How To Use Colors In Your Portraits


Making outstanding portraits starts with selecting the right colors and this has to do with the choice of wardrobe, lighting and backgrounds. Since colors can have a huge impact on the atmosphere of portraits, it’s really important to choose wisely and to make decisions together with models.

The following tips will help you understand how to choose colors for your portraits and how to combine them in order to create the desired atmosphere.

Keep It Simple

To make your portraits truly effective, you should steer away from complicated color combinations. Using up to three major colors in your portrait is usually the best decision. More than that can make a viewer’s eyes go all over the place, which will create a confusing visual experience.

Photo by Kelli Tungay

Spin The Color Wheel

Knowing the basics of color theory (analogous colors, complementary colors, etc.) can be useful when considering what colors to use in a portrait. Of course, the final decision will depend on the subject and the mood you want to convey.

Using analogous colors can create a completely different atmosphere than using complementary colors. The former ones will create a sense of harmony and gentle flow while the latter ones will convey the idea of boldness, strength and challenge.

Neutral tones are also quite important in portraiture. Since they are unobtrusive, they can hold a viewer’s attention longer than vivid or colorful options. Of course, it doesn’t make sense to work with neutral tones only – sometimes you need to evoke strong emotions!

Photo by Anton Darius

Create Different Moods And Feelings

Besides understanding color theory, it’s great to know color psychology as well. Colors are a perfect way to create various moods within a portrait because you can easily change them, especially if you work in a studio. Different backdrops and different clothes can reveal some new aspects of your model’s look and personality.

For instance, soft pastels and light colors give an image a warm and gentle feeling. On the other hand, bright or saturated colors can convey a sense of power and control. When it comes to very dark colors such as black, purple or midnight blue are usually associated with mystery or elegance.

Colors can be used to suggest feelings too. For example, blue represents sadness, yellow happiness and red danger or excitement.

Photo by Jaime Serrano

Strengthen Compositions With Colors

You shouldn’t underestimate the role of colors in your compositions. Colors have a powerful ability to direct the eye of a viewer through the image. Warm colors (red, orange and yellow) tend to advance and attract the eye to them while cool colors (blue and green) tend to recede and stay ’’quiet’’.

For instance, a model wearing a red sweater against a neutral background will stand out more than the same model in a green or blue sweater. The same goes for brightness or darkness of colors in your portraits – a viewer’s eye will first go to the brightest part of the image!

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev

In case you want to learn more about portraiture (not only about the role of colors in portraits!) feel free to check out these useful links!

Further Resources:

  1. 7 Expert Editing Tricks For Portraits
  2. 6 Fundamental Composition Techniques That Will Improve Your Portraits
  3. Bite Size Tips – Capturing Classic Portraiture Compositions

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About Author

Jasenka is a photographer with a background in web design. You can find out more about her on her website, see some of her newest images at 500px or get to know her better here.

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