Some images catch our eye faster than others. Do you know why? What causes our brain to interpret them as attractive and pleasing? In short, complementary colors.
They create natural contrast that our eyes find attractive and intriguing.
Let’s see how you can take advantage of complementary colors with these 25 stunning examples.
Color Theory 101: What’s the Color Wheel
Colors can be striking and bold or subtle and muted, they could be vibrant, luscious, or pastel and soft.
Color theory helps us understand all these shades and tones. It is a set of practical guidelines on the visual effects of color combinations.
Color theory helps us mold this diversity of colors into a logical structure. To make sense of color combinations and understand how colors work in general.
Color theory encompasses a variety of definitions, concepts, and design applications. But for our purposes today we’re going to use only the simplest and most important one. The color wheel.
The color wheel is a circular scheme that visually represents the relationships between colors.
It presents a sequence of pure hues. And it shows the most common types of color pairings:
- analogous colors;
- complementary colors;
- monochromatic colors.
How Do Complementary Colors Work
Colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel are complementary colors. They “cancel” each other, if you mix them. This means that they create an achromatic (white, gray or black) light mixture.
That’s why you can describe a shade of yellow as having a tinge of orange/green. But you can’t say ‘reddish green’ or ‘purple with a hint of yellow’.
Basic color theory says that the more different two colors are, the more contrast they produce.
Complementary colors are as different as it gets. They reinforce each other’s brightness while preserving color balance.
Complementary colors offer the greatest contrast, creating a vivid and energizing effect. This effect is most prominent at maximum saturation.
But the beautiful thing about complementary colors is that they create contrast naturally.You don’t need to try to create it in post-production.
Combining them is the natural technique to catch the viewer’s attention. And to have a strong, contrasting palette.
How to Find Complementary Color Pairs
There are three traditional pairs of complementary colors:
- red and green;
- yellow and purple;
- orange and blue.
But the way you find these pairs depends on which colors you count as primary colors.
That is to say, colors that you can’t create through any combination of other colors. All other colors derive from these limited number hues.
The most common color model takes red, yellow and blue as its primaries (RYB color model). This is a historical set of colors used in subtractive color mixing.
Painters considered red, yellow and blue as primary colors for centuries. But they still used more than three RYB primary colors in their palettes.
And at one point they considered red, yellow, blue and green to be the four primaries.
In the additive model (RGB, the model from your monitor and phone) the primary colors are: red, green and blue.
Printers and designers who use modern subtractive color methods use magenta, yellow, and cyan. This is the CMY color model.
Here the complements are green and magenta, red and cyan, and blue and yellow.
Other color models produce different complements. We’re going to use the most common pairs from RYB and CMY models:
- red and green;
- yellow and purple;
- orange and blue;
- green and magenta;
- red and cyan;
- blue and yellow.
Let’s see how you can use these pairs to enhance natural color contrast in photography.
But first, one quick note about the difference in saturation.
Difference in Saturation
The most vibrant shades of complementary colors provide the most striking contrast. But that is not always what you want.
Sometimes you won’t want such an intense contrast. You might still want a visually energetic photo, but nothing too vibrant.
The difference between a highly saturated and calmer color palette, featuring basically the same hues
You can go for a more balanced, natural look. Subdue one or both of the colors for a less overwhelming but still engaging effect.
Often one of the two complementary colors is purer and more saturated than the other.
It helps to save the appeal of high color contrast. But at the same time lets your image to look natural and unprocessed.
1. Red and Green
I often hear that red and green is not a pleasing combination. To those who think that, I would like to show some Christmas decorations. Or a strawberry.
Red and green is a common pair in nature. Take a look at red flowers on a green grass, apples in a foliage, tropical birds or even a ladybug on a leaf.
The commonality of red and green in nature can be a theme for your photo
You should be careful when red dominates the image. This is a strong color, so make sure you want to turn the intensity of your photo up to eleven.
When you let green take the lion’s share of the image, red becomes a perfect anchor to your point of interest. Our eyes are naturally drawn to bright warm colors.
So don’t be afraid to use a spot of red to mark the focus of the viewer’s attention.
The main point of interest here is a vibrant red bottle
Green here doesn’t cover a large area of an image, but it placed very close to red letters, separating them from the background and adding contrast
This contrast also works great in lighter, watery shades
2. Yellow and Purple
Yellow is the most visible color from a distance. It is often used to highlight an accent, to present an emergency and cautionary signal.
If you need to grab attention fast, use a splash of yellow. It works well with its complementary color, purple.
This combination usually feels modern and playful. Perfect for experiments with color blocking and fashion photography!
Even one splash of yellow can create a strong visual contrast. Photo by kyle smith on Unsplash
Unlike green and red combination, purple and yellow can be safely used in large areas, covering the entire background. Photo by Nicole Honeywill on Unsplash
There are many spots of blue and red on this photo, but most of the contrast holds on yellow glazing and purple background
Yellow is the color of the sun, so it’s often used in landscape photography with purple clouds.
Sometimes photographers tend to overdo it a bit. Keep this combination in subdued, darker, less saturated tones.
Unless, of course, you’re not going for a fantasy effect with the feeling of a mysterious land.
Unusual and slightly unnatural purple shade adds to the feeling of a fairy tale town. Photo by Tom Grimbert on Unsplash
3. Orange and Blue
Amber and teal. A fantastic combination, the most notable one between complementary pairs. They have a significant emotional weight. This is because both are strongly associated with opposing concepts.
Warmth and cold, earth and sky, land and sea, fire and ice. They are very close to ambient light. And tend to harmonize well with human skin.
Cool blue background makes tea look even warmer
This is a powerful combination. But try to use it with care and thought. Sometimes photographers use these two colors without a clear purpose.
Because of that, an image can look over-processed and too artificial.
Check out our article How to Make the Most of Contrasting Colors: Orange and Blue for more details.
Orange and blue are common for landscape photos focusing on the colors of skies. Photo by Daniel Olah on Unsplash
Flame and smoke is the natural pair of orange and blue
Sparklers and candle flame combine perfectly well with a dark blue background
Blue shades of background and steam make a warm-colored splash of coffee stand out even more
5. Green and Magenta
Green is everywhere in nature. Usually, photographers use it in analogous color harmonies. They’ll mix green tones with yellows, teals, and blues.
But it can be combined with its complementary magenta for an interesting result.
Saturated shades of magenta create an interesting comntrast with natural green of leaves
Rich, saturated magenta looks gorgeous with darker shades of green. And also with more watery greens, such as sage or mint green.
These more neutral greens take the background role while magenta steps forward. It also works with colors analogous to magenta (like different shades of violet and pink).
Light tones of green and magenta are mixing with a natural tone of human skin and colder shades of blue on the background, creating a nice pastel color palette
You can push magenta shades to a dusty pink and it still would hold its own against green
6. Red and Cyan
Cyan is a lighter shade of blue. It’s close to teal, turquoise, electric blue, aquamarine, and other shades of blue-green. In combination with red, it creates a very intense neon palette.
It could be a powerful combination if you need a fresh, modern and energetic look.
The important thing to remember here is that red tends to appear as the most saturated color on camera sensors. It’s very easy to blow out. You have to be careful with saturation.
I prefer to change red for the less intense pink in combination with cyan.
This way photos still look captivation and engaging but at the same time a bit more subtle.
Pastel variations of cyan and red in the shot of clouds. Photo by Max Bender on Unsplash
Subdued cyan and red contrast in a creatively framed landscape. Photo by Maximilien T’Scharner on Unsplash
Analogous red and pink with a vibrant complementary background
Pastel variations of red and cyan contrast
7. Blue and Yellow
This is a lighter variation of orange and teal. I especially love the combination of a blue background and a bright yellow object. It always reminds me of sunshine and The Simpsons.
Images like this always have a happy and cheerful atmosphere. And this combination is great when you want one object to “pop” against a smooth background.
Keep the colors clear and simple. No need for more subdued and darker shades. Don’t be afraid to keep it bright and colorful!
My first association with blue and yellow is always The Simpsons
Cold blue background makes yellow juice splash “pop” even more
Golden shades of yellow contrasts the best with shining blue of water
Analogous orange and yellow against vibrant blue background
How to Master the Colors: Photography Exercise
Developing a good eye for color takes a lot of time and practice. The best way to improve your vision of complementary colors is taking a lot of photos. The trick? They have to focus specifically on one color relationship.
To help you with this I recommend this little experiment with color blocking. Our goal here is to create a bold composition with loud color combinations, vibrant hues, and strong graphic elements.
It will help you to get the sense of color. It will allow you to use more subtle and complicated palettes from these primary combinations.
Let’s get started!
1. Pick a Background
First of all, decide which color you want to use as a background.
It could be a large sheet of colored paper, pained plywood, vinyl or anything you find suitable.
Try to find something smooth, without an explicit texture.
2. Choose Your Object
As your main model, pick an object of a complementary color to your background. It could be blue plates on a yellow background (try to add a lemon here). Or some green apples on a magenta cloth.
Start simple, keep basic geometric forms in mind and see where it will lead you.
You can look for objects with natural bright colors. Yellow bananas would look great on a purple ceramic dishes, for example.
Or make it as unnatural and weird as possible. Use spray paint to make bananas purple and place them on a yellow background.
Paint oranges blue. Place red lemons on a bunch of green leaves. Let your imagination run wild!
You’ll be amazed how useful versatile the spray paint may be!
3. Create a Composition
Working outside your comfort zone is challenging, so here you can relax. Pick the most comfortable composition for your work-flow.
Are you used to shooting flat lay? Shoot flat lay now. Do you like the 45-degree view? Stick to it.
Keep your composition simple and concentrate on colors.
Repeat this exercise several times, adding more colors or more objects.
Try each pair of complementary colors we were talking about: red and green, yellow and purple, orange and blue in RYB model. And green and magenta, red and cyan, blue and yellow in CMY model.
Find a pair which looks the most attractive to you and make the most of it!
Color in photography is a powerful tool, it can make a photo shine and wow a viewer. It can also ruin a photo if not handled with thought and care.
Keep asking questions about how changing colors affect your image, keep practicing and take the most beautiful photos.
Stay inspired and good luck!
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