How to use color theory to saturate your photographs

A few weeks ago, we gave you a basic overview of color theory. This week, we're going to go more in-depth and explore how you can use color theory to enhance your photography.

Mood lighting
The most obvious effect that color has on photography is creating and enhancing mood. In the pair of photos below, the image on the left is the original photo, taken on a bright, overcast day; the image on the right has been altered in Photoshop to more of a warm sepia tone. The coloring of the photo on the right evokes feelings of nostalgia, and one might even think the scene took place many years ago.

kmg 630 color theory yellow mood

Similarly, in the pair of photos below, the image on the right has been altered to bring out more of the blue tones in the scene. This gives it a somber, cool, somewhat sad feeling. These responses are purely psychological, of course, and everyone reacts to color in slightly different ways. But generally speaking, warm colors such as yellow, gold, and greens that fall toward the yellow end of the spectrum make photos seem inviting, friendly, and happy. Cooler colors like blue and purple tend to give a more aloof, chilly feel.

kmg 630 color theory blue mood

Create colorful movement
kmg 300 color theory red flowerYou've probably heard it said that some colors "pop." This effect is referred to as advancing and receding, and it's most easily seen in bright blues and reds. Cool colors like blue tend to be seen as receding, whereas warm colors like red look like they're advancing toward the viewer. You can use this theory to your advantage by putting elements with advancing colors like red in the foreground of your photos. This will add to the feeling of depth in your image.

Some colors are also associated very strongly with certain concepts. Red, for example, is frequently used as a warning, telling us to stop or be careful. Our eyes are naturally drawn to red in photographs, and we pay more attention to red objects than those of other colors.

kmg 300 color theory complementary egg flickr jarBe complementary
Complementary colors are those located on opposite sides of the color wheel. These colors work well together in images meant to feel lively and energetic, because the two colors compete with one another. The photo of a yellow egg yolk on a purple plate is a great example of complementary colors.

Work together in harmony 
Harmonious colors are those that are adjacent on the color wheel, such as red, orange, and yellow, or green, blue, and violet. Harmonious colors, as the name implies, work very well together and bring a peaceful feeling to an image. In the photo of the belly dancer, the turquoise, blue, green, and lavender tie the image into a harmonious whole.

kmg 630 color theory harmonious dancer

Keep it simple

Monochrome commonly refers to what we also call black-and-white images, though technically the correct term is grayscale. However, monochrome can also be used to refer to images that use mainly either a single color or a small range of colors on the color wheel. The most obvious situation where this occurs naturally is in a summertime forest, where the leaves, moss, and warm summer light make a world of almost entirely shades of green.

kmg 300 color theory monochrome stoneAnother example is a photo such as the one at right, where various levels of stonework and a warm incandescent light keep the image to a limited color range. To keep a monochrome photograph from looking dull or flat, try to find different saturations and shades of your chosen color, to add a sense of depth and movement.

Spot colors keep it interesting
One of the fun things that's pretty easy to do with image editing programs like Photoshop orGimp is to create an image that uses spot color. Usually this is done by cloning a part of your image and keeping it the original color while desaturating the rest of the image until it's grayscale. You can use this technique to draw the viewer's attention to a bright yellow flower, a model's ruby-red lips, or a colorful balloon.

kmg 630 color theory spot colorThe inverse of this technique is also possible, where all but one part of a photograph is in color. When the grayscale part of the image is a person, this can lend a ghostly, surreal quality to the scene. 

Whether you're a fan of serene black-and-white photography or deeply saturated hues, a basic understanding of color theory will help you visualize color combinations that work and compose even more striking photographs.

Writing Credit: Katherine GrayImage credits: K. GrayJar (off for a while)]

Thanks to our friends over at Tecca for submitting this post.  Find more How-to tech articles & Gadget news at  And, as always, if you have an amazing, colorful photo, post it up on Steve's Facebook Wall, or hit up the Steve's Forums to talk about this article, ask questions, or anything photography related.