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Color in photography combines art, science, and culture with your own personal style. It can make or break the mood of a scene and photo storyline, which is why today’s article is all about using color in your images.

After being a stickler for black and white photography for some time, I crept out of my comfort zone a couple of years ago into the world of vivid hues. I’ve never looked back.

Although our eyes and camera lenses are automatically drawn to certain colors and combinations, it’s a good idea to be aware of some of the science and techniques of color when you’re out in the field and working in post-production.

Check out my top eight tips below to get your color photography really popping!

A photographer points the camera towards the camera in an art gallery setting - using color in photography

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1. Color Theory and the Wheel

If you’re stuck on which colors to start with, embrace the color wheel! Working with color theory photography creates imagery with harmonious and balanced colors.

I don’t always adhere to the color wheel with complete devotion, however my favourite color photographs tend to follow the rules.

Color organisation systems have been around for hundreds of years, but Newton’s and Goethe’s color wheels are two the the most well-known.

There’s a whole science behind color theory – here are are few of the schemes to explore:

Complementary Colors Photography

Find complementary colors by choosing two colors from opposite sides of the color wheel. This is a great scheme to use for bold impact and to show off vivid colors.

For example, the red complementary colors are green and blue (depending on the exact red hue), and the yellow complementary color is purple.

I like to use complementary color schemes in my urban and street photography because it portrays the city vibe that I feel when I’m making the photos.

An upside down traffic cone on a wall - understanding color in photography

Analogous Color in Photography

An analogous color scheme displays three colors that are side by side on the color wheel. This is an ideal arrangement to use in landscape and nature photography to reveal subtle differences in tones and hue.

Without the strong contrast of the complementary scheme, analogous colors are often calming to look at.

A forest photography shot with squares of analogous color in photography examples in the lower right corner

Triadic Color in Photography

Triadic color schemes use three colors evenly spaced around the color wheel. These images are often quite vivid because of the use of three contrasting colors – I like to use this scheme when the colors tell a key part of a story.

Jars of jam and relish with red, yellow and blue cards on the lids and squares of triadic color in photography examples in the lower right corner

Start with these three systems, then research split-complementary, square, and tetradic schemes.

Understanding color wheel principles helps to define your photographic style and encourages you to push your boundaries and experiment with color in photography.

2.  Evoke Emotion

Color has a whopping effect on our mood. Colors make us feel. Use color tones and temperature as part of the framework for your photo’s story. A scary, haunted abandoned hospital will look less convincing if it’s bathed in warm, soft sunlight in the golden hour.

Below are seven colors and some of their associated meanings and emotions, although like so many theories in photography, it’s OK to break the rules sometimes!

  • Red – energy, excitement, passion, anger.
  • Orange – warmth, happiness, enthusiasm.
  • Yellow – cheerfulness, friendliness, creativity.
  • Green – calm, natural, balance, growth.
  • Blue – serenity, cold, sadness, trust.
  • Purple – spirituality, mystery, luxury.
  • Magenta – innovation, transformation, non-conformity.

A scary, haunted abandoned hospital room flooded with light - using color in photography.

3.  Make It all About the Color

The next time you’re out and about with your camera, hunt down your favourite color and methodically create your photographs around it. In the past few years, orange has regularly appeared in my photographs.

I attribute this to the ‘construction-orange’ that is all around me as my city rebuilds post-earthquake. Although it’s definitely not my favourite color, I’ve inadvertently been seeking it out.

Try these techniques to see what works best for you, your style, and your environment:

  • Fill the frame with two or three hues in an abstract composition. Use a macro or zoom lens to get close and make sure that the light is consistent across the surface.
  • Photograph the color in an unexpected location for visual interest – a vivid floral green shirt in a sea of lawyer’s black suits makes a statement.
  • Photograph the same color in different settings and themes such as nature, architecture, landscape, urban, and portrait.

A bronze statue of a man by a red brick wall - color in photography

portrait of a white goose on grass

  • Create a focal point by capturing your favourite color surrounded by a neutral shade.

workers in orange jackets scaling a grey brick building - nice use of color in photography

  • Venture into the night to see how color photographs when artificially lit.

Pink and purple artificially lit photo of peoples legs while standing at an event - using color in photography

4.  Pick Your Time and Weather

There are times when black and white is your only option – particularly if you’re photographing in the middle of a sunny day or on a drab grey morning.

But for the golden hour – that magical time when the sun is rising or setting – color is your glorious friend who loves to show off.

During this time, the world is lit with soft, indirect light. Colors work cohesively without competing, and I find minimal post-production tweaking is needed.

If your neighbourhood experiences high clouds and foehn winds, this weather pattern acts like a giant soft box for whatever you’re photographing at any time of day.

Get to know how weather affects the light at different times of the day in your area. I keep a mental list of scenes and objects I want to capture in color so that I’m ready to zoom out when the conditions are right.

5.  Monochromatic, Pastels, and Split Toning

A well-planned color photograph doesn’t have to include a bold colors or vibrant contrasts. Consider using a monochromatic color scheme that is based on different tones and shades of a single hue.

Perhaps you’re a fan of earthy coffee colors and neutrals, or soft pastels in a painterly effect. There is very little pure white or black in nature – even when we think we’re seeing black and white, that’s just our practical brains making order of things.

Many black and white photographs have color added in post-production with the use of split toning. Be gentle with these photographs, and avoid adding too much clarity or contrast that counters the softness of the color.

Te Waihora in pastel color.

Te Waihora, with subtle split tones applied (dark blue highlights and brown shadows).

6.  Post Production Tips

There are loads of post-production tools at your finger tips that bring out the best in your color photographs. Test out the HSL sliders in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw, but keep the story of the photograph at the top of your mind.

Just because you can make sweeping color changes, doesn’t mean you should!

If I want to add a bit more punch to my color photographs, I use the dehaze and clarity tool, then adjust individual colors with the saturation, hue, and luminance sliders. This enables me to keep complete control of each color.

If the light isn’t quite right or I want to create a different mood in the photograph, I might adjust the temperature and vibrance sliders (and if I haven’t been paying attention to my settings, I sometimes need to correct the white balance).

With big blue skies, I often reduce the luminance a fraction to give the sky a bit more depth of color. If green leaves and grass are too bright, I reduce the saturation of the yellow (not the green).

Be super-careful when adjusting colors in portraits so that skin tones remain true.

Diptych of a bridge over a river showing the adjustment of the temperature slider from cool to warm - using color theory photography.

A subtle adjustment of the temperature slider from cool to warm.

7.  Tools of the Trade for Color Photography

Stuck with the perfect scene in beautiful color but without your photography gear? Use your smartphone! This still provides great practice with composition and color theory. The best camera is the one you have on you.

A polarising filter is great for increasing vibrancy in color photographs, reducing glare, and minimising the need for post-production. If you’re keen on landscape photography in particular, this is a great filter to invest in.

If you have your camera gear on you, always shoot in RAW. This will provide you with maximum information in each photograph so that you have greater control over color in the post-production process.

A lens hood is great for blocking out direct light that causes distracting colored lens flares. There are times when you might like to incorporate lens flares however, so don’t panic if you’ve forgotten to pack yours.

I sometimes intentionally use lens flares particularly if the time of day or weather is an important part of the photograph.

Take the time to properly calibrate your monitor. Ensuring your monitor displays an image accurately is essential – all the correct gear and technique in the world won’t be much use if you’re seeing incorrect colors and brightness.

A piwakawaka bird in flight with deliberate lens flares.

A piwakawaka chasing dinner in the late afternoon with deliberate lens flares.

8.  Use Your Composition

If you’re still unsure about how to use color in photography, start with composition basics. Draw the viewers’ eyes into the colors of your photograph by using leading lines, repeating patterns, and the rule of thirds.

Use a straightforward composition with negative space to celebrate the color – the subject doesn’t have to be fancy or unusual.

The exterior of an industrial building against a blue sky - using color in photography for better effect

Conclusion

To make great color photography, be deliberate about the use of color. Give it equal weight to composition, framing, and technique so that it tells an important part of your photograph’s story.

Experiment with different combinations and play around with colors in post-production to create the mood and balance that best reflects your interpretation of the subject.

Make use of both your science brain and art brain to create beautiful color photography with a touch of magic.

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

Thank you for reading...

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Heather Joy Milne

Heather is based in Christchurch, New Zealand where she specializes in photographing social change and the rebuild of her earthquake-smashed city. She's passionate about the role that photography plays in storytelling and connecting communities and is also a huge fan of penguins, coffee, and tiramisu. You can see more of Heather's work at https://heatherjoymilne.weebly.com/ or follow her on Instagram @heatherjoyphotographs.

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