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The Color Wheel

I once heard that spending any amount of time studying color theory places you in a special club that the majority of photographers never try to join. I’m not sure how true that statement is, but I do know that color theory seems to intimidate folks, mostly because of the “T” word. I can sympathize. It’s not the sexiest thing to talk or to think about. However, I do believe that having a bit of theory in your back pocket at the very least makes you a more aware photographer, whether you are shooting commercial work in the studio or photo-walking around the neighborhood.

Probably the most notable fundamental of color theory is the color wheel (FIGURE 4.1). This wheel is a circular depiction of all the colors in existence along a continuum, each transitioning into the colors on either side of it. Picture the color temperature graphic from the previous chapter turned into a circle where the two ends meet. That is exactly what the color wheel looks like. Clear as mud, right?


FIGURE 4.1 A traditional color wheel is composed of primary, secondary, and tertiary colors, and each color serves as the complement of the opposite color across the wheel.

Let’s simplify it a bit. Think back to grade school when you first learned about color. There are three primary colors: red, blue, and yellow. This is a departure from the red, green, and blue with which we are familiar in creating digital color. We’re now talking about color produced on a physical medium, be it on a wall, on a plant, or on someone’s clothing. We’re also talking about how color is produced on paper in a mass printing process. Now, with red, blue, and yellow as our primary colors, we can create more—called secondary colors—by mixing them together. Yellow and red produce orange, red and blue produce purple, and blue and yellow produce green. Likewise, if we mix secondary colors with primary colors, we produce tertiary colors, and so on. The point of this is that when you place red, blue, and yellow opposite each other, like you would on the points of a triangle, and in circular fashion try to fill in all of the colors in between these primaries, you will essentially be creating a color wheel.

The question, though, is: What can the color wheel tell us photographers? Quite a bit, actually. Let’s consider a few more color terms.

Analogous Color

Take a look around you. More than likely, you’re sitting, standing, or lying down in an environment largely made up of similar colors. If you are indoors, look at the color of the wall paint, then look at the trim paint. Notice any similarities? Better yet, if you are outdoors in nature, you are exposed to large amounts of color that tend to be the same. When we simply break it down, a lush forest is made up of a variety of greens, while a desert is made up of different reds, oranges, or yellows, or a combination of all three. These types of environments comprise analogous colors that for the most part are close to each other on the color wheel.

Analogous colors are naturally harmonious. They are not difficult to look at together, even if all of the colors take up similar amounts of space. In a way, analogous colors are mesmerizing, keeping you pulled into the palette, never really allowing your eye to stray too much. I love filling up the frame with analogous colors, such as layers of the landscape in the early morning (FIGURE 4.2) or macro textures of plants (FIGURE 4.3) and other materials (FIGURE 4.4).


FIGURE 4.2 Layers of land in the Texas Hill Country appear as various hues of orange, all of which are analogous to each other on the theoretical color wheel.

ISO 100, 1/500 sec., f/5.6, 400mm lens


FIGURE 4.3 This lush farm field in Scotland is made up of different greens and some yellows, all tightly related colors.

ISO 100, 1/800 sec., f/2, 50mm lens


FIGURE 4.4 Finding analogous color simply takes exploration. With the exception of the obviously green bottle sticking out, the bulk of this shot is rather blue.

ISO 200, 1/320 sec., f/5.6, 35mm lens

Do I think about layering analogous colors when I compose these shots? Usually not consciously—it’s second nature to me, and it will become second nature to you. But at times when I’m trying to make a studio image work, or when I’m simply hiking through dense grassland, it pops into my mind.

Complementary Colors

Arguably the most recognizable and yet the most misused term in color theory is complementary color. Although analogous colors seem to complement each other in a scene, technically they lack the contrast to do so. Instead, when referencing the color wheel, complementary colors are those directly opposite each other, as if you were drawing a straight line from one to or through the other. For example, green is the complementary color to red, orange is the complementary color to blue (FIGURE 4.5), and purple is the complementary color to yellow. You’ll notice that primary colors are not the complements to other primaries.


FIGURE 4.5 The complementary colors blue and orange found on the side of an old store wall, situated as if they were meant to oppose each other.

ISO 200, 1/1000 sec., f/4, 35mm lens

The opposition that complementary colors create becomes useful when we want something to really jump out at the viewer. We are first attracted to a particular color if it is paired well with its complement, or a color close to its complement. Blue and yellow, for example, is a popular combination of colors that are near complementary to each other (FIGURE 4.6). Complementary colors are said to vibrate against each other, and this vibration is often what pulls us to the two colors.


FIGURE 4.6 Even though blue and yellow are not complete opposites, the two are far enough apart to vibrate well between each other. They are also two of the most popular colors to use like this.

ISO 50, 1/200 sec., f/9, 60mm lens

When complementary colors that are equal in intensity are placed next to each other, the line that separates them has vibrance. When you concentrate on that line, the colors seem to move back and forth in each other’s space. This is more difficult to visualize when looking at one block of color next to another, but if you look at many thin lines of complementary colors put together, the vibration is easily noted.

Need a good resource for this type of effect? Google Bridget Riley, one of the most well-known artists who employ the use of vibrating colors alongside unique form.

However, complementary colors can also present visual issues. When seen in large amounts together, opposite colors can be quite jarring. With vibrance also comes the potential for dissonance. Even though they are popular around the holidays, red and green can sometimes cause visual anxiety. There’s a reason that you don’t often see red type on green backgrounds, or vice versa.

Complementary colors are extremely popular in general, but you will usually see one color taking up more real estate than the other (FIGURE 4.7). Otherwise, the viewer might be overwhelmed. Visually, complementary colors are less harmonious than analogous colors and therefore work the eye out more. Having two equal amounts of complementary color creates tension. Experienced photographers often decide to compose in a way that relieves that tension while also directing visual attention to the most important subject matter in the shot.


FIGURE 4.7 Finding complementary colors in architecture, such as the red and green surrounding this door in Cordoba, Spain, is a matter of being observant, but one color of the two is usually minimized (green).

ISO 100, 1/80 sec., f/16, 60mm lens

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