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Tips for Using Color in Your Photography

Tips for Using Color in Your Photography - boats in a row on the shore

Color is one of those things that you easily take for granted because it is everywhere. Even though you see it every day, not much thought is given to how (or why) it affects your perception or mood. While it is a common part of your life, you can still pay attention to how it affects your images.

Since color or the absence thereof plays an important part in your final product (others include light, shape, form, and texture), give it some more thought. Are you conscious of how you are using color in your photos?

salt and pepper close up shot - Tips for Using Color in Your Photography

1. The Basics

There are three primary colors – red, blue and yellow. Secondary colors are produced when you combine these: green (combination of blue and yellow), purple (red and blue) and orange (red and yellow). If you further combine, you get the next level/tertiary colors.

color wheel - Tips for Using Color in Your Photography

By The original uploader was Sakurambo at English Wikipedia. [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The color wheel is a diagram that shows how different colors relate to each other. They exist along a continuum with each color transitioning into the one next to it. So why are these basics important?

Color Harmony

Color harmonies are combinations that are visually appealing to the human eye. A color harmony is when you have two or more different colors that complement each other. This is a key tool used by both artists and photographers to communicate with their viewers, as it is used to evoke a mood or emotion. There are a few types of color harmonies that you can use.

red boat on the shore and one bird - Tips for Using Color in Your Photography

Monochromatic versus Analogous

While these two color harmonies are similar, analogous offers subtle differences that set it apart. A monochromatic color scheme or harmony uses variation in the lightness and saturation of a single color. An analogous color harmony is composed of colors that are adjacent to each other on the color wheel. There is still one dominant color, but the second color enhances the overall look.

anise seeds - Tips for Using Color in Your Photography

Example of using color in a monochromatic way.

Both of these color harmonies are easy to create and are very easy on the eyes. Monochromatic color schemes are sometimes used to establish a mood because of their visual appeal and balance.

Tips for Using Color in Your Photography - mountain scenic photo

Example of an analogous color scheme with blue and green being next to each other on the wheel.

Analogous colors flow into each other, creating a more soothing look in your image. When you are outdoors, you are exposed to all the various color harmonies including these two. Think about a lush forest with its varying shades of green or the variances of oranges and red in an autumn scene. These tones are likely appealing to you, now you have a little idea as to why.

Complementary Colors

Complementary colors are directly opposite each other on the color wheel. Thus the color complement of a primary color is a secondary color (as shown on the color wheel) e.g., red and green complementary colors work well together since they are highly contrasting. They can be quite dramatic when used at full saturation, as each color makes the other appear more active.

Tips for Using Color in Your Photography - sunset on the water

Orange and blue are complementary colors, which makes sunsets and other scenes with these colors so appealing to us visually.

2. The Key or Dominant Color

The key color is the main color in an image. Often, the key color in an image is that which is the most dominant. Allowing one color to dominate can lead to a powerful image. This is stronger when a primary color (red, blue or yellow) is the dominant color.

Colors with greater intensity will draw (and hold) your viewer’s attention. Keep that in mind, in relation to how it affects your subject.

Tips for Using Color in Your Photography - red tomato in a red bowl

Red is the dominant color in this image, clearly.

3. Advancing or Receding Colors

Advancing colors are the gamut of colors on the warmer end of the spectrum. These include red, red-violet, yellow, yellow-orange and orange. When advancing colors are dominant, they appear as though those objects are closer to the eye, as if coming towards you. Red is one of those colors that dominates and jumps right at you. Think about a scene that has only a hint of red (e.g., a red mailbox) and yet the red dominates.

Tips for Using Color in Your Photography - sunset photo

Advancing colors can work well in an image or on the other hand, can disrupt your scene by taking away the attention from your subject.

Receding colors are the opposite and take on a more background characteristic. Think about what blues and greens (the cooler colors) add to a landscape. They fall into the distance, add a feeling of depth, and help balance the stronger colors.

cool colors of blue hour - Tips for Using Color in Your Photography

4. Feelings and Color

Color provokes various emotional responses in people. So much so, that we use color to describe different emotions, for example: feeling blue, seeing red, tickled pink, or green with envy.

We connect to the warm colors of a sunset differently than we do to a cool blue morning. Color in everyday life is used as a powerful psychological tool, the same applies when using color in your photographic compositions.

Tips for Using Color in Your Photography - statue and the sky

Remember that color is subjective – the same color can make one person happy but irritate another. Also of note, one color can evoke different emotions, if you change its hue and saturation or change the color you combine it with. Orange for example, can create excitement when it leans towards red and be more calming when it is more on the yellow side.


It is fun to learn how colors work with each other and how we react to different combinations. When creating an image, organize color in a way that is easy and pleasing to the eye. Use strong, bold colors to create impact or generate an emotional response. Do you want to grab your viewer’s attention immediately or prefer if their eyes wander around your image?

buffalo in a yellow field - Tips for Using Color in Your Photography

While people see the world in their own way, experiment with color and try to understand what reaches your audience. When creating images with impact, you can use color and make them feel what you want. Share your colorful world with us in the comment area below.

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Nisha Ramroop
Nisha Ramroop

is an I.T. chick and Project Manager with a passion for photography, currently living in the beautiful Trinidad & Tobago. She’s a published writer and photographer who spends most of her free time traveling and exploring. See more of her work at Nikophotography.

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