Color Theory for Photographers: An Introduction

Color Theory for Photographers: An Introduction
Photography’s answer to life.
Feb 6 2018 - Chelsea London - medium.com

Chelsea London is a travel photographer from New York, currently living a nomadic lifestyle — and capturing it all along the way. 
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"As photographers, we have a lot of tools available to us: compositional rules, lighting knowledge, the exposure triangle, and so on. Color is just another one of those tools. While it can be an intimidating element to a photographer, color can help solidify a voice. Knowing and understanding color theory — the way painters, designers, and artists of all trades do — a photographer can utilize color to their benefit.
- You may already be aware of the concept of additive and subtractive color (RGB vs. RYB), which is something we will touch upon in the next post in this series. For the sake of this article, we will be talking in generics about color theory and are focusing on Red Yellow Blue (RYB).
- Order of colors. This may cause some flashbacks to elementary school art class, but let’s start at the beginning: The orders of colors. There are three orders: Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary colors. When working in RYB color, the primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. That is to say, they are the three pure colors from which all other colors are derived. If we take two primary colors and add combine them equally, we get a secondary color. Finally, a tertiary color is one which is a combination of a primary and secondary color. Below you will see a graphic which depicts these three orders using an RYB color wheel.
- The Three Variables of Color
Now that we’ve been introduced to the orders of the colors, let’s look at their variables. Those who have post-processed images in Polarr, Adobe Lightroom, Apple Photos, Capture One, or any other RAW editor may be familiar with what is commonly known as the ‘HSL sliders.’ HSL meaning: Hue, Saturation, and Luminosity. Let’s start with hue.
- Color Schemes
When you decorate a house, you choose the color of the walls to go with the furniture, wall hangings, curtains, and so on. You’re essentially creating a color scheme. We do the same thing when we set up a shot. When being intentional with the color in your images, scheme absolutely comes into play. Three of the most popular color schemes are complimentary, analogous, and monochrome. To look at each individually, it will help to revisit our RYB color wheel.
- Complementary colors
- Analogous colors
- Monochrome colors
Let’s See This in Practice
So now we know the orders and variables, as well as three popular schemes of color, but how do those tools aide us in our photography? When we combine the three aspects we discussed above, we can deliberately look for or create scenes that further our intended story.
- With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility. Or Something.
To recap, we went over are three orders of colors (primary, secondary, and tertiary), three variables of color (hue, saturation, and luminance), and three popular color schemes (complementary, analogous, and monochrome). When you have a good grasp of these basic aspects of color theory, you’re off to a good start and can work to manipulate a scene to create the desired ambiance or ~vibe~ in your shots.