The Practical Guide To Color Theory For Photographers

minutes read

Have you ever seen a photo so captivating but you just couldn't figured out why?

That's because apart from getting the composition and exposure right, the photographer also played a little jedi trick with color.

No doubt, color theory plays a huge role in photography yet not many of us have a good foundation knowledge or know how to utilize it to our benefit.

color theory square image

In this article, I'm going to share practical tips on how you can use color to create a more lively image. While it's challenging not to discuss the fundamentals of color theory, I'm going to focus more on its application instead.

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1. The Mechanics of Color

Color is visible but not tangible because it lives in light.

The visible light spectrum (picture on left) that we perceive is part of a wider spectrum called the electromagnetic spectrum. 

A red car is perceived as a red car because the painted red surface absorbs all the visible light except for red, which reflects off the surface into our eyes.

In reality, this is more complicated because objects often have a mixture of colors instead of a single pure color.

The scientific basis of color is obviously more than this. It's a huge topic on its own and books have been written about it. You don't need to go into any more detail than this as a photographer!

2. A Brief History

Some of you probably like history, but this is not what you're here for. So, I'm going to keep this really short and sweet!

isaac newton's color wheel

What we understand about color theory today was discovered by Sir Isaac Newton. His experimentation on splitting visible light with a prism led to the invention of the first color wheel.

With the publication of many more color wheels by others later on, a German theorist named Johannes Itten developed the color wheel that we know today. It was based on the yellow, red and blue primaries (painter's primaries).

Itten's color wheel took into consideration Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s hypothesis of the emotional value of colors, such as blue was associated with coolness and red was associated with warmth.

3. The Fundamental Color Wheel

Color theory may sound easy on the surface, but it becomes more complex as you delve deeper. Over the centuries, artists, theorist, philosophers and many others have tried to explain colors in different theories and systems. Today, there are areas exist where some color theories remain controversial.

It's natural to think of primary, secondary and tertiary colors when it comes to color theory.

Without further ado, let's start with the photography color wheel chart!

3.1 Primary Colors

primary color wheel image

A true primary color is a color that is not made up of any other colors than its own.

Most of us probably learned the primary colors as red, green and blue in school. RGB is also known as digital primaries, which are used for displaying images in electronic devices.

When we work for print output, we use cyan, magenta and yellow as the ink primaries. To make things even more confusing: yellow, red and blue are known as the art school primaries. This is also know as the YRB color system.

Each system is used in different industries and has its own merit. For the purpose of this tutorial, I'm going to use the YRB color wheel: the paint color wheel or art school color wheel (color wheel shown on the left, above) to illustrate my point. 

This may totally contradict with the color model that you're about to see below. However, the YRB is an established system adopted by artists since the 19th centuries.

3.2 Secondary Colors

secondary color wheel image

The secondary colors in the YRB system is created by mixing two primaries.

Orange = yellow + red

Violet = red + blue

Green = blue + yellow

3.3 Tertiary Colors

tertiary color wheel image

The tertiary colors in the YRB system is created by mixing primary and secondary colors. The colors are called by naming the primary first, followed by the secondary.

Yellow-Orange, Red-Orange, Red-Violet, Blue-Violet, Blue-Green and Yellow-Green.

4. Color Model

Color model is a system of creating a full range of colors using a set of primary colors. There are two color models: additive and subtractive. These are based on how colors are created.

Colors that contain physical pigment, such as in the case of paint, are called subtractive color. This is because pigmented objects absorb light or subtract color wavelength from the visible light spectrum. The unabsorbed wavelength is reflected off the object and seen by the human eye as color.

Conversely, colors of direct light are called additive color. Colors in this case are created by adding color wavelengths together to create a different color.

Additive Color Model
rgb additive color model
Subtractive Color Model
cmyk subtractive color model

Red, green and blue as primaries.

Cyan, magenta and yellow as primaries.

Also known as digital primaries.

Also known as ink primaries.

Colors are added to create white.

Colors are added to create black.

For digital images viewed on electronic devices.

For prints viewed as surface color.

Apart from these two, there are other color systems that have contributed to how we understand color today. Click here to find out more (the website is in German but you can translate it to your language with Google Translate).

As photographers, we mostly see colors as they are presented to us without much room for manipulation (studio photography is one of the exceptions). Although color model is a basic color theory, we can't really apply this knowledge to our images.

Let's use another way to understand color that we can relate more.

5. What Is Color Space?

cielab color space

Color space is more relevant to us as photographers. It's a mathematically defined range of colors (also known as gamut) a device can display or print.

We use it day in and day out in our cameras, in post-processing and publishing images on the internet or printed material.

There are many color spaces exist. For example: sRGB for web display, CMYK for printing, Rec. 709 for HDTV, etc. Only a few are relevant to us.

When comparing color spaces, we use the CIELAB color space (CIE = International Committee of Illumination; LAB is explained below) as the standard reference. CIELAB color space (the chromaticity diagram on the left) is specifically designed to encompass all colors the average human can see.

For the purpose of photography, you should know the color spaces listed below. The black triangle represents the gamut of each color space within CIELAB.

  •   sRGB  
  •   Adobe RGB  
  •   ProPhoto RGB  
  •   CMYK  
  •   Lab  
srgb color space

Standard RGB (sRGB)

  • The standard color space for displaying images on the internet.
  • Encompasses only 35% of the visible color specified by CIELAB.
  • Without specifying, any 8-bit-per-channel image file or any 8-bit-per-channel image application programme interface or device interface can be treated as being in the sRGB color space.
  • Smaller gamut, particularly in the cyan-green colors, sometimes avoided in high-end printing publishing professionals.
Setting the right color space for your workflow.

Managing color space can be confusing for beginners. There is no standards as to what color space you should be working in. Every photographer has a different preference in their workflow. Personally, I shoot Raw and post-process in 16-bit depth with ProPhoto RGB set as the color space for Photoshop. As I export the bulk of my images for web display, I set my output color space to sRGB.

Adobe photoshop

You can set the color space in Photoshop by going to Edit > Color Settings, under Working Space, select the color space you want. To set output color space, go to Edit > Covert to Profile and choose a color space under Destination Space.

Adobe lightroom

Lightroom uses ProPhoto RGB to manage all images by default and you can't change that. But you can decide the output color space. You can change the color space for images exported to Photoshop by going to Lightroom > Preference. For exporting images to any where else, go to File > Export and choose a color space under File Settings.

Practical Tip #1
Is your monitor displaying color correctly?

Most computer monitors do not display color accurately. This poses a problem if you print your images with your computer.

Without calibration, the color of your print may look different compared to what you see on the screen. The solution is to use a colorimetric calibration device.

Must you calibrate your monitor?

Maybe not.

If you don't earn a living with your images, then there's no need to do so. Plus, a calibration device costs.

Learn more: Monitor calibration in photography

Practical Tip #2

6. Use of Color In Photography

color properties

We can't control the colors in the scene during shooting. But we can certainly enhance or reduce the effect of color globally or selectively in post-processing.

This can be achieved by adjusting the three properties of color: hue, saturation and lightness. You may have already seen the term HSL in Lightroom or Hue/Saturation adjustment layer in Photoshop. 

Before we start, let's briefly define the terms so you don't get confused with these jargons.

Hue = color. Saturation = intensity of color. Lightness = brightness.

Wondering where the HSL adjustments are?
Adobe photoshop

It's called the Hue/Saturation in Photoshop (it also has a Lightness slider bar). You can find it in the Adjustments panel, at the bottom of the Layers panel, or simply go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Hue/Saturation.

Adobe lightroom

The HSL sliders is in the Develop module. L is for Luminance in Lightroom.

HSL in lightroom

Practical Tip #3

6.1 Hue


Hue is essentially color.

Some have defined it as the name of a color or the color of a color. For example, the hue of red is red, it's still red if you desaturate it and remains red if you reduce its lightness.

Colors (hues) can be considered warm and cool. Warm colors are thought to advance, stimulating, stand out or appear more active in an image. Cool colors tend to recede, calming, convey a sense of distance or serve as a background color.

You'll learn how to manipulate colors to your advantage as you go through the individual color you use frequently.


  • A warm, advancing color.
  • Stands out when placed against any other color (hence "advance"). Dominates the composition even in small amount. So, use it sparingly in your image.
  • We are more sensitive to warm colors particularly red color because the retina of our eyes have more red cones (64% of all color cones).
  • Red is the primary color for skin tone in RGB. When converts to CMYK, most details migrate to cyan.
With that in mind, use the Selective Color adjustment in Photoshop to fine-tune skin tone in your images.

In Selective Color adjustment layer, select Reds from the drop-down menu. Use Yellow and Magenta slider bar to fine-tune the skin tone color, and Cyan for the saturation.

  •   before  
  •   after  

The skin tone looks darker and more saturated before adjustments.

Practical Tip #4


  • A cool color.
  • Strong and contrasty, the green channel is favoured  by Photoshop in its default conversion to black and white (59% green, 30% red and 11% blue).
  • It's the natural color of foliage, but if you target the foliage of your image (with a color picker) in Photoshop you'll find it's actually more yellow than green! This is particularly true when there is direct sunlight.
  • We are good at seeing different levels of brightness in green than any color, which is why night vision goggles are in green.
  • May fall out of the CMYK gamut from RGB (particularly Adobe RGB and ProPhoto RGB). Something to be aware of when printing.
When enhancing the color of foliage, use the Targeted Adjustment Tool instead of choosing a single color channel.
targeted adjustment tool

You can find this in the HSL panel in Lightroom. Make sure you have selected Hue before using the Targeted Adjustment Tool.

There is also an option to use the Targeted Adjustment Tool in Adobe Camera Raw Filter in Photoshop. Look out for the icon in the row of icons on the top left corner. The same can be found in the Hue/Saturation adjustment layer.

*The icon may look slightly different in all three

Practical Tip #5


  • A cool, receding color.
  • When we see blue, we naturally think of the sky. It's a color that's associated with space, distance and coolness.
  • Pure blue (R:0, G:0, B:255) is not perceivable by the human eye. For that reason, blue is prone to fall out of gamut, particularly vivid blue. Pay attention to the blue sky in your image when printing.
  • If you pay close attention, the sky is often in different shades and tones of blue instead of pure or near pure blue. Bear this in mind in post-processing so that you don't over saturate the sky.
  • Blue channel is also the noisiest channel of all in RGB.
Desaturate the blue sky to make the foreground pop.

It's tempting to saturate the blue sky in post-processing, especially in images with bright sunny day. As blue is a receding color, reduce its saturation a little can make your foreground stand out even more. A foreground subject with a warm color (red/orange/yellow) helps in this case.

  •   before  
  •   after  
sky with saturated blue color

The yellow/orange color from the sunlight competes strongly with the blue sky for attention.

Practical Tip #6
Make water looks whiter by adding a tinge of blue.

Adding a small amount of blue to water makes us perceive the whites whiter. The effect is stronger when you shoot in long exposure to create a smooth and silky water flow.

adding blue

In Lightroom or ACR in Photoshop, use the Adjustment Brush to paint selectively over the waterfall in your image. Once the selection is made, move the slider in the Temp to the left to add some blue color to the water.

Practical Tip #7


  • A warm color.
  • A primary in the YRB color system but not in the RGB.
  • Has the highest value of lightness (brightness) of all colors. Therefore, difficult to differentiate the level of saturation.
  • Similar to red, yellow stands out and screams for attention when the background is darker or less saturated. Use this to your advantage when post-processing images with leaves taken in autumn.
  • Yellow must be balanced against Magenta when retouching skin tone.


  • A warm color.
  • Yellow/Orange is the color of the sunlight we perceive. It also gives the sensation of heat.
  • Similar to red, orange is a high visibility color. Use it sparingly and strategically to enhance your image.

Enhance the color of the sun by painting in color.

In Photoshop, you can paint color onto a new layer to enhance the color of the sunlight. It's a simple and effective post-processing technique.

  •  Step 1 
  •  Step 2 
  •  step 3 
step 1

Create a new layer. Select the Brush Tool, hold down Opt/Alt to reveal the color picker. Use it to sample the yellow/orange color of the sunlight. You may need to change that color to one with the same hue but higher saturation and lightness.

Practical Tip #8

6.1.1 Understanding Color Temperature

color temperature

While we're on the subject of hue itself, you should also know about color temperature. It's also known as white balance.

White balance allows remapping of color values to simulate variations in ambient color temperature.

Why is this relevant to you?

Setting the correct white balance allows the colors in your image to be seen as it should be without unwanted color cast. Having said that, there may be times when you deliberately want  your images to have a color cast for artistic reasons.

Always, always, always shoot Raw.

The auto white balance (AWB) of modern digital camera is pretty good at predicting the right color temperature that falls between 3000-7000K (daylight is about 5500K). You should manually set the white balance in your camera for anything that is out of the range. (e.g. shaded area, indoor especially with artificial light, flash, etc.)

You can also buy white balance cards (e.g. ColorChecker Passport) or a white transparent lens cap (e.g. ExpoDisc) to set custom white balance.

white balance drop-down menu

Always shoot in Raw as Raw file preserves all the color information recorded from the digital image sensor.

Correcting white balance couldn't be easier. Pick a white balance preset from the WB drop-down menu in Lightroom or ACR in Photoshop.

In a JPEG, you lose the option for presets. You'll have to manually correct the white balance using the Temperature slider bar.

Practical Tip #9

Color temperature is measured in kelvins (K). It starts with yellow (coolest) to blue (warmest) with white in the middle.

I can see some of you are scratching your head already!

Now, Imagine this:

A piece of metal being heated starts to turn red initially. As the temperature rises, it becomes white and glows in blue when it's hottest. Also, fire is at its hottest when it's blue, despite the common misconception that the hottest is red.

If cool temperature is red and warm is blue, why is the Temperature adjustment in Lightroom and Photoshop the other way round?

It's because of visual representation of color compensation. For example, an image taken indoor with interior lights, no flash. The image would have a yellow/orange color cast. Your camera would then increase the temperature (blue) to correct the white balance.

color temperature in color theory

This is even more intuitive in post-processing. When you have an image in blue or yellow color cast, all you need is move the Temperature slider bar towards the opposite direction to correct the white balance. 


after white balance


This image of Half Dome in Yosemite was taken from a shaded parking area. I had AWB (forgot to switch!) on and it ended up with a blue color cast.

This was easily corrected in Lightroom. All I did was selecting Shade from the WB drop-down menu.

Apply digital filters in post-processing.

Gone were the days when you have to carry a pouch to store color filters. These filters are held in place by a holder attached to the front of the lens.

The common ones are warming and cooling filters. These work by increasing or decreasing the color temperature of the image.

photo filter

Column 1

Now, you can do so easily in post-processing with one click. In Photoshop, go to Image > Adjustments > Photo Filter. You can also click on the Photo Filter icon in the Adjustments panel.

Choose a filter from the drop-down menu. You can also select Color and pick any color as a filter. Change the Density (0-100%) of the filter and check the box for "Preserve Luminosity" to prevent the filter from darkening your image.

Besides the built-in filters in Photoshop, you can also get others in the form of presets (which you may have to purchase) or software that apply filters to your image. 

Color Efex Pro by DXO is a good example of such software. It's a plugin for Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Lightroom and Apple Aperture.

Practical Tip #10

6.1.2 Correcting White Balance Manually

One of the challenges of using the Temperature slider for color balance is that it's pretty much a guessing game. It's also very subjective with different person perceives "neutral" differently.

If you prefer to do it more methodically with precision, then you're gonna love this: use the black, white and gray Color Sampler Tool. You can find these in Curves, Levels and Exposure adjustment layer in Photoshop.

Using the adjustment tools is easy, the tricky part is finding the pure black, white and gray pixel in your image.

Finding the black, white and gray pixels in your image.

Your secret to finding the true black, white and gray point is the Threshold adjustment layer. Add it on top of a Curves/Levels/Exposure adjustment layer.

  •   Black pixel  
  •   white pixel  
  •   gray pixel  
black point

Drag the arrow (circled) in Threshold from the middle all the way to the left until your image turns completely white. Start moving the arrow slowly back (towards the middle) until you see blacks appearing (pointed in arrows). Cross-check with the graph to make sure the arrow is pointing where pixels are present. These are the black pixels. Zoom in and use the Color Sampler Tool to mark a black pixel.

Practical Tip #11

Now that you have your black, white and gray pixels mark, it's time to correct the white balance. 

Using the adjustment tool of your choice, click on the Color Sampler Tool for black (if you're not sure which is which, hover your mouse over and wait for couple of seconds until the wordings appear) and click on where you marked it. You may have to zoom in to find the exact pixel you've marked.

Repeat this for white and gray point. Your image is now precisely white balanced!

6.2 Saturation


Saturation is the intensity of color. It's also known as "chroma" in the world of color. The highest chroma represents the color at its purest.

In photography, we seldom work with color at its purest. Because in reality, color presents in different saturation, lightness, shades and tones.

Having said that, our eyes are tuned to be attracted to more saturated colors and low saturation conveys distance. But having more than one highly chromatic colors can cause them to compete for attention.

In this section, I'll show you how you can control saturation (and lightness in the next section) to enhance the depth in your image.

6.2.1 Maximizing Saturation

You can enhance the saturation of the scene or subject during or after the image has been taken.

A polarizing filter can cut through glare and haze to improve color saturation and clarity. It works best when the line of sight of your camera is perpendicular to the direction of the sun.

In post-processing, Levels and Curves are by far the commonest tools used to apply contrast adjustment in Photoshop. You can also use the Brightness/Contrast, Vibrance or Hue/Saturation adjustment. In Lightroom, there is Contrast and Clarity slider adjustment.

What is clarity? How does it work?

Strictly speaking, clarity is not part of color theory but I just wanted to give you a quick tip 🙂

Increasing Clarity enhances the edges primarily in the midtones. An edge is where the bright meets the dark. In other words, increasing clarity boosts micro contrast by making darks darker and brights brighter in the midtones. It makes any image looks better :))

Practical Tip #12

6.2.2 Desaturation

Having highly saturated colors is not always good for your image. Sometimes, you want selected areas to be desaturated. This adds depth and a three-dimensional look to a two-dimensional image.

Natural diffusion of saturation can be achieved through fog, haze or mist. These weather conditions scatter the light so that colors appear less saturated. This can create a mysterious or even an evocative monochromatic effect.

Selective saturation adjustment with saturation mask.

We love colorful images. But sometimes too colorful makes your image looks unnatural and tacky.

What if you want to adjust saturation selectively on parts of your image? You can use the Adjustment Brush in Lightroom or the Hue/Saturation in Photoshop with a layer mask, but you can never create an accurate selection.

The concept of saturation mask is very similar to luminosity mask. The difference is that a saturation mask targets the most saturated areas with a smooth transition into the less saturated areas. This means your adjustment is blended in seamlessly.

You can learn more about saturation mask on Tony Kuyper's website.

Don't know what a saturation mask is? Below is a comparison between a saturation mask and a luminosity mask.

  •   Image  
  •   Saturation mask  
  •   luminosity mask   
saturation mask

This example is to demonstrate how a saturation mask looks in comparison to a luminosity mask. In this image, you can see the most saturated area is the sun flare. 

Practical Tip #13

6.3 Lightness

color lightness

Lightness is normally used interchangeably with brightness, luminosity and value. But in the context of color theory, brightness and lightness are different entity.

Lightness is the psychological experience of the luminosity of an object. In other words, how light or dark a color appears to be. Lightness of colors can be different even when they have the same brightness.

For example, take a look at red (R:255, G:0, B:0), blue (R:0, G:0, B:255) and yellow (R:255, G:255, B:0) on the left. All three have brightness of 100%. But, in terms of lightness, red 61%, blue 0% and yellow 100%.

Each color has its inherent lightness and yellow has the greatest lightness of all the colors. This means we perceive yellow to be the brightest when in fact all colors are equally bright and saturated.

This brings us to the next point: the human eye is more sensitive to light than shadow.

gradient band

Each image above has a gradient band within a black, a 50% gray and a white background. Which one draws your immediate attention? 

The image with the black and the white background have the highest contrast, but your eyes are drawn to the one with the black background more. You can apply this principle to make your subject stands out in the image.


The manipulation of contrast shares the same principle as a Renaissance painting technique called Chiaroscuro.

The word Chiaroscuro originates from Italian, meaning "light-dark". It refers to the balance and pattern of light and shadow in a painting or drawing.

The technique uses tonal contrast between light and shadow to create a dramatic three-dimensional form. The viewer gets drawn into the subject bathed in light against a dark background.

Create depth by controlling saturation and lightness selectively.

Study the scene, observe where the light is coming from. Shadows and shaded areas tend to be less saturated. So, it makes sense to boost the saturation in areas that are exposed to light!

Also, when increasing saturation, use Vibrance instead to boost the saturation of muted colors (see Glossary for muted colors). This often creates a more natural effect.

Now you must be wondering how to desaturate selectively?

Adobe lightroom

Use the Adjustment Brush to paint the areas you want and desaturate. This creates a selection and you can then apply the adjustment with the Saturation slider bar. Alternatively, you can do the same with the Radial Filter.

Adobe photoshop

One of the easiest ways is to desaturate globally and mask the unwanted areas with a layer mask. But if you want to do it with more precision, try luminosity mask, zone mask or Color Range. Use these techniques to create targeted selection before applying a contrast adjustment layer. Dodge and burn on a 50% gray layer is another good way of creating light and shadow artistically.

  •  before 
  •  after 
before selective desaturation

The colors look saturated and everything seems to be bright. The difference between light and shadow is not very noticeable. The image looks slightly flat.

Practical Tip #14

7. Tints, Shades and Tones

tints shades tones color theory

Do you know which row is tints, shades and tones?

This is more relevant for painters and anyone who handles the physical pigments of color. For you photographers, this is a useful information.

Tints, shades and tones are products of mixing color with white, black and gray. When doing so, you reduce the chroma but the hue remains the same. 

Here are the definitions:

Tints: The mixture of a color with white to increase its lightness.

Shades: The mixture of a color with black to reduce its lightness.

Tones: The mixture of a color with gray to create a muted color.

The use of tints, shades and tones is more commonly seen in monochromatic images. You'll see this in the section below.

8. Color Harmony

YRB color wheel

Color harmony is a theory of combining colors to create a mixture that is pleasing to the eyes. It represents balance and unity of colors. The human brain forms a dynamic equilibrium when distinguishes the visual interest and the sense of order created by the harmony.

In photography, we have very little control over the combination of colors (we have controls to some extent). We do get attracted by vibrant, colorful objects but we don't stop and sit down to think about the color combination.

However, studying color harmoy can give you a retrospective insight on why some of your images attract more attention than others.

I use a free tool called Adobe Kuler to examine the colors in my images. It gives me some clue on what kind of scenes attract me most frequently (I shoot landscapes and architecture). I get to learn a bit more about myself too!

Let's start with the commonest color harmonies that you may encounter.

Using Adobe Kuler to study the colors in your image.
adobe kuler

Column 1

Click here to go to Adobe Kuler.

Step 1: Click on the camera icon on the top right hand corner (create from image). Select the image you want and click Open.

Step 2: You should see that your image has been analyzed with a theme of five colors in big square boxes. Now, click on the color wheel on the top right hand corner.

Step 3: Check out the color wheel and see if the colors in your image fit any of the color harmony.

You can also experiment with the menu on the left hand side in Step 2 to analyze different properties of color.

Practical Tip #15

8.1 Complementary

What are complementary colors?

These are colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. A typical scene with complementary colors is sunset, where you have blue and yellow/orange.

Because the colors are in the polar ends, it implies the presence of the total spectrum. When both colors are mixed in equal quantities, it creates mutual completion.

During post-processing, be cautious not to saturate both colors in equal amounts. Saturated complementary colors may mutually exaggerate each other to cause simultaneous contrast effect (see Glossary).

Less saturated complementary colors naturally have more unity and have less chance of imposing after image (see Glossary).

example of complementary color harmony

Image with complementary colors.

Creating depth with warm and cool colors.

Remember that warm colors advance and cool colors recede?

Make use of this psychological element when you have complementary colors in your image to emphasize depth.

In the example given above, you can saturate yellow/orange more than blue. The less saturated blue recedes, which makes the more saturated yellow/orange stands out even more.

Practical Tip #16

8.2 Triad

triad color theory

Triad is when three colors on the color wheel are spaced equally apart. Similar to complementary colors, it also implies the presence of the full spectrum of colors.

Triad and complementary colors share similar visual impact: they create a sense of unity and balance. Muted colors tend to work better than saturated colors.

When having more colors in the combination, it's a good practice to let one color to dominate and others used in smaller quantities to avoid competition for attention.

examples of triad color theory

Image with triadic colors.

8.3 Analogous

analogou color theory

An analogous color combination has three hues that are right next to each other on the color wheel. It's a more harmonious and slightly monochromatic look. Typically seen in nature such as during the autumn/fall (depending on where you are!).

The colors tend to have very similar lightness (or brightness, or value), lack contrast and are less vibrant than complementary and triadic colors.

example of analogous color theory

Image with analogous colors.

8.4 Monochromatic

monochromatic color theory

Monochromatic colors have only one hue but in a combination of tints, shades and tones.

It allows greater a range of contrasting tones that can be used to attract attention and create focus.

A monochromatic image tends to have less distraction than a colorful image. This enables the viewer to pay more attention to what the image is about and the story behind it.

example of monochromatic color theory

A monochromatic image.

Enhance your images with color grading.

Color grading is the process of enhancing or altering the color of an image. In photography, this can be done in post-processing such as in Photoshop.

color grading

Column 1

The use of color grading is commonly seen in the film industry. Take the movie Amelie or 300 for example, there's a distinct color theme throughout the whole film. The whole idea of color grading is to give the film, or an image an identity.

Do it right with color harmony, you can strengthen the connection between the subject and the background, and directing the viewer's attention to where you want.

Color grading is beyond the scope of this tutorial. It should be treated as a topic on its own.

Learn more about color grading:

Practical Tip #17
Split tone your image to enhance color harmony.

Split toning involves adding a single color to either the highlights and/or the shadows.

If you pick colors that already exist in your image (and if it's already harmonious), this will enhance the effect of color harmony. You can also choose different colors to experiment with the result. 

Split-toning your image is easy in Lightroom and using ACR in Photoshop. As you can see in the image below, use the slider adjustment to set the Hue and Saturation for Highlights and Shadows. Use Balance to shift the weight of the adjustment towards either highlights or shadows.

split toning in adobe camera raw
Adobe lightroom

You can find the Split Toning in the Develop module.

Adobe photoshop

Once you have your image opened in Photoshop, go to Filter > Camera Raw Filter. This will bring up the panel for Split Toning as the image above.

Practical Tip #18
Notes on color harmony.
  • When your image has more than one dominating color, reduce the saturation or lightness in others to avoid simultaneous or competing contrast.
  • Muted colors work better in equal amount than pure, saturated colors.
  • Experiment with different level of saturation and lightness in each color to create an image with more depth.
  • The visual impact is always more obvious in bright values than in dark values.
Practical Tip #19

9. Color Psychology

Color psychology is the study of hues on how it affects human behaviour.

It has been extensively studied and widely used in marketing and branding. Color affects how a consumer perceives a product subconsciously and ultimately, whether or not, becomes a customer. As a photographer, the colors in your image have an impact on how a viewer perceives your work.

The perception of color can be affected by culture, geography, religion, time of the day, season, gender and so on. This explains why a color can have several meanings. I'm not a psychologist but I'm going to share with you some of the hidden messages I've learned that colors may convey to your audience.


  • Red is associated with passion, love, excitement, confidence, anger and danger.
  • A very emotionally intense color. It stands out very easily even in small quantities. Also, it stimulates energy and increases enthusiasm.
  • Very effective when used against a dark background. Use it sparingly in your image.
pink color theory photographers

  • Pink is associated with sweet, playful and young girls.
  • Has a very feminine quality. Less intense compared to red, represents tender and romantic.
  • Use it sparingly. Excessive quantities can be seen as an indication of weakness and vulnerability.
magenta color theory photographers

  • Magenta is associated with inviting, friendliness, compassionate and relaxing.
  • Looks very similar to pink. Often related to spiritual and emotional balance.
  • Similar to pink, use it sparingly to avoid overwhelming the image and the viewer.

  • Green is associated with nature, life, growth, prosperity, purity, health and harmony.
  • A natural color of nature. It has the effect of calming, soothing and induce tranquility.
  • It stimulates the pituitary gland, increases the release of histamines and smoother muscle contractions. Stress-relieving and invigorating at the same time.
turquoise color theory photographers

  • Turquoise is associated with spirituality, emotional balance and peace.
  • A blend of green and blue. Gives a generally soothing and calming effect.
  • Predominantly positive connotations. Excessive use can be viewed as self-centered.

  • Blue is associated with coolness, space, distance, eternity, masculinity, trustworthiness and sadness.
  • Stimulates the body to produce chemicals that induce calmness and peacefulness. The effect is often sedating.
  • Blue with higher saturation and brightness - electric or brilliant blue cause exhilaration.

  • Yellow is associated with warmth, brightness, optimism, happiness, wealth and cautiousness.
  • It stimulates mental processes in the nervous system; activates memory and encourages communication.
  • The color with the highest luminosity level, and will advance from surrounding colors.

  • Purple is associated with royalty, wealth, luxury, sophistication, uplifting and calming.
  • A rarity of nature, it symbolizes magic, mystery and spirituality.
  • A balance of red and blue, purple can cause unrest or uneasiness, and it's a favorite color for adolescent girls. 

  • Orange is associated with energy, fun, creativity, vitality, cheer, excitement and adventure.
  • It stimulates our activities, appetite and encourages socialization.
  • Pure orange may suggest a lack of serious intellectual values and bad taste.
brown color theory photographers

  • Brown is associated wholesome, homely, earth and nature.
  • Frequently used in the food and beverage industry as it stimulates appetite.
  • Goes with green (represents nature). Predominantly a color with positive associations.

  • Black is associated with elegance, sophistication, authority, power, death, night, evil and mysticism.
  • It can evoke strong emotions, but too much can be overwhelming.
  • Makes us feel inconspicuous and mysterious by evoking a sense of potential and possibility.

  • White is associated with purity, innocence, cleanliness, simplicity, lightness, emptiness and neutrality.
  • It also symbolizes strength, conquest, peace and surrender.
  • Aids mental clarity, encourages us to clear obstacles, evokes purification of thoughts or actions and enables fresh beginnings.

  • Gray is associated with soothing, balance, restrained, wisdom, neutral, boring and depressing.
  • The most important color in photography!
  • Deep dark gray can give a sense of mystery.
  • Perceived as long-lasting, classic and often as sleek or refined.
  • It's controlled and inconspicuous, and is considered a color of compromise.

I've teamed up with Domestika, one of the largest online educational platform to produce this fantastic video course on Color Theory in Photography.

If you want to master how to harness the power of color to add oomph to your image, this one is for you!

CLICK HERE to take advantage of -50% OFF during the launch of this course!

10. Level Up Your Color Theory

As you can see, color theory is not rocket science! What you need is some time to digest the new information and implement it in your workflow.

Understanding how we perceive color and what attracts attention have helped me to create better images. I guarantee it will make a difference to you too!

For more tutorials on image editing technique, please check out the editing technique resource page!

happy man color theory for photographers

11. Glossary

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