Color Theory Basics for Photographers

One aspect of photographic composition that’s often overlooked is color. We spend plenty of time and energy thinking about the rule of thirds, framing, choosing between horizontal and vertical compositions, and depth of field. But the combinations of colors used in an image are just as important in drawing in the viewer. Familiarize yourself with these color theory basics for photographers to take your images to the next level.


Color theory by Christopher Adams

For centuries, it’s been clear that color has emotional and physiological effects. For example, red has been shown to increase heart rate, and blue is associated with a calming effect. Color can be used to create harmony, make a subject stick out from a background, or suggest conflict or chaos. Understanding how our brains perceive color and the basics of a color wheel are helpful in composing images with deliberate color choices.


primary colors by Nicoal Price

Primary Colors

Most of us learn about primary colors in elementary school. They’re the colors that cannot be made by mixing two other hues together, and they form the base of a color wheel. While a standard artist’s color wheel uses red, blue, and yellow as primary colors, many photographers, since their medium is light, prefer to think in terms of the RGB color spectrum. Red, green, and blue are known as additive primaries, because they can be added together to create white light.

Secondary Colors

Secondary colors are the result of mixing two primary colors. On a basic artist’s color wheel, these colors are green, orange, and purple.

Tertiary Colors

Tertiary colors are made by combining primary and secondary colors. For example, when using a traditional blue, yellow, red color wheel, mixing red and orange or mixing blue and green would result in tertiary colors. No matter which color wheel you choose to use, the important part of color theory lies in the various relationships between colors.

Complementary Colors

One of the most well-known relationships is between complementary colors. Complementary colors lie opposite from one another on the color wheel. These colors create high contrast and draw in the viewer.


Complementary colors by Umberto Nicoletti


Red pepper macro image by James Blunt

Analogous Colors

Analogous colors are adjacent to one another on the color wheel. Using analogous colors creates a more low contrast, harmonious color scheme.

Monochromatic Colors

Though we usually refer to monochromes as black and white, monochromatic colors are made up of shades from just one color, for instance, several different shades of blue. Monochromatic colors are low in contrast and often create a soothing mood. Monochrome is useful for images in which you do not want a single element to stick out.


Pink Rose Macro – HDR by Nicolas Raymond

Triadic Colors

Triadic colors are colors that sit evenly around the color when when you divide the wheel into thirds. Orange, green, and purple are triadic colors.

Hue, Saturation, and Luminosity

Color can be manipulated using photo editing software like Photoshop or Lightroom. These programs use menus and sliders to control tones, and sometimes the difference between the sliders is unclear. In basic terms, hue is synonymous with the name we give a color, i.e. orange, green, purple, etc. Saturation refers to the color’s intensity. And luminosity controls the color’s brightness or darkness.

This article only scratches the surface of color theory. The more you understand how color impacts your images, the more you can take control of your compositions and become a more masterful photographer.

Color Theory Resources

Looking for more information on color theory? Check out these articles and tutorials to boost your understanding of color.

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Profile photo of Nicoal Price About Nicoal Price

​Nicoal is a New England photographer with a penchant for learning. Her work ranges from nature-inspired portraiture to outdoor product photography. Visit for more info.

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