Colour is a big
part of design and photography is no exception. It's both an essential type of visual information and a powerful expressive tool. In this article you'll learn how to use
colours to create effective photographic compositions.
It’s All About the Colour Theory
If you’ve read my Split Toning Colour Pictures tutorial, then you’ll be familiar with what comes next so enjoy the added examples! If you’ve not then this next part is really key to understanding how to use colour well in your photos.
The Colour Wheel
The colour wheel (or circle) is a great tool to use when you’re combining colours as it’s a visual representation of colour theory. Typically, as with our example above, they’re split into 12 colours based on Isaac Newton’s Red, Yellow and Blue (RYB) model. Newton split sunlight (white) into red, orange, yellow, green, cyan and blue; then joined the two ends together to show how the colours progressed into one another.
Certain colours go better together than others. The ones that we recognise as particularly pleasing are known as Colour Harmonies and they are where two or more colours have a fixed relation on our colour wheel.
Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Colours
One of the first things we learn about colour in school is that there are three primary colours: red, yellow and blue (as in our explanation above).
Our secondary colours would then be green, orange and purple as they’re the result of mixing two of our primary colours together.
Tertiary colours are made by mixing primary and secondary colours together; you get the idea!
How Colours Work Together
So this is the important bit when composing your photo.
Colours opposite each other on the colour wheel are known as complimentary colours.
Even with a pretty straightforward shot, this works really well because of the blue and yellow complimentary colours.
Analogues colours are often found in nature. They are next to each other on the wheel and complement one another well.
See how the
reds and yellows work so well here, even over a (kind of) repeating pattern?
Nature knows best!
Other schemes that work well together are triadic, where you draw a triangle on the colour wheel and the tips are placed on the colours you’d select to go together; Tetradic and Quadratic again, imagine the shape over the wheel and where the edges meet, those are the colours you’d choose, moving the shape around the wheel to get different schemes.
An example of a triadic colour scheme; the blue, orange and green work really nicely here.
Warm and cool colours
The colour wheel can be split into warm and cool colours.
Warm colours are said to ‘advance’ or ‘come closer’ – think of warm colours in a room, they tend to make it feel more snug and cosy don’t they?
The warm colours in sunrises and sunsets are often what make them such appealing photos to us.
Cool colours then, are said to do the opposite and appear to ‘recede’. They make us think of the sea and sky; big open spaces.
Getting the balance right between warm and cool is important and this is true when choosing your colours and toning your photograph. Think about what mood your photo conveys and do you want to create the feeling of wide open space or something more intimate? Balance your colours accordingly, giving slight precedence to the one which reflects the mood you’re going for.
Understanding what colours do and how to use them can really help you add to your photographs and create great results.
So we’ve covered colour in general but what if you want to use colour AS your picture, or even as an abstract. Think about what elements your picture has, aside from colour, which makes it stand out and then think about composition.
Patterns and Lines
If your colours have a feature like a repeating pattern then playing on that symmetry can really work:
Here I made sure the picture was symmetrical horizontally and it really works. You can even crop to achieve this in post-production if you don’t nail it in your shot.
If you have strong lines, think about placing them along the rule of thirds lines rather than in the middle of your photo:
Bursts of Colour
A pop of colour can work really well against a neutral or plain background. I don’t mean selective saturation or ‘colour popping’ here, but things as they occur naturally in their surroundings:
It might seem like a boring subject but I think the yellow line here makes a bold statement against the grey cobbles.
Thinking About Colour in the Everyday
You might think, ‘How can I control colour? It is what it is’ but that’s not always the case. Consider our sunrise example of ‘warm’ colours earlier. The same photo taken at twilight would have an entirely different feel to it. The time of day (or night!) you choose to take your picture can have a huge influence.
I don’t think this photo would be quite the same if taken at midday. The black of night contrasting with the colour of the lights adds vibrancy and a sense of fun and excitement. You can control the emotion you elicit from a photograph; use light (or the dark) to enhance your intended feeling and think about how you frame the colours within your photo, too
Montages for Colourful Abstracts
Sometimes you get some great photos and you don’t know what to do with them; realistically you won’t put a yellow line on cobbles up on your living room wall. Contrasting, colourful abstracts can look fantastic together though, try putting them into a montage or collage for a really grungy effect:
Despite the mish-mash of colours and textures, the pictures look good together. I think it helps to include a border to help the eye break up the images. Try different combinations and layouts until you get something that looks good. It can be cool to do this around your home town and make it into a print. That way, you’ll have a unique and personal document of the area you live and only you will know where you snapped it all!
Colour has the power to grab the attention of your audience and make them feel what you want them to feel. Use your knowledge of the colour wheel to think about your use of colours and how you place them within your frame. Will the time of day make a difference to your shot? As photographers, we tend to be particularly drawn to sunrise and sunset pictures and we often covet the ‘golden hour’ when photographing a subject so there’s obviously something that pleases us in it!
Consider lines, patterns and symmetry and try to position these in a way that’s pleasing to the eye and if you have a bunch of abstracts and you’re not sure what to do with them, create a montage and think about turning it into a print. The great thing about an abstract print is, it won’t matter which way up you hang it on the wall!
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