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color theory and colour harmonies


  • perceived color is conditioned by:
    • the actual colour of the object
    • the nature of the ambient illumination
    • the color properties of other objects nearby
    • other characteristics of the perceiving eye and brain including color blindness / color vision deficiency
  • how we perceive colors affects our emotive response to an image as well as perception of depth and also can be used to provoke other thoughts and memories through symbolism
  • there are various aspects to our use of color (see below):
    • color gamut
    • color weight
    • color harmony
    • color relativity
  • but how do you achieve this in photography?
    • subject styling
      • if you are fortunate enough to have a stylist or if you must take this role on yourself, considerations need to be given to colors chosen for clothing, props, makeup and the background and how they interact with the subject's skin and eye color
      • planning is critical, preferably with a color wheel on hand
        • choice of location to compliment clothing
        • choice of props or clothing to compliment a location
        • in close portraits, emphasize iris color (esp. if brighter colored irises) by using a similar color or a complimentary contrasting color as the background
    • subject lighting
      • use of different colored light sources can create your color scheme
      • using a warm light source as a neutral key with daylight ambience background creates the teal-orange scheme easily
      • consider harmonised color gels to fill lighting to provide interesting shadow colors
      • if outdoors, consider time of day
        • midday sun will give contrasty, highly saturated colours
        • low sun will give less contrast, less saturated colours but with warmer colors
    • post-processing color grading and toning
      • consider the use of LUTs
      • consider adding in split toning to color the highlights differently to the shadows
      • consider altering the color of the backdrop eg. shoot neutral backgrounds, add slight cyan tint if shooting a redhead
      • if subject has minimal color, consider adding foreground texture / bokeh elements

The color wheel



  • an important concept is the weight of the color which is controlled by proportion of that color in an image, its saturation and its brightness
    • having more than one color with similar color weight to the dominant color can create distraction for the viewer and the colors can thus clash even though they are part of the same harmony.
    • for dual harmony schemes such as dyad or complimentary schemes, in general, aim for the dominant color to have 75% of the weight and the other color to have 25% of the weight
    • for triple harmony schemes including analogous, in general, aim for the dominant color to have 50% of the weight and the other two colors to each have 25% of the weight
    • for quadratic harmony schemes including analogous complimentary, in general, aim for the dominant color to have 40% of the weight and the other three colors to each have 20% of the weight
    • of course, these base “rules” can be broken to have greater impact upon the viewer


  • creating a colour harmony:
    • choose a key color with the right degree of saturation and lightness to set the emotive feel
    • distribute secondary and accent colors
      • create tension or harmony by controlling the proportion, saturation and brightness
      • color contrast or muted tonalities


  • this refers to how we perceive colors when they are adjacent to other colors
  • skin tones on an image which may look nicely saturated when surrounded by oranges and yellows will be perceived as over-saturated if surrounded by blues instead
  • this is why there cannot be an exact colour grading for skin - it depends upon what colours it is placed against!
    • this is further compounded as skin colour itself forms part of the color palette and how it fits into the color harmony scheme will determine how the viewer perceives it - even green skin tones can work nicely if it fits the color harmony.

Color perceived DEPTH

  • the eye perceives certain colors as different distances from the viewer
  • warm colors are dominant and come forwards
  • cool colors recede
  • we tend to perceive an orange circle in a blue square as a orange ball in front of a blue background
  • we tend to perceive a blue circle in an orange square as a hole in an orange object showing a blue background
  • thus having a warm colored subject against a cool background emphasizes depth in the image and make the subject pop out more and also enhances warm skin tones hence the popularity of the teal-orange color scheme in cinema


  • colors with different hues but the same luminence (ie same saturation and brightness)
  • often used in pastel paintings
  • apparently our brain processes luminosity first via a separate, faster neural pathway to hue information
  • this can force a reluctant viewer to take more time to assess the image and wander around the image if they cannot assess it on luminosity alone and this then can give more time for the viewer to better appreciate the image


  • ensuring the colors in your image are as accurate as possible to reality


  • a post-production creative technique to improve color harmony and mood
  • one can view hues in an image within Photoshop by:
    • create a 50% gray layer:
      • create a Solid Color layer and set to 50% gray by setting each of RGB values to 125
      • change layer mode to Luminosity
    • sample colors from the gray layer
      • use the color picker to sample colors
      • can copy the color value and paste into a color wheel tool
  • assess the color wheel to ascertain how to adjust each hue to fit a harmony scheme
  • adjust the image hues using RAW development for best results
    • depending on your camera, you may need to adjust camera calibration color settings
    • then use the color mixer controls to adjust each hue as needed
    • consider adding Split Toning - especially for the shadows
  • consider using an adjustment layer to further change each hue using Selective Color
  • create two curve layers - one for shadows and one for highlights, adjust as needed

Color schemes within an image

monochromatic color schemes

  • uses only one hue with variations derived from:
    • tinting - adding white to a hue reduces saturation without reducing brightness
    • shading - adding black to a hue reduces brightness without reducing saturation
    • toning - adding gray to a hue reduces saturation and brightness

complementary color schemes

  • uses two hues which are opposite each other on the color wheel and produce the greatest color contrast

analogous color schemes

  • uses adjacent hues on the color wheel and produce the lowest color contrast and a calming perception

triadic color schemes

  • uses three hues which make a symmetric triangle on the color wheel

tetradic color schemes

  • uses two complimentary pairs forming a rectangle on the color wheel

square color schemes

  • uses four hues which form a square on the color wheel

split complementary color scheme

  • uses 3 hues with two of them being the adjacent hues to the complimentary hue of the first hue

The color wheel and the emotive response

Robert Plutchik's wheel of emotions courtesy of Wikipedia



More color wheels of emotions

photo/color_theory.txt · Last modified: 2020/08/30 13:40 by gary1

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