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Color Theory and Photography

Color theory is a term that encompasses the ideas, principles and applications of color in art and design. It is both the science and art of using color; a collection of rules and guidelines which photographers can use to communicate with viewers through appealing color schemes.

Sir Isaac Newton established color theory when he invented the color wheel in 1666. Newton understood colors as human perceptions—not absolute qualities—of wavelengths of light. By systematically categorizing colors, he defined three groups:

  • Primary (red, blue, yellow)
  • Secondary (50/50 mixes of primary colors)
  • Tertiary (25/75 or 75/25 mixes of a primary and secondary color)

Color Wheel

Achieving harmony in color combinations is one of the main principles of color theory. When you create a new color scheme, it might be tempting to add dozens of colors to it. But it’s better to avoid that temptation, because it’s difficult to achieve a visual balance when too many colors are used.

There are three popular types of color schemes that you can create using a color wheel:

  • Monochromatic, which uses a single color, but with variations of tints, shades, and tones of the color. This scheme is very easy on the eyes; since the colors naturally go well together, they create a soothing effect.

    National Cathedral in Green light

  • Analogous, which uses a few related colors—one color is the dominant color, while others support it. The supportive colors enrich the scheme and make it more visually appealing.

    Analogous Colors

  • Complementary, which in its most basic form, consists of only two contrasting colors (for example, a dominant green color and an accent red color).

    Complementary Colors

Knowing how to use color theory in photography will expand your abilities and understanding on why some images may not be as effective as others. Colors in photography do not always have to be technically correct, and with some knowledge about color theory you can make the natural colors and light sources work to your advantage. 

Happy Shooting!

Photos by Sherryl Belinsky

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