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Beyond Black & White: The Impact of Color Theory in Photography

Photo of colourful metal doors.

Have you ever wondered about the secret element that makes some photographs pop with life and emotion? That’s right; we’re diving headfirst into the world of color theory in photography.

Color theory is much more than a photography tool. It’s a universal language that influences our everyday lives. And this language is not only used in photography. Color theory plays a starring role in graphic design, interior decor, fashion design, and fine art.

Without further ado, let’s prepare for this visually vibrant journey in color theory photography!

Understanding the Color Wheel

What is a color theory in photography?

Well, the first thing we have to start understanding is color. So let’s kick things off by cracking open the color wheel

Color wheel diagram

This comprises 12 hues, including the three primary colors – red, blue, and yellow. But let’s delve into the theory behind it:

Core Colors

Imagine a pure hue – a singular, undiluted color, not born out of a blend with any other hue. That’s what we refer to as a primary color.

In the digital world, the dominant trinity is red, green, and blue – often abbreviated to RGB.

In printing, cyan, magenta, and yellow rule as the ink triad. Furthermore, artists traditionally view yellow, red, and blue as the key colors. The latter is known as the YRB color system.

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Secondary Colors

Within the YRB system, we derive secondary colors from combining pairs of primary hues.

  • Orange is born out of yellow and red.
  • Violet is the offspring of red and blue.
  • Green emerges from the union of blue and yellow.

Tertiary Colors

Tertiary colors in the YRB system are the children of a primary and a secondary color. These shades carry the names of their parent colors, with the primary hue always announced first.

Examples include Yellow-Orange, Red-Orange, Red-Violet, Blue-Violet, Blue-Green, and Yellow-Green.

Color and the Human Eye

The RGB color system is a clever exploit of the human eye’s biology. Our eyes perceive light and color through cells called cones, of which we have three types, each sensitive to different wavelengths of light.

Human eye

S-cones respond best to short wavelengths such as blue, M-cones to medium wavelengths around the green, and L-cones to longer wavelengths peaking near yellow.

The goal of color theory is to stimulate these cone types separately, then blend these responses to create the perception of different colors. The challenge lies in the substantial overlap in sensitivity between the M and L cones, making it difficult to stimulate one without affecting the other.

This is where the RGB (red, green, blue) system comes in: by varying the intensity of these three lights, we can generate a vast spectrum of colors, tricking the eye into perceiving different colors from these three primary ones. So photography color theory uses the RGB color system.

But here’s the thing: your camera doesn’t perceive these colors like you do.

Why not? Well, in photography color theory, things like the material of its sensor, how it turns light into digital information, and even the glass in its lens can affect the colors it captures. Camera makers are well aware of this. They invest loads of resources in creating software to bridge this gap, but they can’t always get it perfectly right.

This is where color correcting comes in!

What is Color Space?

Color space is a mathematical model defining a device’s color display or print capacity, known as its gamut. Used widely in photography, it includes variants like sRGB for web, CMYK for print, etc.

The benchmark is the CIELAB color space, which covers all colors visible to the human eye. For photographers, understanding these varying color spaces is crucial.

Tint, Shade, and Tone

Imagine you’re an artist, with your palette and paints before you. You’ve got a vibrant array of colors, each in their most intense form – pure, unaltered hues.

As an artist, you have tools to manipulate these colors to match the visual image you wish to portray. Three primary methods to alter these colors are tint, shade, and tone.

Photo of a painter
  • Tint: Think of a tint as adding milk to your coffee. The original taste is still there, but it’s been softened and lightened. Similarly, when you add white to your vibrant colors, you create a tint. This reduces the color’s intensity, making it paler and softer. Just as the strong flavor of black coffee lightens with every drop of milk, the hue lightens with every stroke of white.
  • Shade: On the flip side, think of shade as the late evening when the sun is almost set, casting long, dark shadows over everything. If you add black to a color, you create a shade. It’s like pulling down the night’s curtain on a hue, making it darker and more mysterious. The original color is still there, just shrouded in darkness.
  • Tone: Imagine you’re in a room with both bright sunlight and shadows. The objects in the room are neither entirely bathed in light nor shrouded in darkness – they’re somewhere in the middle, influenced by both. When you add gray (a mix of white and black) to a color, you create a tone. This moderates the color, not as bright as a tint nor as dark as a shade, but somewhere comfortably between.

Post-Processing – Color Correcting vs. Color Grading

You might’ve heard both of these terms before, but what is the difference between color correcting and color grading?

Color Correcting

Color correction is adjusting colors in an image or video to make them appear as natural as possible. The purpose is to correct issues like poor white balance, overexposure or underexposure, and color casts from different light sources. It helps bring the image or footage closer to what the human eye would see.

Color Grading

Color grading is more creative and subjective than color correction. It involves enhancing or altering the color of an image or video to create a specific mood, atmosphere, or aesthetic.

Two identical portraits of a small kid smiling, one without any Lightroom presents and one on the right with lightroom presets applied.

This could include changing the tones of the shadows, mid-tones, and highlights, creating a uniform color palette, or using stylized hues to tell a visual story. It’s essential to establishing visual consistency across a series of images or scenes.

In photography, it’s essential to develop your personal photography style.

Note: Color theory plays a significant role in both of these processes. Understanding complementary colors, color harmony, and color contrasts can significantly assist in accurately correcting colors and grading colors for the desired effect.

For instance, if a scene is too warm (orange), understanding that its complementary color is cool (blue) can help neutralize the color cast. Similarly, knowing the psychological effects of colors can guide color grading choices to provoke specific audience emotions or responses.

HSL in Editing

The ability to manipulate three properties – hue, saturation, and lightness – allows photographers to create a unique aesthetic – whether subtly enhancing the natural colors of a shot or transforming the image with dramatic, surreal hues.

Rainy scene in Italy

Here is a bit of information about each of these components that are essential to using color theory in photography:

Hue

In simple terms, hue is what we commonly refer to as “color.” It represents the dominant wavelength of light that is perceived. For instance, when we see an apple, we usually say its color is red. Here, red is the hue.

This is the first and most fundamental property of color. In the color wheel, we have primary colors (red, blue, yellow), secondary colors (green, orange, purple), and many shades and tints in between. These all represent different hues.

The hue adjustment in photo editing software like Lightroom or Photoshop allows us to change colors in the image.

Below are two photos of my wife, Alina. In the first photo, I moved the Green Hue in the HSL panel all the way to the left (-100), and in the second photo, I moved the Green Hue all the way to the right (+100). Notice how different the green color looks in both of these photos.

Screenshot from Adobe Lightroom with a photo of a young woman sitting on the stairs
Green Hue set to (-100)
Screenshot from Adobe Lightroom with a photo of a young woman sitting on the stairs
Green Hue set to (+100)

Saturation

Saturation (chroma) refers to the intensity or purity of a color. Color is fully saturated when no white, black, or gray interferes with its hue. For instance, neon colors are highly saturated, while pastel colors have low saturation because they include a significant amount of white.

When you add white (tinting) or gray (toning) to a color, you’re essentially turning down the volume of the color, desaturating it. But when you add black (shading), the color’s saturation remains the same, only its lightness or brightness decreases.

Adjusting saturation in photo editing can enhance or mute colors. If you increase the saturation of an image, the colors will appear more vibrant and intense. Conversely, reducing saturation will lead to more muted, understated colors, and at its extreme, desaturation will result in a black-and-white image.

Below is an example of the same photo. In the first photo, I set Green saturation to (-100) and in the second photo I set Green saturation to (+100).

Screenshot from Adobe Lightroom with a photo of a young woman sitting on the stairs
Green saturation set to -100
Screenshot from Adobe Lightroom with a photo of a young woman sitting on the stairs
Green saturation set to +100

Lightness

Also known as luminance or brightness, lightness is the perception of how bright a color appears.

This property can make a color seem closer to white or closer to black. It is like assessing the gradient of shades, with absolute black at one end (0% lightness) and pure white at the other (100% lightness). In the middle of this gradient lies 50% gray, also known as middle gray.

The concept of lightness becomes more complex when color is introduced. For instance, take the colors yellow and blue. They might possess the same brightness level on your screen, but our eyes interpret their brightness differently. Yellow appears brighter and closer to white, while blue seems darker, more akin to black.

In editing, increasing the lightness of a blue sky in an image might start looking pale and eventually turn white. Conversely, reducing lightness can make colors appear darker, richer, or deeper, possibly turning them black at the extreme end.

Landscape photo of a lake and trees
Blue luminance is set to +100
Landscape photo of a lake and trees
Blue luminance is set to -100

Color Temperature

Color temperature, or white balance, is a tool to adjust the colors to appear natural, removing undesired color casts. However, sometimes you may want these casts for a certain artistic effect.

The color temperature is measured in Kelvins (K), running from yellow (cool) to blue (hot) with white in the middle. Counterintuitively, in photo editing, increasing the temperature makes the image bluer to counteract yellowish indoor lighting, while reducing it makes the image redder to balance out blueish outdoor light.

So managing white balance essentially goes like this: if your photo has a blue or yellow cast, slide the temperature bar in your editing software the opposite way to correct it.

Photo of a male running on in the field covered in snow.

The Psychological Impact of Colors

An interesting fact to ponder is that colors can subtly influence our emotions, moods, and decisions – often without us even realizing it.

Let’s think about the world of cinema for a moment. A great filmmaker uses color to guide the audience’s emotional responses. Think about using a dominant red color palette in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ to symbolize power and rebellion or the green tint in ‘The Matrix’ to create a dystopian vibe.

The Matrix (1999) movie scene

In the same way, businesses use color to shape consumers’ feelings toward their products or services. For example, McDonald’s uses the red and yellow combo to trigger feelings of happiness and hunger.

McDonalds food set

But color is not universal – in many Western societies, white symbolizes purity and innocence, similar to the soft harmony of a lullaby. However, in some Eastern cultures, white is associated with mourning and death, resonating more like a sorrowful dirge.

As a photographer, understanding color psychology is like learning a new instrument to add to your orchestra.

Check out this resource for a deeper understanding of the psychology of color in photography.

Color Photography Pro Tips

  • Ensure accurate color representation in your printed photographs using a colorimetric calibration device on your monitor. However, you may skip this process if you’re not a professional photographer.
  • You can find the HSL sliders in Adobe Lightroom under the “Develop” module in the “HSL / Color” panel. In Photoshop, find HSL controls under Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Hue/Saturation or in the Adjustments panel
  • Simplify your photography process by applying warming or cooling digital filters in post-processing. Utilize tools like Photoshop to choose a filter, adjust its density, and preserve the luminosity. Explore beyond built-in options by considering purchasable presets or dedicated filter software. In Photoshop, go to Image > Adjustments > Photo Filter.
  • Choose an RGB color profile when your base color is black (like digital screens), as it adds wavelengths of red, green, and blue to create colors. Use CMYK when your base color is white (like paper), as it subtracts from the light spectrum to produce colors.

What is Color Harmony?

Color harmony is a principle used in visual arts and design that involves the arrangement or combination of colors in a fashion that is pleasing to the eye. This principle creates a sense of order, balance, and aesthetics in visual compositions.

Harmony in color can be achieved through several techniques, often based on the relationships of colors within the color wheel – so let’s see some color theory photography examples.

Photo of a sakura tree flower on the white table

What Are the Types of Color Harmony?

Here are some of the most common types of color harmony:

Monochromatic Harmony: This type of color harmony uses different shades, tones, or tints of a single color. It creates a soothing and elegant effect—for example, a picture using only shades of blue, from light blue to navy.

Yellow reflective wall

Analogous Harmony: In this scheme, colors that are adjacent or close to each other on the color wheel are used. They usually match well and create serene and comfortable designs. For example, combining yellow, yellow-orange, and orange.

Complementary Harmony: This involves two colors directly opposite each other on the color wheel, creating high contrast and a vibrant look—for instance, red and green or blue and orange.

Photo of a person walking on a blue stairs in orange shoes

Split-Complementary Harmony: This color scheme uses one base color and two colors adjacent to its complementary color. This provides high contrast without the strong tension of the complementary scheme. For instance, if you select orange as your base color, its complementary color would be blue; hence, your split-complementary colors would be the two adjacent colors to blue, namely blue-violet and blue-green.

Triadic Harmony: In this scheme, three colors evenly spaced around the color wheel are used. This harmony offers vibrant contrast while retaining balance and color richness. An example would be the primary colors: red, blue, and yellow.

Tetradic (or Double Complementary) Harmony: This scheme involves two complementary color pairs, offering plenty of possibilities for color variation. It is essential to balance warm and cool colors to avoid overwhelming the composition. An example would be red and green combined with blue and orange.

Square Harmony: This involves four colors evenly spaced on the color wheel. It’s a rich combination but harder to balance; one color often dominates, and the other three accent. An example could be red, yellow, green, and blue.

Wrapping Up

While black and white photography has its allure, understanding and utilizing color theory can open up a world of possibilities.

In my experience, color theory in photography isn’t just about the technicalities. It’s about tuning into the emotional response elicited by colors and being intuitive.

If you want to learn other theoretical and practical things that go beyond colors, check out other resources at OhMyCamera. Now go outside and enjoy this colorful world of ours!

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Aleksandrs Karevs

Aleksandrs Karevs

Hi, my name is Aleksandrs and I am a full-stack digital marketer passionate about digital photography. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V. Read full story here.

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Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author

ARTICLE BY

Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author

ARTICLE BY

Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

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Simply enter your email below to receive a FREE eBook filled with actionable tips for immediate photography improvements. 

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