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Bold Colours: How to Apply Colour Theory in Your Photo Compositions

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Read Time: 7 min
This post is part of a series called Everything Colour.
Seeing in Colour: How Our Eyes Sense and Cameras Record
Use Color Theory for More Creative Control in Your Photos
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What You'll Be Creating

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

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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).

Primary Colours

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Primary Colours: Red, Yellow and Blue

Our secondary colours would then be green, orange and purple as they’re the result of mixing two of our primary colours together.

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Secondary Colours: Purple, Orange and Green

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.

Complimentary Colours

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Complimentary Colours

Colours opposite each other on the colour wheel are known as complimentary colours. 

Complimentary colours like blue and yellow work well together. [Image: CCO Public Domain via Picjumbo]

Even with a pretty straightforward shot, this works really well because of the blue and yellow complimentary colours.

Analogous Colours

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Analogous colours 

Analogues colours are often found in nature. They are next to each other on the wheel and complement one another well.

Nature knows best: the red and yellow analogues colours also work well together [Image: CCO Public Domain via Pixabay]

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.

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An example of a triadic colour scheme: [Image: CCO Public Domain via Picjumbo]

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.

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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?

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Sunrise and sunsets are usually warm photos. [Image: CCO Public Domain via Pixabay]

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.

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Cool colours make us think of big open spaces [Image: Marie Gardiner]

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.

Colour Placement

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: 

Playing on symmetry can be really effective [Image: Marie Gardiner]

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:

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Lines placed at the rule of thirds lines can work well [Image: Marie Gardiner]

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:

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Colours make a bold statement against a neutral background [Image: Marie Gardiner]

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.

The colour here adds vibrancy and fun [Image: CCO Public Domain via Picjumbo]

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:

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A montage is a cool way to make use of your abstracts [Images: Marie Gardiner]

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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