Color is fundamental to composition in photography, and before anyone screams at me about black and white, it’s actually fundamental to that too. Color can contrast, compliment and enhance our images depending on the way we use it. But how do we know which colors work together? Are there color combinations we should avoid? Today we are going to break color down into its constituent part, primary, secondary and complimentary.
The Primary Colors
The primaries are the building blocks as far as photography is concerned. You will know them to be red, green and blue and combinations of these three will give us any other color. They are also the basis for our camera’s sensors. Any one pixel will either capture red, green or blue light. The amount of red, green and blue that these pixels capture and the fact that they are so tightly packed together is how our camera’s render color in a digital image.
Much of the way we work with color in post-production is based around red green blue. Color profiles for cameras, screens and printing work with red, green and blue. It’s even one of the ways we can define an absolute color, by using RGB values. These numbers will reproduce the same color no matter what the software we are using.
The primaries alone can give us very striking color contrast in our images. However, when we mix in the secondaries, we get even more creative possibilities.
The Secondary Colors
The photographic secondaries can be seen as the polar opposites to the primary colors. The secondary to red is cyan, of green is magenta and of blue is yellow. In film photography and in digital post-production we can use the secondaries to remove a primary cast. For example, if we have an image that is looking way too blue, we add yellow to make it look more natural.
This is particularly useful when correcting particular tonal ranges in images. Shadows sometimes have the tendency to go a little blue. By adding yellow in the shadow tonal range we can counter that without compromising the entire image. A similar example might be if we have a sunset sky that looks way too red, we can add cyan in the highlight tonal range to counter it.
Interestingly, images that combine red with cyan or green with magenta can be very jarring and uncomfortable to the eye, yet blue and yellow often compliment each other well. Think of the number of sports teams that play in blue and yellow. That leads us nicely on to the complementary colors
The Complimentary Colors
Artists have known for hundreds of years that certain colors work well together, complement each other. Fortunately, there is a very easy guide to help us in deciding which colors are complimentary. It’s called the color wheel and most versions of it show 12 colors. These are the three primaries, three secondaries, and six other well-known colors.