Basic Color Theory

Brookside Gardens 070-3

Beginning photographers are often attracted to a particular composition because of a particular color in the scene.  It may be the blueness of the sky or the greenness of the grass. Perhaps in the fall, you are amazed by the brilliant red leaves of a sugar maple tree.  Color is a great compositional device.  However, it can be made even stronger when colors are composed in relation to other colors in your scene.

You can take a picture of a beautiful purple flower, but what's the color of the background?  Is it grey gravel from the nearby road?  What would happen if you took the picture from a different angle so that the background was green grass?  Compositions can be vastly improved when the colors surrounding your subject are taken into account.

Even those of us who pretend not to care about the clothes we wear know that certain colors clash when put next to each other.  In photography, you can arrange the color patterns to make sure that they fit well with each other.    In this post, we'll look at three different ways to arrange colors:

  1. Monochromatic.  Monochromatic images are made up entirely of gradations of one color.  For instance, you may compose an image made up almost entirely of gradations of the color yellow from dark to bright.
  2. Analogous.  Analogous colors are a set of colors adjacent to each other on the color wheel.  The colors between yellow and orange are analogous colors because they appear next to each other on the color wheel.  Analogous colors are more likely to look soothing in a composition.
  3. Complementary. Complementary colors are a set of colors opposite from each other on the color wheel.  Purple and yellow are complementary because they are opposite from each other on the color wheel. Complementary colors will contrast with each other more strikingly than analogous colors.

Notice the striking contrast between the purples and yellows in the above photograph compared to the more subtle yellows, oranges and pinks in the photograph to the right. As much as your scene allows, be intentional with the colors you include in your composition. There's no right way to arrange the colors in your image, and often there's only so much you can do.  You have to work with the colors that are available to you.  But the more you can be intentional about arranging the colors available to you in your scene, the better your compositions will be.



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