Color theory for photographers: An introduction to the color wheel

Photo Stories

In 1907, Auguste and Louis Lumière presented autochrome—a revolutionary method for reproducing color in photographs. The world was stunned and enraptured. “Soon the world will be color-mad,” photographer Alfred Stieglitz wrote that July from Munich. “And Lumière will be responsible.”

We’ve come a long way in the last century, and we no longer need potato starch—the crucial ingredient in the autochrome process—to render color. But the power of color hasn’t faded over time; all these decades later, the world is still color-mad.

While you can find color theory in any painting classroom, it remains a somewhat overlooked field in the world of photography, so we’re devoting a three-part series to examine colors and the relationships between them. This is part one—an introduction to the color wheel. Keep an eye out for part two and three in the coming months.

The RGB color system

A color wheel is just an abstract way of visualizing the relationships between colors. The most common wheel used by painters is based on RYB color system—where red, yellow, and blue are the primary colors.

But a photographer’s raw material is light, not pigment, so for that reason, they often use the RGB system—in which case, red, green, and blue are the primaries. Mixing these colors will create the secondary colors of yellow, cyan, and magenta. When you combine a secondary color with a primary adjacent to it on the color wheel, you end up with one of these six tertiary colors: orange, chartreuse green, spring green, azure, violet, or rose.

In this brief introduction, we’ll look at six easy ways photographers can use the color wheel and simple “color schemes” to strengthen their compositions. While photographers can certainly use the RYB system or the CMYK system, commonly used by printers, we’ll rely on RGB for now.

Monochromatic colors

A monochromatic color scheme uses one of the twelve colors on the color wheel with different tints, shades, and tones. You create a tint by adding white to your base color, a shade by adding black, and a tone by adding gray. Photographers can use these schemes to create harmony throughout a composition.

Puchong Pannoi’s photograph of the ancient city of Bagan in Myanmar has many layers, from temples to trees to a hot air balloon floating in the distance. While these elements could seem distracting in the eyes of another photographer, Pannoi has brought them all together beautifully—with a little help from a monochromatic palette.

One day in Bagan by Puchong Pannoi on

Monochromatic color schemes can often be bold. According to photography legend, Ansel Adams was once so displeased upon seeing one of William Eggleston’s most famous monochromatic photos that he remarked, “If you can’t make it good, make it red.” Fortunately, these days dramatic color is not only accepted but embraced—with stunning results. Take a cue from 500px Contributor Estislav Ploshtakov, and use it to make a strong impact.

BOLD RED by Estislav Ploshtakov on

Complementary colors

Complementary color schemes are well-suited for photography because they add contrast, resulting in pictures that “pop” off the page and screen. For a complementary color palette, use two colors on opposite sides of the color wheel. 500px Contributor Sabrina Hb’s portrait of a woman and fruit in Colombia might be called Yellow, but those touches of blue on the woman’s dress complete the photo, giving it that extra “oomph” and vitality.

Yellow by sab HB on

A similar effect can be created in the studio to elevate a simple subject into a work of art. Sarah Saratonina uses a complementary scheme to her advantage in this studio shot of yellow starfruit against a blue background. No need for an overly complex composition—these colors catch our eye all on their own.

Look how they shine for you by Sarah Saratonina on

Split-complementary colors

In this variation on a complementary color scheme, you’ll select your base color, and then instead of using the color directly opposite, you’ll use the two colors on either side of it. In this colorful photo, Claudio de Sat photographs the azure sky against the architecture of East Berlin’s Plattenbauten buildings. Instead of orange, which would form a complementary scheme with azure, he incorporates the colors next to orange: yellow and red. The result is a striking and harmonious photo with less of the dramatic tension we’re used to seeing in photos with complementary colors.

Negative Blue by Claudio de Sat on

Tetradic colors

A tetradic color scheme, sometimes called double-complementary, features a total of four colors, including two sets of complementary colors. Of the basic color schemes we’ll cover here, this one might be the trickiest to pull off—if only for the fact that it incorporates four colors.

This photo by Juergen A[R]T does it brilliantly. By using two complementary pairs (yellow-blue, red-cyan) and a perfectly symmetrical composition, it succeeds in being both eye-catching and sophisticated.

Colour Waves by Juergen A[R]T on

Analogous colors

Analogous color schemes incorporate three colors that sit side-by-side on the color wheel. Wildlife photographer Jonne Seijdel encountered this dazzling Rwenzori three-horned chameleon while traveling through the Rwenzori mountains in Uganda. In this photo, he was able to incorporate green, spring green, and cyan for a pleasing and dynamic result.

Rwenzori three-horned chameleon by Jonne Seijdel on

When using analogous colors, photographers usually choose one dominant color and then use the others in a supporting role. Designers use what they call the “60-30-10 rule”—meaning that the main color (usually primary or secondary) takes up 60% of the space, while a supporting color (secondary or tertiary) takes up 30%, and the final color takes up just 10%.

This photograph by Jovana Rikalo, appropriately titled Orange Dream, features large swaths of the color orange, with plentiful red accents, and just a sprinkling of yellow.

Orange Dream by Jovana Rikalo on

Triadic colors

A triadic color scheme comprises any three colors that are evenly spaced around the color wheel. Like complementary colors, these schemes are vibrant and full of contrast. In the majority of situations, these will be the three primary or secondary colors.

This studio still life by Glen Wooseok is the perfect example because it uses the three secondary colors of the RGB color system: cyan, yellow, and magenta.

cup fineart by Glen wooseok on

Designers generally recommend sticking to the three primary or three secondary colors for that “clean” look, and that’s because tertiary colors are already mixtures of other colors. But there are situations where taking the risk—and using three tertiary colors—pays off. You must make sure your composition is flawless, however, and think about including some neutrals.

In this still life, Alena Haurylik uses orange, spring green, and just a touch of violet—all tertiary colors on the RGB color wheel, but all stunning in this image.

Green smoothie bowl with fruits and berries on rustic background by Alena Haurylik on

While color theory might be easiest to implement in the studio, these talented photographers remind us that no matter the genre, from street to wildlife to architecture, it can be used to their advantage. Color is a photographer’s playground. Experiment with different schemes, and see what works best for you.

Stay tuned for part two of this three-part series on color theory.

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*Cover photo by Anna Devís and Daniel Rueda.

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