The good use of color relationships

When we think in memorable photographs that became special to us we can easily group them into two huge categories: Black and white pictures and color pictures. Black and white is a classic, as the first pictures ever taken after the invention of the camera used this system due to the lack of means to capture color. From that moment on it endured the advances of progress and technology and still nowadays is easy to find groups and associations of good photographers that defend the lack of color. The advantages are clear: once we get rid of all the information the color transmits the brain can focus on the light as a whole, on the contrasts, and the difference in illumination that remarks and enhances textures. But deleting the color of a scene also means destroying a lot of information that can be not only useful, but also catchy and expressive. Sometimes, the only element that makes a good picture great is the careful selection of colors, tones and hues that combined together in a unique way catches the eye and attaches to the brain forever.

The main issue about color, and probably the only one most amateur photographers think about, is its correctness. Some people consider that the colors in the picture must reproduce the original ones of the scene in the most precise way, while others argue that tuning and increasing their appeal is a valid and amusing way of transforming the boring reality into art. But in both cases the colors have to seem perfectly coherent to the viewer. You might capture the yellow tone of the skin of an apple with incredible precision or enhance its natural appealing drifting its hue to a bold and luminous green, but transforming an apple into a purple sphere would surely make the observer of the picture confused, with the exception of the picture being part of any surrealistic context that complete the picture meaning. Correctness of color is a chain that links the picture to the real world, making it recognizable to the public of our work, and so a great effort is often done to achieve it (calibrating screens, acquiring ICC color profiles and processing pictures in 16 bit color depth are just few examples of how photographers are concerned about this topic).

Sunset in my backyard  :))
Color here is as correct as in many other pictures taken everyday. Still, few pictures can capture the appealing atmosphere the color transmits on this one. Picture by Ludmila Liber.

But aside of correctness, only experimented people tend to start thinking out of the box and analyzing the different relationships the colors of the pictures have between them and how they affect the global result. Of course, a strawberry is expected to be red (bright red, ideally), but many different combinations can be designed with this basic idea in mind: Should it be in the ground, surrounded by green grass? Or perhaps some grass should be removed so the brown of the dirt can be used also as a composition tool? Some photographers might be inclined to photograph the strawberry against the sky, creating a contrast between red and blue… All these compositions are realistic, but not all of them achieve the same grade of boldness once developed into the final picture.

Music, as another form of art, is well concerned about the different elements that compose it, and their relationships; so a musical scale was developed to bring order into a chaos of sounds and frequencies. The musical scale allows the composer to choose carefully which notes will be brought together to obtain a melody that is memorable along the centuries (if you don’t believe me, see how simple is the beginning of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, and the strength it transmits, usually represented as “Fate knocking at the door”). Greeks, in the 4th century BC, realized that colors maintain a similar relationship, and developed what is called the chromatic scale, dividing the scale into half tones as musicians do. Even accepting that color combinations can change as fashion does, it’s also true that some combinations of the scale have the ability to catch the attention of the viewer independently of the year, location or context (What does a black and yellow striped pattern bring to your mind?). Achieving harmony can be a difficult task, and using it in an artistic and creative way can only be done from the photographer’s point of view, without constraining rules. But it’s also certain that basing our choices into sound facts can increase our chances of success into achieving a special picture that will be remembered.

Goethe, in his work about the theory of color, showed some well-defined combinations that work fine together, based on how they are interpreted by our eyes and brain. He also established different psychological considerations that these combinations carried with them, and how can be used to tune the mood of the image. Some useful examples that are usually worth memorizing are the following, taking into consideration that colors must be interpreted as guides and not as pure hues (blue means pure blue, but also, cyan, aquamarine and similar colors).



Both colors, being primary, are interpreted by the brain as similar in brightness, even though the eye is more sensitive to green than red. The more predominance the eye has to the green is compensated by the psychological effect the red carries, in the sense of heat, danger, and action. Having this consideration in mind, the harmonic combination is the one that combines them in a ratio of 1:1, which means that no one dominates over the other and both are well balanced in the picture in a similar amount. This can be achieved in a symmetric way (i.e. giving half of the frame for each one), or mixed together but respecting the proportions; but in any case, to achieve harmony, we should not be able to see one in a more dominant way than the other. In the strawberry example before: we should be sure to increase the apparent size of the berry in relation to the grass, so the area of the picture that grass occupies is similar to the area of the berry, not letting the grass to capture all the attention.

La rana verde de ojos rojos (Agalychnis callidryas)
Red tones in the flower and eyes are compensated with the greens of the background and frog, having both almost the same amount of space. This helps to equilibrate the mood of the picture. Picture by Esteban Cartin


In this case, brain is much more sensitive to orange than blue due to its psychological considerations. Orange, as happened with red, is associated with heat, activity and danger. It’s a very catchy color that tends to attract the attention, specially if it’s not surrounded by any other warm color. On the other side blue is considered as a cold color, associated with ice or gelid water, sky on a cold day, and with calmness and sadness. Also, the eye is less sensitive to blue than to the other warmer colors. In order to compensate this difference of strengths, a relationship of 3 parts of orange for every 8 parts of blue is recommended (27%, around one fourth). If, for example, we want to photograph the sand of the Sahara Desert against a blue sky, we could be tempted to follow the rule of the thirds and compose the horizon occupying the upper or the lower third. But an alternate composition worth to be explored is to let the sand occupy the lower fourth of the frame and assign the other three fourths to the sky (supposing there is something of interest in the sky). Even if this doesn’t work, this color rule shows us that aligning the horizon to the lower third is better that doing it to the upper third… as long as there isn’t any other subject in the frame that alters the composition.

Orange only supposes about a quarter of the total color, resulting in a balanced mixture even having into account the asymmetry on the picture. A higher amount of orange would decrease the importance of blue tones, making them secondary and unattractive. Picture by Andy Lee


The same consideration used for the orange-blue example can be done here, with a little modification. Although yellow approximates more to the colder part of the scale than red or orange, it still retains its danger consideration (think on wasps or tropical frogs). This makes it a bold color for the brain if it’s not surrounded by other warm colors. But on the other side, purple is one of the colors the brain is less sensitive to. In fact, true spectral violet color is very rare in nature (what most people call violet is, in fact, indigo), and the eye is so poorly adapted to see it that appears very dim when observed (compared to a same intensity green light, for example). This modifies the color ratio even on a more drastic proportion, assigning three parts of yellow for nine parts (instead of eight) of purple. As a rule of thumb, the more shifted a blue is to purple, the more predominant space we should allow it, and the more shifted a purple is to magenta or red, the less space we should provide to it.

Colores opuestos
Yellow, being much more luminous and catchy than purple, adjusts to only one fourth of the picture, allowing the purple most of the space. Picture by Maelia Rouch


On this case, the warm colors shall be given less space than the blue, with a proportion of 7 for warms and 9 for blue. Blue is only slightly increased because the mixture the yellow with red dilutes the strength of red (as a chilling effect of the red color instead of potentiating it). The best ratio for yellow and red becomes 3 of yellow to 4 of red. This makes a final ratio of 3:4:9. It must be noticed that increasing the amount of yellow doesn’t modify too much the effect on the blue, as the chilling effect is constant on these proportions. On the other side, decreasing the amount of yellow increases dramatically the amount of color perceived by the eye in the red part of the picture, approximating the rations to the orange-blue example.


With these few examples in mind it is easy now to start thinking on how to combine colors for our next pictures in a more effective way. Of course, this doesn’t mean that without a good subject in our picture we will get an incredible image, and also doesn’t mean that we should constrain our composition and framing to these rules in a strict way. They must be considered as guides, like in the Sahara example, where thinking on them might open new ways of composing; or when photographing a subject that already approximates to those relations, but twitching them a little bit might suppose an increase in the effect perceived.

Do you have any other idea of color combinations that work well? If so, please comment and share it we us. We will be happy to learn even more and be able to try it.


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