Color WheelFor this post, when I talk about color in photography I am not talking about using color film vs black and white film (or changing a digital setting to black and white). Although the choice between shooting in color or black and white can be a critical one, this post is about using color to enhance your composition and even as the subject of your photograph. For many amateur photographers we don’t often think about the mechanics of color when shooting, but all those technical details can really help make or break an image.

First things first, you probably remember the color wheel from your art classes in elementary school.  The color wheel is the basis of how colors relate to one another.  The official definition (via Wikipedia) is:

An abstract illustrative organization of color hues around a circle, showing relationships between colors considered to be primary colors,secondary colors, complementary colors, etc.

Keeping the color wheel in mind there is a lot you can do with the composition and subject of your photographs.  Here are 5 ways to experiment with color next time you are shooting.

1. Monochromatic

Example of Monochromatic Color in PhotographyIn a monochromatic image one color is used in varying degrees of saturation (the intensity of a color) and lightness, or shade.  This results in several contrasting shades of the same color in your photograph.  Look for a scene with one central color, blue for example.  Factors such as the lighting can influence the shade of that color and make for a more interesting image.  Avoid the obvious such as a photograph of the sidewalk.  Yes, that will result in a monochromatic photo, but the excessive lack of contrast can make for a boring photograph.  Using some creativity and your photographer’s eye you are sure to find a subject with varying shades of one color that make the photo both monochromatic and interesting.

2. Analogous

Example of an Analogous Color Scheme in PhotographyAnalogous refers to two or more colors that are next to each other on the color wheel.  Yellow and yellow-green for example.  One color tends to be the dominant color in the image while the other(s) are used to enrich the overall image. An analogous photograph is similar to the monochromatic one, but offers more variation in color and tone.  If you take your time you can find analogous subjects to photograph in both nature or the man-made environment.  You could also set up your own scene and experiment with different analogous color schemes.

3. Complimentary

Photograph showing an example of complimentary colorsColors that compliment each other are opposite each other on the color wheel.  Red and green or violet and yellow for example.  When colors are opposite each other they are thought to be in balance when they appear together.  The intensity of each color is also increased when complimentary colors appear next to each other.  This is referred to as simultaneous contrast.  You can easily set up a scene to capture complimentary colors by gathering some objects and arranging them together for your photograph.  Or challenge yourself and head out to find complimentary colors in your everyday environment.

4. Color and Light

The source of the light you are shooting in can have a dramatic impact on how color is perceived.  The intensity of sunlight, for example, differs by hour of the day and time of year.  Early morning and late afternoon light is much warmer (red) than midday light which is cooler (blue).  Shooting the same subject in varying natural light will impact the colors of that subject.  Other lighting sources, such as shade, florescent and tungsten bulbs and even flash can all result in the same color appearing very different in your photograph.

A great way to get a feel for the impact different light sources can have on your subject is take one (portable) solid colored subject and photograph it in varying light sources.  Shoot it in the morning and again at midday and at sunset.  Then move it indoors and shoot under regular household light (usually tungsten).  The tone and intensity of the color will vary, sometimes greatly, depending on your light source.

Monochromatic Color Scheme with Tungsten Light Monochromatic Color Scheme with Daylight as the Light Source

Top – Tungsten Light Source Bottom – Sunlight at Mid-Afternoon Light Source

5. Color as the Subject

Example of a photograph using color as the subjectOnce you have an understanding of the color wheel and the various ways in which colors relate to each other you can step your photography up a notch and try getting artsy.  One possibility is to use color itself as the subject of your photograph.  Although there can still be a physical object in the photograph,work with the color itself making it the primary focus of the photograph.  Use different tones, light intensities and complimentary, monochrome and analogous colors to create the image and see what you come up with.

2 Responses to “5 Ways to Use Color in Your Photography”

  1. Colors, Shapes, and Close Up Detail! « camiegan1

    on November 23 2011

    […] For my inspiration you can look HERE:) […]

  2. Color « Mikayla Davenport Photography

    on November 23 2011

    […] got some ideas from here and here and a little from here. I didn’t copy the ideas but I just based my ideas off […]

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