Just like a painter, a photographer has to be aware of the colours in a composition. Unlike a painter, a photographer doesn’t have complete control over the colour in photography.

The colour wheel can help us understand the colours in image. The colour wheel can be very basic or can have very complex differences and can be consisted of millions of colours. It shows the relations of each colour to other colours.
Three primary colours are yellow, blue and red. They form the basic colour wheel. Three derived colours are green, purple and orange, and they are secondary. They are obtained by mixing the three primary colours. According to the traditional colour theory, the colours across from each other are complementary.

This means that they go well together. For example, red and purple are next to each other on the colour wheel, and traditionally seen as opposed to each other. This is because purple contains red.
When a mixed color (or secondary) is placed next to one of its component colors traditionally, they are incompatible.

However, in photography, colours can act very differently. In photography, the colours placed in colour wheel next to each other are often compatible colours while facing each other are perceived as opposite colours. The stronger the colour, the stronger the effect of conflict arises.

For example, a deep purple come into conflict with a deep green more strongly than a pale purple and pale green will clash. The negative effects of clash of colours in the photograph are most often seen with artificial colours. When opposite colours occur in nature, they behave more like traditional theory of the colour wheel.

Opposite colours
  • Can overwhelm an image or object
  • Can be used to draw attention to one part of an image
  • Can be used to create a sense of discord in the image.
Neighbouring colours
  • Tend to merge and not overwhelm an image or object
  • Can be used to connect two parts of an image
  • Can be used to create harmony within the image

Choosing a colour is hard enough, adding one or more colours to the mix can be intimidating.
Neighbouring colours / harmonising appear next to each other on the colour wheel. Harmonising colours often work well together but if too close in value, they can appear washed out or not having enough contrast. A harmonising trio might be something like blue, light blue and cyan or maybe red, orange and yellow. 

This image below is an example of similar tones, because there isn’t a particularly strong colour that highlights an object, so practically, we do not know what exactly is the focus on the image. This of course, does not mean the poor quality of photo.

The complementary colour of a primary colour (red, blue or yellow) is the colour you get by mixing the other two primary colours. So, complementary colour of red is green, blue is orange and yellow is purple. Why are complementary colours important in the theory of colours? When placed next to each other, complementary colours make each other appear brighter, more intense. Photo below shows the relationship of two complementary colours – blue door and orange wall. Both colours are intense, so it is confusing to determine the focus of the photo. Complementary colours appear on opposite sides of the colour wheel. While the contrast is often necessary to provide optimal readability (such as a high contrast between background and text) complementary colours when printed side by side may appear to vibrate and be very tiring for the eyes. The neutral grey soothes the composition and acts as a break between two intensive hues.

There are different influences of different kinds of colors
  1. Cool colours (calming): blue, green, turquoise, silver
  2. Warm colours (exciting): red, pink, yellow, gold, orange
  3. Mixed colour hot/cold: purple, lavender, green, turquoise
  4. Neutral colours (unification): brown, beige, ivory, gray, black, white

Cool colours tend to have a calming effect. At one end of the spectrum, they are cold, impersonal, antiseptic colours. But on the other hand, cool colours are comforting and rewarding. Blue, green and white neutral gray, and silver are examples of cool colours. In nature blue is water and green is plant life – a natural, life-sustaining duo. Cool colours are smaller than warm colours and they visually recede on the page, so red can visually overpower and stand out over blue even if used in equal amounts.

Warm colours wake us up. The warmth of red, yellow, or orange can create excitement or even anger. Warm colours convey emotions from simple optimism to strong violence. The neutral black and brown also carry warm attributes. In nature, warm colours represent change as the seasons change, or the eruption of a volcano.

Colours with attributes of warm and cool colours can calm and excite. These are colours derived from a mixture of cold and warm colour. Shades of purple and shades of green and beige colours are mixed bearing the colour symbolism of both hot and cold sides of the colour wheel.

Neutral colours, black, white, silver, gray and brown make good background, they serve to unify diverse colour palettes, but also, they are often independent as primary object or design. Neutral colours can be cool or warm, but are more subtle than the blue and red. Neutral colours help to focus on other colours or serve to calm colours that might otherwise be overwhelming. 

For one person at a time, red may appear light and cheerful, or warlike and aggressive. Perception of colour also changes to your object/subject as compared to other surrounding colours. A green object can pass more yellow or blue depending on the colour of the object next to it, or the colour of the foreground and / or background.

I modified this photo in Photoshop to show the relationship of colours in the image. Here we have three dominant colours – two complementary – red and green and a neutral colour. Neutral colours support the object, they give it boundaries and shape, moreover, they provide new quality to colours with giving it roundness and directions.

The colour temperature

The colour is produced by the rays of light reflected or transmitted through an object.

A beam of light is an electromagnetic wave, a part of the series of electromagnetic waves that travel in space, and is described by its wavelength and frequency. The wavelength is the distance between two corresponding points on the wave train, while the frequency is the number of waves passing a given point over 1 sec. Wavelength and frequency give the speed of the wave. The electromagnetic spectrum ranges of wavelengths 0.0000001 nm to 1000 km. What we call light is the visible part of the spectrum from about 400 nm to about 700 nm. It is a very small part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation band is below 390 nm and infrared (IR) band above 760 nm.

However the photographic film is sensitive to a range of wavelength between 350 nm and 700 nm and therefore it is sensitive to UV radiation. For this reason, a UV filter is placed in front of the lens, to stop the UV radiation reaching the film. In digital cameras, CCD and CMOS electronic sensors are sensitive to infrared radiation. To eliminate the effect of infrared rays, a special filter is placed in front of the image sensor.

Tonality is the overall appearance of an image regarding to the range and distribution of tones and the smoothness of gradation between them. Tonality plays an important role in photography.

The colour is produced by rays of light reflected or transmitted through an object. The lowest frequency (number of oscillation in a given point in time) creates a red light, and the highest creates purple. White light is an equal distribution of all visible frequencies. Rainbows and prisms split white light into the colours of the spectrum. What we call the black is simply the absence of light. The tonality can be understood with this three-dimensional example. It is the simplest representation, and most easy way to understand charts of colours. In fact, the colour wheel is just a horizontal cut of this representation at the same intensity.

The Munsell system is a three-dimensional space, whose vertical axis carries:

  • hue measured by degrees around horizontal circles (0 to 360 °)
  • chroma (color purity, intensity), measured radially outward from the neutral (gray) vertical axis
  • value (lightness) measured vertically from 0 (black) to 10 (white)

Tone is probably the most intangible element of the composition. Tone may consist shades of white, gray to black, or it may be contrasted – darkness against the light with little or no light gray areas – it is a common way to add a third dimension to a two-dimensional b&w image. The interaction of light against dark shades in various ways helps to create the atmosphere of a composition. An image composed of dark colours expresses mystery, intrigue, or sadness. When tones are mostly light and airy, the image represents brightness, joy and thoughtlessness.


Hue is the actual colour. It is measured in angular degrees counterclockwise around the cone starting and ending at red=0 or 360 (ie yellow=60, green=120, etc..) Each horizontal circle Munsell divided into five main colours: Red, Yellow, Green, Blue and Violet, with five intermediate hues halfway between adjacent principal hues. Each of these 10 steps is then divided into 10 stages, so that 100 hues are given integer values. Two colours of equal lightness and saturation on opposite sides of a circle of hue are complementary colours.


Lightness, or value, varies vertically along the axis, from black (value 0) at the bottom, to white (value 10) at the top. At 0% brightness, both hue and saturation are meaningless. Neutral grays lie along the vertical axis between black and white.Value (sometimes called lightness/tone) is a property of a colour or size of a colour space, which is defined to reflect the subjective perception of brightness of a colour for humans along the lightness-darkness axis. The lightness of a colour also represents its amplitude. Value is defined as the relative lightness or darkness of a colour. This is an important tool for photographers by the way it defines the shape. Contrast of values separates objects in space, while the gradation of the value suggests a mass and contour of an adjacent surface. When the tones in the image have similar brightness, space loses its depth because the contrast is weak.

Chroma / Purity / Saturation

Chroma, measured radially from the center of each slice, represents the “purity” of a color (related to saturation), with lower chroma being less pure (more washed out, as in pastels). At 0% saturation, hue is meaningless. Saturation, measured radially from the center of each slice represents the “purity” of a color with less saturation being less pure (more washed out, as in pastels). Intensity is a property a color or size of a color space, which is defined so as to reflect the subjective perception to humans. 

Here is an example of complementary colours, contrasting hues. They are on opposite sides of a colour wheel – two colours of equal value and saturation. Here, brightness and saturation/ purity are the same. This means, the green has the same level of purity as red and they both are of the same intensity.

On the image below, picture on the left is a b&w version of the picture next to it, with a model in a red dress. On the first picture the focus is on the model’s face because its brightness separates it from contrasting dark background. Hands and face of model are also in contrast to the background being is equally sharp, but the dress is almost visually blending with the background. The following image shows a different situation even though it’s the same photo with the same tonal values, but with added saturation and hue. In this photo red dress dominates, the face is similar in tone to background, a green colour (complementary to red) is almost rivaling the intensity of the red dress.

On the last picture, however, face and body of the model are almost merged with the dress, which is similar to shades of the background and, what comes into the foreground is creeper. To summarize: knowing these three color dimensions – Tone, Hue & Lightness is very useful in photography, especially when putting an accent to the detail and and improper handling them can be confusing for the viewer and can lead to completely wrong point of the image.

In addition, there is yet another feature of the colors in photography that I’ve noticed, which is different from, say, the colors painted on canvas. When tones are dark on canvas, colors are more intense, more saturated, and when the image is generally light, when lots of white pigment is used, colors look washed out, less intense. It is quite the opposite in photography. Specifically in the photos for commercial use, such as, for example, photos of food, colours should be more intense, saturated, or to look tasty and delicious. To achieve this intensity, slightly overexposing photo is good way of letting the light to “pass” through food. The light in photography works in favour of the colours, unlike painting, because with inserting more brightness than the light meter shows, colours gains transparency, intensity and  seductiveness.

In black and white photography shadows and light can also play a huge role in creating a mood. A photograph with dark tones creates a somber brooding scene, while a photo with light tones seems to be more delicate and upbeat. In practice, dark photographs with lots of shadows, need lots of light, therefore long exposing time, although short exposing is good for obtaining contrasts. For instance, landscape photography in the morning or late afternoon, under a sunny sky will create dramatic shadows, and brighter images require clouds that soften and diffuse light which reduces shadows. Fog, mist and rain are all good candidates for light toned images because of the lack of shadows. As for contrast in the image, it directs the eye of the observer and it is located where there is no gradual transition of gray shades into brightness. Characteristic of backgrounds is that they are not contrasted, either due to the atmospheric perspective, either because of the lower sharpness or simply it has low contrast quality. Therefore, portraits, eyes, or wrinkles on the face, have the largest mutual contrast and draw our attention. Contrasts should be used carefully and only when they point to the center of interest. Otherwise, when there is plenty of contrast, we cannot focus on one or several objects and to determine the center of interest and, our interpretation can be very confusing.

Low value of photography brings contemplative or sad and depressing feeling, so it might be a means of using darker values to transmit these types of scenes or concepts. Photography with high value could convey more carefree or gay and happy feeling. Photography is not just a simple transfer of reality. Photo can transfer invisible elements such as emotions. Colors and tones help us a lot. Dark colors, dark tones reflect a feeling of pessimism, sadness, loneliness. Bright tones contribute to the emotion of optimism, happiness, satisfaction. It is not surprising that many ads use very bright colors. It is a subconscious tricks to force the viewer to want the product.