always feel like you need lots of color in your photos.

Instead, feel free to add in colorless areas: areas of black, areas of white, areas of gray.

Why?

Because colorless areas act like negative space in images that are full of color. They give the viewer a chance to rest. They balance out the overall composition.

Sure, a shot with areas of black or white often won’t look quite as eye-catching as a photo full of color contrasts.

But it’ll feel more balanced, which is what composition is often about.

For instance, a photo like this feels just right with a white background:

tips for using color building with blue

50mm, f/8, 1/320s, ISO 250

And if the background were, say, red, the photo would be overwhelming.

So don’t be afraid to include colorless areas in your photos. Put your subject on black. Put your subject on white.

Because even though color is a powerful tool to use, it’s also one that you need to tone down on occasion.

5 Tips for using color to improve your photography: Conclusion

Now that you’ve finished this article on tips for using color, you should feel confident incorporating different colors into your photos and using color combinations for stunning results.

So all that’s left to do?

Get out and start practicing. Try to find different color combinations. Experiment with different options, and carefully evaluate the results.

As long as you follow these five tips for using color…

…you’ll be capturing some stunning images in no time!

Do you have any other tips for using color that you’d like to share with us? Perhaps you’d like to share some of the images you take after reading this article? If so, please share them with us in the comments.

Image: 24mm, f/4, 1/500, ISO 250

24mm, f/4, 1/500, ISO 250

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Jaymes Dempsey
Jaymes Dempsey

is a macro photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan. To learn how to take stunning nature photos, check out his free eBook, Mastering Nature Photography: 7 Secrets For Incredible Nature Photos! And to see more of Jaymes’s work check out his website and his blog.