Color Theory: Best Color Combinations for Photography (and How to Take It Further)

Color Theory: best color combinations for photography (and how to take it further)
Most of us use color in our photography without really thinking about it. As soon as you stop and really consider which shades you use in your shots and how you match colors together in your compositions, though, you’ll see a drastic change in your photos.
In this tutorial we’re going to run through the basics of color theory. We’ll look at how to use a color wheel to mix and match colors perfectly, and then focus on using color in four different ways to create bright, exciting shots in seconds.
You’ll need some bright clothes, but these can be picked up cheaply in charity shops. First we’ll show you how to add one or two touches of a single vibrant color to a mostly neutral subject to create portraits that really make an impact.
From there, we’ll experiment with using complementary colors (ones on opposite sides of the color wheel) together. The third stage is to mix shades of one color for striking effects, and to finish we’ll clash lots of different colors for fun rainbow photos.
We’ll also explain how getting the correct lighting can drastically change how colors are shown. Color can have a huge effect on our moods – used cleverly, it’s a brilliant way to really bring your photography to life.

Color Theory Tip 01 A touch of Color

Color Theory Tip 01 A touch of color
An easy way to experiment with color is by adding a bright pop of one shade to an otherwise neutral composition.
Red is a fail-safe choice, but any warm shade, such as orange and pink, will also work well as a focal point.
Our model’s red lips and scarf stand out against her black coat and the grey walls, drawing the eye in and making the shot come alive.

Color Theory Tip 02 Matching Complementary Colors

Color Theory Tip 02 Matching complementary colors
Once you’ve mastered a single splash of color, try contrasting two shades for a bright, exciting portrait.
The easiest way to pick two shades to use together is by referring to the color wheel – colors that are directly opposite each other, such as orange and blue, or red and green, will usually complement each other well.

Color Theory Tip 03 Shades of a Single Color

Color Theory Tip 03 Shades of a single color
Colors can evoke very strong emotional reactions when we view them.
Red, for example, symbolises passion and danger, while blue has an instantly calming effect.
Play on the viewer’s feelings by creating a shot that uses multiple shades of only one color – our mix of shades of green creates a restful effect.
Pick the Right White Balance
As our two portraits show, different White Balance settings drastically change a shot’s color palette. In our first photo, we’ve used the tungsten setting to tone down our model’s purple dress and impart a cooler mood to our portrait, while in the second we’ve kept the light natural for a warmer effect on the photo’s different shades.

Color Theory Tip 04 Color Clash

Color Theory Tip 04 Color clash
With any principle of ‘good’ photography, you sometimes need to break the rules, and color theory is no exception.
Mix and match colors and see what effects you like – the more you experiment, the more you’ll realise what looks good and what just looks garish.
In this portrait, the blue walls, green dress, purple shawl and yellow flowers shouldn’t work together, but by clashing them in soft light we’ve created a discordant but attractive rainbow effect.

Color Theory Tip 05 Taking It Further – How Lighting Affects Color

Getting color to work isn’t just about picking the right shades; lighting is also crucial.
Colors photographed under harsh sunlight will look very different to the same hues in soft indoor light, and the positioning of your light source is key to how colors are perceived, as our three shots demonstrate.
In each position to the light the colors in our model’s scarf look very different.
While front lighting shows colors accurately, back lighting mutes them into pastel shades and side lighting creates different contrasts. We took these in natural light, but the same principles apply to artificial lighting setups too.
Color Theory Tip 05 Taking it further: front lighting
Frontal Lighting
Keeping the sun or other main light source directly behind you will show colors as we perceive them in real life, with all the tones uniformly and brightly lit, as we can see in this shot of our model’s rainbow scarf.
Color Theory Tip 05 Taking it further: back lighting
Back Lighting
Back lighting, when you shoot into the sun, shows more muted versions of the colors in shot. In this photo, the soft, reflected light created a harmonious, romantic feel and the scarf’s colors are more subtle and toned down.
Color Theory Tip 05 Taking it further: side lighting
Side Lighting
Side lighting your shot will create strong shadows on your subject and areas of contrast in the color palette. In our photo, the parts of the scarf that are in direct light show bright, color, while areas in shadow are darker.