Color and Contrast Photo Tips

By Aug 19, 2015February 16th, 201824 Comments

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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 that color plays an important role. It takes some consideration and vision to compose a shot artistically. Never fear, though, because there’s a formula for creating photographs using color and contrast to evoke emotion and interest.

Photography Tips | Everything you need to know about color and contrast in photography.

Color And Contrast In Photography

Color is actually a combination of three terms I bet you know: hue, saturation and brightness.

Hot air balloon against a dark sky | Learning about hue and color will help you to capture better photographs | Photography Tip


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 the color wheel above 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).

Understand how color saturation can help or hurt your photographs. Sometimes a dark saturation can help to draw your eyes to the important, lighter portion of the photo.


This is something we may think of more in terms of lighting and exposure, which are both big components, however brightness strongly affects 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.

Learn which colors can extend the full range between tint and shade, and use that when you are taking photographs.


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, although 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.

High tonal contrast photos are primarily light and dark or white and black elements with a sharp difference between them like this dramatic image | Photography Tips | Father and baby in black and white.

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.

Photos with low tonal contrast are comforting to the eye | Photography Tips


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.

Hot air balloon in the sky | High Contrast Photography TIps

Red Shoes | High contrast photography tips.

High contrast photos draw the eyes in | Photography Tips

A fun photo shoot is made even more brilliant with high contrast colors | Photography tips | Dr Who and Snow White with The Tardis

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

Low contrast colors in your photographs are peaceful and calm | Photography Tips

Lighthouse in the mist | Low Contrast Photography Tips

Girl at the beach | The low contrast colors make this photograph very peaceful


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

High key compositions make bright and cheery photographs | Photography Tips

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.

Low key tonal composition adds the feeling of moodiness or darkness | Photography Tips


This is really just the tip of the iceberg, but hopefully it will get you started in recognizing how color can be a character in your photos. If you want to learn more, I highly recommend these posts:

About Tamara Bowman

Tamara is a professional photographer, a mama of two, a writer/blogger and a nearly professional cookie taster. She has been known to be all four of those things at all hours of the day and night. She is a very proud contributor to the book, The Mother Of All Meltdowns. After two cross country moves, due to her intense Bi-Coastal Disorder, she lives with her husband, daughter and son in glorious western Massachusetts. She spends her spare time looking for moose, taking pictures of her kids, and maybe – just maybe – teaching them about photography. She can be found on Facebook @Tamara Camera Photography, Twitter @TamaraCamPhoto , Instagram @TamaraCameraPhoto , and Pinterest @Tamara Camera Photography & Blog and on her blog @Tamara Camera Blog.