Color Photography: understanding complementary colors

Composing photos boldly

In the latest instalment of our series on color photography, we look closely at the color wheel to see which are the best complementary colors to use in your photo compositions, and which combinations should be avoided.

 Color Photography: understanding complementary colors

Getting colors to work together to produce a striking or harmonious image can be helped by an understanding of the ‘color wheel’ and the concepts of harmonious and complementary colors.

Harmonious colors lie close to each other on the color wheel, and used together in a photograph they can produce very peaceful, beautiful images. Complementary colors are opposite each other on the color wheel.

They can clash in a very ugly fashion, but they can also produce striking contrasts and vivid, vibrant images.

Once you start looking for harmonious and complementary colors, you’ll see many more ways of shooting familiar subjects and enhancing their properties.

Using opposite colors on the color wheel

Using opposite colors

You’ll see from the illustration of a color wheel that blue and orange are opposites and they do indeed produce a strong contrast in a photograph.

They don’t often appear in combination in nature, though, but blue and yellow are almost opposites and you’ll get a striking contrast if you photograph a field of yellow oilseed rape blooms against a blue sky, as you probably know.

Not all contrasts work so well, though. Red and green are opposites on the color wheel, but used together they can clash and create a discordant visual combination – maybe like us you’ve seen ads where red type on a green background (or vice versa) seems to ‘jiggle’?

There’s actually another factor in this theory of opposites which can play a part. Effective contrast comes not just from contrasting colors but contrasting brightness too.

This is why the blue/yellow combination is so striking – the blue and the yellow are very different in brightness, not just color.

PAGE 1: Using opposite colors on the color wheel
PAGE 2: Allow for a dominant color
PAGE 3: Composing photos boldly


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