4 Strategies To Use Color More Effectively In Your Photography

By Jason D. Little / November 4, 2018

For some photographers, working in black and white is easy — it’s as if they see in black and white, or in shades of gray. For others, color is king. For these individuals, it’s more than just getting their colors to look good in the final image, it’s about using color in the most effective and creative ways possible.

Whether you work in color all the time or only occasionally, I’m quite sure you want your images to be as visually impactful as possible. Keep reading to learn four strategies to better use color in your photography.

1. Learn the Color Wheel

The color wheel is a simple visual device that shows the relationship between colors. Looking at the chart below, you will see that red and green are opposite each other, as are blue and orange and purple and yellow. These are known as complementary colors.

Complementary colors work well because they create contrast. The simplest way to work with complementary colors is to use one color as a background and the other as an accent — a yellow flower against a purple wall, perhaps.

In addition to complementary colors, there are a number of other color schemes you might use to maximize the visual impact of the colors in your photography:

  • Split complementary colors – An extension of complementary colors, the split complementary color scheme is created by choosing a color on the wheel and then using the two colors on either side of the original color’s complement (for instance, blue, yellow-orange and red-orange).
  • Analogous colors – This scheme uses three adjacent colors on the color wheel (orange, yellow-orange and yellow, as an example). For best results, avoid combining warm colors and cool colors.

Using color schemes can lead to some truly striking results, but first, you need to get a grasp of the color wheel in order to use various schemes to best effect. Once you’ve got it figured out, your color photography will soar.

2. Use Color To Evoke Emotion

Colors can do more than just look pretty. They can also make you feel a certain way and set a mood.

Here are a few examples:

  • Red – passion, danger, love, anger
  • Green – health, newness, growth, wealth
  • Orange – energy, vitality, happiness, friendliness
  • Yellow – hope, sunshine, joy, optimism
  • Blue – calmness, trust, security, wisdom
  • Brown – reliability, warmth, stability, sadness

If you’re seeking to tell a strong story through your photography be sure to use color as part of the narrative, as this can be vital in evoking the intended response in those who view your work.

If you’re photographing a cemetery in an effort to set a spooky mood, shooting on a bright spring morning surrounded by green grass and yellow flowers will be far less effective than shooting on a cool autumn evening amongst dead (brown) leaves.

Photo by Mario Gogh on Unsplash

3. Add A Pop Of Color

In an otherwise chromatically neutral scene, all it takes is a splash of color to take a shot from flat to fantastic. The technique doesn’t need to follow any particular color scheme. Any bright pop of color that offsets all the other colors in a scene will work.

The color draws the eye in and while also serving as a visual anchor point for the overall composition.

Photo by Rene Böhmer on Unsplash

4. Make It All About A Color

Choose a color and go out and make photos that revolve around that color. While you’re certainly free to use any color you desire, a brighter color will tend to be more effective in a variety of settings. Think red, orange or yellow.

Once you’ve decided upon a color you can:

  • Fill the frame with it.
  • Photograph the color in various settings — landscape, architecture, street photography.
  • Photograph the color at night.

Photo by Oleg Laptev on Unsplash

Final Thoughts

Making stunning color photographs is a deliberate process. It takes some creative insight and maybe even a little scientific knowledge. But what’s for sure is that color itself can be as critical to a photo as composition.

The world around you is drenched in color, so take every opportunity to experiment with the techniques outlined above.

Further Reading

Further Learning

Using color creatively is really about honing your advanced composition capability.

If you are looking to improve your photography composition and learn concepts that go beyond the ‘rule of thirds’, do take a look at Kent DuFault’s guide Advanced Composition. With this guide, you will learn all about:

  • color
  • light
  • shadow
  • lines
  • curves
  • repetition
  • juxtaposition
  • anticipation
  • pre-visualization
  • timing

Click here now to check it out.


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About the author

Jason D. Little

Jason Little is a photographer (shooting macros, portraits, candids, and the occasional landscape), writer, and music lover. You can see Jason’s photography on Flickr, his Website or his Blog.

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