Color Theory 101: For Photographers

If you’re a photographer, you know that there are plenty of tools to use when creating and editing the perfect photo. If you really know what you’re doing, you know that color is one of the best tools to use. If you’re a photographer, color theory means a lot more to you than what you learned about in school.

Let’s get the basics out of the way. We all know about the order of colors: Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary. Primary colors consist of Red, Yellow, and Blue. Secondary colors are a combination of two primary colors. For example: red + yellow = orange; yellow + blue = green; blue + red = purple. Tertiary colors are a combination of primary and secondary colors. For example: red + green; yellow + purple; blue + orange.

There are also variables of color, such as Hue, Saturation and Value.

When thinking about the Hue of a photo, think about its shade. The photo begins as a color (ROYGBV) in its natural state and can become warmer (ROY) or cooler (GBV), depending on the mood of the photo. Saturation is the amount of intensity of a color can have in an image. Value, also known as luminosity, brings out or lowers the brightness of a color.

There are color palettes or schemes that can be used to create an image with a certain mood.

If you want to create a photo with monochromatic colors, you would use a single color to show unity. @dianewithonen uses the color pink and different hues to make each part of the photo really pop.

If you want a photo to represent analogous colors, you would use two colors that sit next to each other on the color wheel. @deathcats uses primary color yellow and secondary color green in the photo below.

If you want complementary colors in a photo, use two colors that are on opposite sides of the color wheel. @genejeanpierre uses the colors yellow and blue well in this image:

When you think of color theory as a photographer, think about wavelengths of light, the ways in which you can use the wheel to create various combinations of colors that grab someone’s attention.