Color and Contrast Photo Tips

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.

This guide to color and contrast is a beginning photographer's best friend. photography tips

Color And Contrast In Photography

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.

There are primary hues, which when mixed, produce secondary hues. Then, if a primary and secondary hue are mixed, you get a tertiary hue.

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.

Contrast Photos

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.

Tonal Contrast

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.

Cobble Walk SITS
Photo Credit: Kelly Pugliano at Mom Got Blog

Color Contrast

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.

High Contrast: These photos all have high color contrast as they’re primarily made up of complimentary colors. They are bold and dramatic.

Beloved Summer

Photo Credit: Beloved Summer by Alex Bainton

Birthday chair

Photo Credit: Birthday Chair by Manuel Campagnoli

industrial red vs nature green

Photo Credit: Industrial Red Vs Nature Green by Darwin Bell

Sea Nettle

Photo Credit: Sea Nettle by Lynda Giddens at Daily Window


Low Contrast: These photos all have low color contrast as they’re made up of similar colors. They are peaceful and calm.

Todd and the great caterpillar topiary

Photo Credit: Todd And The Great Caterpillar Topiary by Todd Stadler

Drapery of orange

Photo Credit: Drapery Of Orange by Amy Miller

Autumn in New York - 13

Photo Credit: Autumn in New York by The Snapping Turtle (a #SITSpics participant)

High and Low Key Compositions

High key compositions are lighter in color, very bright and lack shadows. The mood is cheery and uplifting.

High Key
Photo Credit: Ben Alford

visage d'ange
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.

A Portrait in Darkness
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:

Photo Challenge!

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!

About Lynda Giddens

Lynda is a blogger of 12 years and a self-taught amateur photographer living in Fort Worth, Texas with her husband and two young sons. Be inspired to learn more about photography on her blog, Daily Window. Follow her on Twitter, Flickr or Facebook!
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  1. I get pleasure from, lead to I discovered exactly what I used to be taking a
    look for. You have ended my four day long hunt!
    God Bless you man. Have a great day. Bye

  2. Brooke Skye

  3. It seems so easy when special names are given to emotional stuffs)
    Thank you!

  4. Beautiful! I want to learn how to do the contrast pictures.

  5. I love color! So much information to learn – thanks. ;)

    Peace. ;)

  6. Sounds fabulous! I could do with a walk. I’m thinking I’ll head over to the park tomorrow. That jellyfish is wonderful and so is Autumn in New York. Way to go ladies!

  7. oh I’d love to do a photo walk…esp with the spring on the way and colors starting to pop around here! We finally see green grass again! Crocuses, daffodils, etc! Maybe this weekend will be nice and I’ll take my kids for a walk.

    April is Autism Awareness Month. I’m dedicating my blog all month long to Autism.

  8. Great information here…and all those stunning photos are so inspiring!

  9. I FINALLY finished a Challenge!!! YAY!

    SO impressed with the talent out here. Wow!

    • yay Kelly!

      Talent runs rampant. I think most people seriously underestimate how much creativity they hold!

  10. I’m gonna try and remember these! TFS

  11. that’s the first time “high key” has made sense to me, thanks!

    • Thanks! I only learned about “high key” and “low key” a few weeks ago actually! :) I haven’t tried to shoot either type yet, but it’s definitely good to be aware of it and the mood it evokes!

  12. Wow – that jellyfish picture is amazing!

  13. I really love the information we are getting with these kinds of posts!! Keep it comin’! :-)

  14. Thanks for this. I had no idea until this post that contrast plays such a huge role in the way photos look. I’m going to start playing with my contrast settings in my Project 365 photo a day on my blog.

  15. Another awesome tutorial – so much information I need to process.

  16. very infomative.. I will have to bookmark and read again…

  17. There is so much great information here, and I LOVE the photos you’re using! So pretty…I’m definitely feeling inspired to go on my walk now!

  18. this is a great post and it has given me a reason to go out tomorrow camera at hand. I need to get more aquiated with my canon which I love! Hope my sore throat feels better!

  19. Love, love, love these tips! I used to shoot high- key professionally and had never even heard of low-key!

  20. Really beautiful photos!
    I love photoblogs, great tips,thanks for sharing.

    Have a great day!
    Betty xx

  21. I never thought about color that way…gonna try some of those high contrast/low contrast shots. Great photography post – again!!!

  22. Great post, I’m looking forward to a photowalk, although I could do with finding some photo friends to go with. I think there is a group of photographers in the city that go on photo walks regularly, which I’ve been meaning to find out about.

    Have a colourful day all!

    • I’ve never gone on a photowalk with another photographer and have also been thinking about joining a local group of photographers to meet up in the city!

      Scott Kelby organizes a worldwide photo walk every year, though the next one is going to be in October. I definitely want to participate. I chickened out last time!

      I’m extremely introverted, so social settings like that are hard for me to enter. :)

  23. I am not serious about photography at all, mostly because the subject is so overwhelming. This is another great post that really makes the novice in me feel a bit more comfortable. Thanks!

  24. Lynda, these posts have been great. Really good information, and presented in a way that is easy to understand and to the point! I took up photography “seriously” about 2 years ago, have taken classes, read books – and still haven’t run into anything quite so easy to absorb than your posts. Nice work!

    Thanks for including one of my photos; I’m trying to keep up but am a few days behind. Just posted about Lines and Repetition (link below).



  1. […] Color and Contrast Photo Tips: This is an example of a photo that has high color contrast because it is primarily made up of complimentary colors. The end result? A picture that is bold and dramatic. […]

  2. […] took it for the low color contrast. Though still, it isn’t really “On the Floor”. Oh […]

  3. […] other ways to showcase contrast (or the lack of it) in your photographs. I wrote a bunch about color and contrast photography tips over at The Sits Girls last […]

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