Understanding Primary, Secondary and Complementary Colors in Photography | Light Stalking

Understanding Primary, Secondary and Complementary Colors in Photography

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. 

All three primaries in one shot make for a striking image. By Jason Row Photography

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 

Orange/Yellow with blue combination works well in compositions. By Jason Row Photography

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. 

The Color Wheel. Public Domain

In order to find the most complimentary color, you look at the colors opposite on the color wheel. For example, if you were shooting a subject that was predominantly red and want to add in a striking contrast you would use green, the color opposite in the wheel.

Red and green should never be seen? They can in photography. By Jason Row Photography


Color opposites often combine well: Image Public Domain

Complimentary colors and pairs that provide a striking contrast in an image and yet are pleasing to the eye. We can use a combination of complementaries to draw attention to a subject or to provide a juxtaposition to it. 

However, there is a second benefit to the color wheel in that many of the colors that lie next to each other, also complement each other. Rather than providing a striking contrast, they work to produce a subtle and delicate difference that is particularly suited to a low key muted style of photograph.

This is especially true on the right side of our color wheel between the red and green. The colors here might be considered pastel shades, subtle but very effective in compositions. 

These colors are grouped closely together on the color wheel. By Jason Row Photography


Close groups of colors on the wheel often create subtle images. Image – Public Domain


This image is predominately shades of blue. By Jason Row Photography

Color science in photography is complicated. However, by understanding the basics of the primary, secondary and complementary colors we can greatly enhance the way we take photos.

Understanding the way these color relate to each other is an extremely useful thing to learn and to practice. Next time you are out with your camera, take some time to look for combinations of colors that work well together. Then when you get home, compare them to the color wheel. There is a pretty good chance that the colors you picked are the ones represented on the wheel.

Understanding color is just one of the limitless ways to get a powerful image. If you want to get a good grasp of advanced composition, then you should read Kent Dufault's Guide to Advanced Composition for an excellent grounding.

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About the author

Jason Row

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

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