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Using color according to color theory

From: The Elements of Effective Photographs

Video: Using color according to color theory

Color is a dynamic tool, no matter how you use it. Artists have known this forever, and photographers discovered it when color film was invented in 1907. In this video I'll go over how to use color to create compositional movement and mood in your photographs. So let's start with a little color theory. You're probably familiar with the color wheel. The primary colors are red, blue, and yellow. For reflective art, like paintings, you use these colors to mix all others.

Using color according to color theory

Color is a dynamic tool, no matter how you use it. Artists have known this forever, and photographers discovered it when color film was invented in 1907. In this video I'll go over how to use color to create compositional movement and mood in your photographs. So let's start with a little color theory. You're probably familiar with the color wheel. The primary colors are red, blue, and yellow. For reflective art, like paintings, you use these colors to mix all others.

In photography, our computer monitors mix color with red, green, and blue, but don't worry--the theory is the same for all of them. Colors that are opposite of each other on a color wheel work very well together. These are called complementary colors. Blue is opposite orange, violet is opposite yellow. Colors are not all equal when it comes to how our mind interprets them. Warm colors advance, while cool colors recede. You can use this to create depth and movement in your photographs.

Yellow and orange are much more in-your-face than blue and purple. And according to some theories, the photograph will seem off balance if you have more area in yellow than blue or purple. These theories state that the yellow should be no more than 33% of the photograph. Colors that are next to each other on the color wheel create unity. Vibrant colors like these work well together because they're the same intensity. Composing a photograph in cooler shade creates a sense of calmness.

Blues and greens work well together to enhance this feeling of serenity. Sometimes the absence of color can communicate the message you want, or add a splash of color for an entirely different message. If you're working with pastels, don't put in a super-saturated color. The intensity of the red just overwhelms the rest of the tones. Be aware of how colors work with each other when they're touching each other. Right now I'm blending into the background, but now I really pop out from the background.

Just as you'd use repeating shapes to move the eyes through your frame, you can use repeating color to do the same thing. Classic artists would often place the swatches of color in three places in their paintings, so that they formed a triangle. No matter if you are composing for black and white or color, brighter light regions in your photographs will be the first place people look. I use these guidelines on assignment all the time. See how the area of orange light seems to advance against the purple blue of the sky, and your eye landed on that area of brighter light first.

I didn't know this at the time I was shooting this photograph, but the area of the yellow is 31% of the frame, almost exactly what the theory calls for. The photo of these salmon smolts has a calming feel to it because the entire photograph is in shades of blue. I moved your eye through this composition of reflected light on a river by repeating the colors in the rocks. The many shades of tan, brown, and yellow and the texture of the grass and the bear's fur create a subtle, but a resting, image.

Now according to art theory guidelines, this photograph shouldn't work. The yellow area of the photograph is way out of proportion to the blue, but it does work. The lines in the sand push your eye to the ocean at the top of the photograph. The blue anchors the yellow and adds another point of interest. Try covering the blue with your finger. The photograph is not nearly as intriguing. So learn the rules. Incorporate them in your work. But remember to experiment, to create photographs that truly embody your vision.

We've looked at color in theory and in practice, and we've shown you some basic rules. We've also shown you that you can break those rules. But the main thing is that you recognize and utilize color to create movement and mood in your photography.

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The Elements of Effective Photographs

29 video lessons · 25327 viewers

Natalie Fobes
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