The word photography derives from the Greek words photos (light) and graphien (to draw), literally translating to mean “drawing with light.” When you take a photograph, your film or digital image sensor captures light rays comprised of photons. In layman’s terms, photons are responsible for which colours we see with our eyes.
A photographer who intentionally utilizes colours is more likely to produce content that catches attention and evokes emotion. Psychologists have studied the effects of colours on the human mind, providing us with an understanding of how a colour can persuade behaviour, mood, and perception. If you’re new to photography and looking to step up your game, focus on the colours you’re capturing, not what is in front of you. In this article, we will cover how to use a colour wheel and different types of colour schemes.
The colour wheel
As a child, most of us learned in school that the primary colours are red, yellow, and blue, which is referred to as the RYB system that was applicable because you were probably learning by mixing paints on a piece of paper. Today, the majority of the population is spending more time looking at devices to see images. Televisions, computer screens, and cell phones all display colour by using red, green, and blue as primary colours because of the relationship between light and how our eyes perceive colour. We will focus on the RGB system as our base primaries for the sake of adapting and improving. The RGB colour wheel is versatile with a more extensive range of colours, making it the perfect tool.
A colour wheel allows you to visualize how colours affect each other. Primary colours are the foundation from which new colours can be created when mixed. Let’s start with red, green, and blue as our primaries. If you mix any two of them, you create what is called a secondary colour.
- Red + green = yellow
- Green + blue = cyan
- Red + blue = magenta
Take it one step further and mix a secondary colour with one of its primary parent colours to get what is called a tertiary colour. There are six tertiary colours on the colour wheel.
- Yellow + red = orange
- Yellow + green = spring green
- Cyan + green = chartreuse green
- Cyan + blue = azure
- Magenta + red = rose
- Magenta + blue = violet
These twelve colours make up the RGB colour wheel and act as a guide to figuring out which colours are harmonious together. It’s important to note that it is possible to use these colours in a visually unpleasing way. This next section will help you to understand different ways to use colour properly through the help of colour schemes.
Monochromatic Colours – In monochromatic photography, only one colour is used. The use of different tints and shades of one particular colour is used to depict depth and content in the photograph. A monochromatic colour scheme can provide an emotional photograph, especially if you consider the psychological aspect. Take the colour blue as an example. Depending on how you use a blue scheme, you can portray sadness, tranquillity, or loneliness.
Complementary Colours – When using a complementary colour scheme, a photographer uses two colours that are on opposite sides of the colour wheel. Complementary colours are useful for providing a contrast that makes subjects pop and can easily stand side by side. This useful scheme works if you are looking to have a colourful yet straightforward photograph.
Split-Complementary Colours – The split-complementary colour scheme uses three colours. After recognizing what your base colour is, find the colour that is opposite of it, but don’t use that colour. Instead, look to the two colours on either side of it. On the colour wheel, you can see that the split-complimentary colours of blue are orange and chartreuse green.
Tetradic Colours – Also known as double-complementary, the tetradic scheme involves four colours. Theses colours are two sets of complementary colours in one photograph. A tetradic scheme can be challenging to accomplish if you don’t moderate your uses of the colours. A good rule of thumb when trying to pull this scheme off is to start small. A photo can become overwhelming if your four colours seem to take over the entirety of the image.
Analogous Colours – Commonly found in nature, analogous colours are known to be quite pleasing to the eye. This scheme is made up of three colours that are directly next to each other on the colour wheel. Artists of many forms suggest the 60-30-10 rule when attempting an analogous colour scheme. 60% of the image should be dedicated to your base colour, 30% accent colour, and 10% to your colour that adds a pop in a balanced photograph. Think of it this way – one colour is your main star while the other two are supporting colours.
Triadic Colours – If the goal of your photo is to have an image that is immensely colourful and vibrant, triadic colours can be a grand scheme to use. As the name suggests, this involves three colours that are evenly spaced apart on the colour wheel, taking over the majority of your photo. The primary colours that we are focusing on is a perfect sample scheme that quickly adds boldness.
Utilizing the colour wheel and understanding how to create your colour schemes is something that every photographer should apply to their work. Even when you’re not taking a photo, practice recognizing colour schemes in everyday life. This approach will help you to develop a keen eye to spot a good opportunity for an image. If you have the time to set up your scene, take your time, and refer back to the colour wheel and colour schemes list. With practice, you’ll be able to see these colours naturally in everyday life.
Photo credits: Dreamstime – All rights reserved. No usage without permission.