How Using Color for Contrast Can Make Your Photos Pop


Photography has always been about contrast. Black and white, tonal range, high key, low key, these are all terms that we associate with contrast in photography. There is another element to this equation that is just as important, colour. We can use color to create scenes that are low contrast, high contrast or to isolate our subject from its background. Color is an important part of our photographic compositions and using it to create contrast can lead to powerful, emotive images. Today we are going to take a little look at using color to create contrast.

What You Should Know About The Color Wheel

Before we go too far, we should have a brief look at the colors we get to play with. Although we, and our cameras, can see millions of colors, they are all variations of just three, red, green and blue. These are known as the primary colors and each of these has a secondary or complimentary color, red with cyan, green with magenta and blue with yellow. This is why when we are working on removing a yellow cast in post production, we add blue into the image, the blue neutralising the effect of the yellow.

What You Should Know About Hue and Saturation

Color can also be defined by hue and saturation. Hue defines the amount of red, green and blue in an image. For example, a pure red will be 100% red, with zero green or blue. It’s complimentary, cyan will be 100% green and blue but zero% red. Most colors are a combination of red, green and blue and by understanding their relationship to each other, we can create color contrast in our images.

The other part of this equation is saturation. Saturation is the intensity of the color and is something that is primarily dealt with in post production.

Creating High Color Contrast Images That Pop

As we mentioned above we can create images that are similar to high key and low key using color. To create a high contrast color image we are looking to find scenes that use primary colors. In the example below you can see that all three primaries have been used to create a bright high contrast scene. The red of the building contrasts against the blue of the sky and the green of the grass.

All the primaries in one image
All the primaries in one image

The primary colors contrast against each other and because of this we can use them to isolate a subject from its background as can be seen in the shot below. The bright red of the bus stands out against the lower, more uniform colours in the background. In post production we could take this further, adding some saturation to the bus or slightly desaturating the background. The end result is that our eyes are drawn to the bus

A red bus crosses Tower Bridge with the Shard London in the background
The red bus stands out on a grey London day

We can use primary colors in combination with many of the rules of photographic composition. In the shot below, the green of the hedges and trees act as a leading line towards the main subject, Palermo Cathedral. The deep blue of the sky prevents our eye from wandering out of the shot.

The green lines draw our eye to the cathedral
The green lines draw our eye to the cathedral

Creating Low Color Contrast Images

We create low color contrast by using hues that are similar to each other. Very often this use of similar hues can add a sense of emotion to an image. In the shot below, the low morning light has cast similar hues across the houses and road and pavement. The effect of this low color contrast is to give us a sense of peace and solitude, the image is predominately just differing shades of yellow.

Low colour contrast gives a sense of peace
Low colour contrast gives a sense of peace

The use of a primary with a secondary can also give us a low color contrast as can be seen in the image below. The yellow of the dawn over the lake and the slightly backlit greens of the leaves work well together in giving us a low contrast but emotive looking scene.

A golden dawn on Minnewater in Bruges
Primary and secondary used together

The faded yellow sandstone in the shot below provides a nice low contrast to the scruffy faded red of the door and provides an overall feeling of decay, sadness but with subtle beauty.

Red and yellow provide a nice contrat
Red and yellow provide a nice contrast

There are many way that we can get color to work for us. Using it to create contrast either physical or emotional can open many avenues in our creative process. Next time you are out shooting, look for low and high color contrasts and see how you can work these elements into a great shot.

About Author

Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer, videographer and stock shooter. You can get to know him better here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *