Week 4: Use color relationships creatively for maximum impact

On a rainy afternoon at the Albert Einstein Memorial, my students were practicing travel photography tips, but I was distracted by something else -- color.


Pink and green are complementary colors found in nature.

Right behind us, a bed of pink flowers contrasted nicely with the grass below. I grabbed this shot to illustrate the impact of complementary colors.

Color is a compositional element that can be used to direct the eye, evoke an emotion or make a statement. It can be a powerful tool if you understand how to use it effectively.

The color circle helps us understand color relationships.You can't discuss the impact of color without taking a spin around the color circle, also known as the color wheel. The color circle gives us a good idea of color relationships. Most color circles are made of three primary colors - red, yellow and blue; and three secondary colors, green, orange, and violet. The circle also includes another level where primary and secondary are mixed, creating three tertiary colors. 

Colors opposite each other on the wheel are known as complementary colors and adjacent colors create a harmony of similar colors. 

What does this mean for photographers? If you understand color relationships, you can make photos that use colors creatively for maximum impact.


Complementary colors

You can find complementary colors on across from each other on the color circle. For instance, pink and green are almost polar opposites and create a pleasing contrast in my photo. Blues and yellows are also opposites that appear in nature. Have you ever seen a photo of a sunflower framed by a deep blue sky? Those are complementary colors at work. 


Similar colors

Colors next to each other on the wheel form a harmony of similarities. While that might not be as dramatic as contrasts on opposite sides of the wheel, it can be just as pleasing. Greens and blues are neighbors on the color wheel, as they are often found in nature with blue skies and green foliage. What we know as earth tones -- reds, browns, and yellows are also examples of similar colors that are grouped in the color wheel.

The combination of earth tones work as a harmony of similar colors.


Shades of the same color

Another approach uses shades of the same color for pleasing effect. We're all familiar with the cliche'd shades of gray, but often images of old decayed buildings showcase shades of rust or brown. Desert scenes often layer shades of white or cream.

Group shades of the same color for effect.

In every one of those scenarios, color is used as a dominant characteristic of the photo. It is as important as a strong focal point or selective focus. Color can make the photo, and paired with the right secondary color, they both can make your picture shine.

Whether you use colors to embellish or amplify, be deliberate about understanding their potential effect. 


The Challenge

Take a photo where color is a dominant compositional element. Use either complementary colors, similar colors, or shades of the same color to create your image.


Share your images with us

Once you have a great hero photo, post it in the comments here or tag it #composition21 when you post it on Twitter or Flickr.


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