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What is Color Theory in Photography? A Beginner’s Guide on a Fundamental Design Principle

What is Color Theory in Photography? A Beginner’s Guide on a Fundamental Design Principle

Have you ever looked at a photograph and immediately understood what to look at and when? You were witnessing color theory in action, a fundamental design principle of photography.

Photography does most of the work rendering a subject, but it still relies on our senses to create an image that makes sense to the viewer. While color symbolism refers to the cultural or historical nuance behind color, color theory is more scientific. Without a strong grasp on color theory, you risk taking photos that are difficult to visually understand or look a little off.

The design principle of color theory is just as important in photography as learning about focal lengths and f-stops. I’ll explain what color theory in photography is and how it works so you can create more visually ‘readable’ photos.

Source Image: Pixabay

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. What Is Color Theory?
  3. The Essentials Of Color Theory
  4. What is a Color Wheel?
  5. What is Color Theory in Photography and Why Does it Matter?
  6. Conclusion

a colorful photo of a woman wearing splashes of red, blue, and yellow paint against a white background

Source Image: Pixabay

What is Color Theory? 

Every time you look at a subject, your eyes are translating rays of light into what you interpret as a color. Color theory is a design principle that helps you understand how colors work and, therefore, how to apply them effectively in photos. 

The design principle of color theory has been refined over the decades by scientists, photographers, and illustrators. It’s a series of rules – as well as flexible guidelines – that regularly appears in visual art to ensure artists approach their work creatively and logically. 

When you’re well-versed in color theory, several avenues of photography automatically open up to you. The most obvious use of this principle is to accurately recreate the nuances of environments, such as recreating a sunset or capturing the subtlety of human skintones. 

Another use of color theory is to create a more harmonious composition that feels pleasing and natural to the viewer. 

What’s the Difference Between Color Theory and Color Symbolism?

Color theory and color symbolism may sound similar, but they’re quite different. 

Color theory is a design principle to understand the scientific interaction between colors. Color symbolism refers to the cultural, historical, or artistic meanings attributed to color. 

For example, color theory is when you learn about the differences between warm and cool colors. Color symbolism would be feeling like warm colors are energetic and vibrant, while cool colors feel calmer.  

What’s the Difference Between Color Theory and Color Grading?

Another common mix-up between terms is color theory and color grading, two areas that overlap yet still differ. Color theory is a design principle, while color grading is a stylistic touch that heavily depends on color theory.

Color grading is a skillset that frequently overlaps with photography and filmmaking – in fact, there are entire full-time jobs dedicated to color grading! 

a smudgey series of paint blocks in several warm and cool colors

Source Image: Pixabay

The Essentials of Color Theory

Color theory is a complex design principle, but you can get started with the three principles of hue, value, and saturation. These terms form the foundation of how the human eye receives color through rays of light.

Hue for Determining Color

Hue (also known as pure hue) refers to a set of colors divided across primary, secondary, and tertiary. If you’ve ever taken an art class, you likely already know these terms firsthand.

Primary colors refer to red, blue, and yellow. Secondary colors combine the primaries into the new combinations of orange, green, and purple. Tertiary colors add even more complexity by mixing up secondaries into subtle colors such as blue-violet or red-violet. 

Being able to accurately identify color will help you when setting up a shot. You’ll be able to give a name to specific hues that seem natural or a little off – in other words, training your photographer’s eye

Value for Determining Light to Dark

Once you learn how to define and categorize hues, it’s time to understand value. Value (also referred to as tone) refers to how light or dark something is, an essential component in creating photos with natural contrast.

Some colors have naturally higher values than others. For example, yellow is a color that leans toward the lighter end of the spectrum. To contrast (no pun intended), violet leans toward the darker end due to the absence of yellow. 

White and black are shades often used to lighten or darken colors. 

Saturation for Determining Intensity

Last but not least, the intensity of a color is another factor to determine when composing photos. Any time you look at a color that feels vivid or rich, you’re witnessing saturation in action.

To compare, a desaturated color is more washed out. Think of something that looks pastel or even a little gray. Saturated and desaturated colors work well together by providing a visual contrast, helping create points of interest in your work.

If you feel overwhelmed trying to keep track of all these terms and subtle details, there are tools to help with that. 

a color wheel resting on a table of paint samples with a paint brush

Source Image: Pixabay

What is a Color Wheel? 

Even the most experienced photographers will still pull out a few tricks to speed the photography process along. The color wheel is a vital tool for using color effectively and quickly. 

One popular method of using the color wheel effectively is the triadic method. This method involves selecting three colors that are equally spaced along the color wheel. Choosing a triadic color scheme automatically creates a stronger balance of warm and cool colors with little effort on your part. Red, yellow, and blue is one of the most obvious combinations, but I highly recommend experimenting. Red-orange, yellow-green, and blue-violet is a more subtle variation.

Photo editing programs have many ways of approaching the color wheel. You can use a color slider – the digital art program version of a color wheel – as well as color correction tools to edit as you go.

a close up shot of a colorful green, blue, and yellow parrot against a black backdrop

Source Image: Pixabay

What is Color Theory in Photography and Why Does it Matter?

Color theory is how you thoughtfully combine hue, value, and saturation in photography to create natural results. When you think critically about color theory, you have the ability to do the following.

Creating a Compelling and Readable Composition 

Have you ever looked at a photo and felt your eyes ‘snap’ directly to a particular color? Color theory allows you to create a healthy contrast so certain hues stand out while others recede.

Learning how to create a powerful composition is a skill you want to start developing early. It’s one of the most reliable ways of creating photos viewers not just understand, but remember for life.

Recreating Settings as Accurately as Possible

If you want to accurately recreate settings or subjects, color theory will guide your eye. Understanding how colors interact with each other in the natural world will help you with post production skills such as photo editing.

For example, let’s say you took a few photos of a series of clouds against the sunset. You notice after the fact the color seems a little dull and decide to do some touch ups in Photoshop. Color theory will help you understand how to tweak hue, value, and saturation to bring out the best in your photo. You’ll be able to utilize subtle touch-ups to bring out color or exaggerate contrast without going too far.

A Stepping Stone for Understanding Color Symbolism

While color theory is not color symbolism, it’s a stepping stone to your next great skill. Color theory establishes a technical foundation you can draw on while using culture and history to inform color selection. 

a colorful ferris wheel set against the sunset

Source Image: Pixabay

Conclusion: Color Theory Is a Vital Tool in Your Photographer Toolkit 

Your photographer toolkit is always expanding and color theory is one of the most reliable tools around. Every time you snap a photo or complete an editing session, you’re polishing your ability to use color theory.

Color theory is a design principle rooted in the scientific understanding of color. This principle divides color theory into hue, value, and saturation – all of these are essential to crafting engaging and high-quality photos. Not only does color theory help you craft photos that are easier for the viewer to read, it’s a stepping stone into learning color symbolism.

Experiment with color theory by using techniques such as the triadic method or getting creative in Photoshop. You’ll be stunned by how much more visually balanced your photos become.

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