Color theory is complicated. People spend hours in accredited institutions learning about it. There’s a science to picking out colors and putting them together to achieve a desired effect. Once you know how to do it, these concepts can help you in every aspect of your life: from your wardrobe to interior design, right down to choosing your blog’s theme colors.
Contrast is a huge element in photography and it just so happens color plays an important role. It takes some consideration and vision to compose a shot artistically. Never fear, though, there’s a formula for creating photographs using color and contrast to evoke emotion and interest.
Color is actually a combination of three terms I bet you know: hue, saturation and brightness.
When you think of a color, you’re probably thinking of a hue-with-a-specific-saturation-and-brightness.
All of it works because of how the light waves interact with one another. The hues in a color wheel appear in the same order they do in a rainbow. Hues opposite one another on the wheel are called complimentary or contrasting colors.
The hues in this wheel are fully saturated. Most things we come across in nature will be much more dull. Variations of saturation are called tint (white added), shade (black added) and tone (grey added).
This is something we may think of more in terms of lighting and exposure, which are both big components, however brightness strongly effects color as well. It is the range between light and dark. Some colors only have a short range: for example yellow can be tinted until it reaches white, however if it is shaded too much it becomes another color entirely. Other colors like blue can extend the full range between tint and shade.
Once you know how hue, saturation and brightness combine to form color, you can use that knowledge to think about contrast when creating photographs. Contrast, by definition, is a difference. You have the artistic choice of composing your photograph to showcase or minimize differences in lighting and color in your scene. These choices will help set the mood for your shot.
This term is usually used in association with black and white photography, though color photos do have tonal contrast. Think of this in terms of highlights and shadows or blacks and whites. Our ability to perceive these differences in tone is why we can recognize shapes and lines.
High tonal contrast photos are primarily light and dark or white and black elements with a sharp difference between them. They are dramatic and strong.
Photo Credit: Caram’s France
Low tonal contrast photos do not have a wide range of brightness or color. They have no or less distinct shadows and highlights. They are relaxing and soothing to the eye.
Photo Credit: Kelly Pugliano at Mom Got Blog
This is the difference in the colors as seen through the color wheel. High color contrast includes colors opposite or near opposite one another on the wheel. Low color contrast would include colors next to or a hop away from each other on the color wheel.
These photos all have high color contrast as they’re primarily made up of complimentary colors. They are bold and dramatic.
These photos all have low color contrast as they’re made up of similar colors. They are peaceful and calm.
High and Low Key Compositions
High key compositions are lighter in color, very bright and lack shadows. The mood is cheery and uplifting.
Photo Credit: Ben Alford
Photo Credit: Raphael Goetter
Low key compositions are the exact opposite. They are mostly dark and lack highlights. When looking at these, you’re more likely to feel down and tense.
Photo Credit: Sean McGrath
Photo Credit: Will Montague
More Photo Tutorials
This is really just the tip of the iceberg, but hopefully it will get you started recognizing how color can be a character in your photos. If you want to learn more, I highly recommend these articles:
- Using Color to Create Strong Photo Compisitions
- Color in Photography – Color Theory
- Key Photography Effects: High Key and Low Key Photography
- Tricky Contrast Concepts
- Using Color in Photography
- Create Striking Photos with Good Color Contrast
Over the next couple of days, try to organize a photo walk. If you can bring along a photographer buddy, that’s even better! You don’t have to go anywhere special, a walk around your neighborhood would be fine.
While on your walk, look very carefully at the colors around you and take care when composing your photographs to try to utilize the information in this article. If you have a color printer, you may find it helpful to print out the color wheel.
Try to take at least 30 photos on your walk. Good luck!