A photographer colour theory crash course

As photographers, especially while you’re learning to be a photographer it’s not that common that when framing up an image to take a shot, you find yourself thinking about colours. Even later on when you download the images from the camera to your pc to do some post processing, it’s not the first thing that goes through your head.

However, it’s one of those often overlooked things that can have a huge impact on how the viewer perceives your image and the story your photograph tells. Colour theory is a topic that looks at how colours impact your photos and even videos. It’s widely used in all forms of visual media as a way to help tell a story when someone views that media. It doesn’t matter if it’s a business logo or a photograph or the next blockbuster film. They all use colour theory to get their point across.

Using certain colours can help instill a particular feeling to the viewer.

Colour meanings

Did you know colours have meanings? Well, it’s more of a general sort of guide.


The colour red invokes feelings of danger, blood, passion, strength, war and that sort of thing. Lots of red in an image can make it feel powerful or dangerous.


Purple is all about royalty, nobility, wealth, power, ambition and mystery.


Blue is about tranquility, stability, trust, sky, sea and those sorts of things.


Yellow gives feelings of sunshine, joy, happiness, intellect and attention.


Green is about nature, growth, freshness, healing, fertility and safety.


Orange is success,creativity,warmth etc.

Surfing at sunrise. by Tim Wells

The yellow tones in the image above are meant to convey the happiness of the surfer heading out for his morning surf as the sun rises over the water and a new day starts.

Colour Relationships

The use of colour relationships can help to give an image an overall feeling of consistency and coherence. In the image above of the surfer it is a very monochromatic colour palette which works to tell the story there.


Monochromatic images are where an image consists primarily of different shades of the same colour.

Complementary colours

Complementary colours are colours that compliment each other.

Complementary colours are usually opposite each other on the colour wheel.

Using complimentary colours provides contrast in the image and can help simplify the image by not giving the viewer a whole range of rainbow colours to focus on.

Analogous colours

Analogous colours are colours that are next to each other on the colour wheel. For example red, orange and yellow would be considered an analogous colour palette. Again this helps keep the viewer focused on the image and not distracted by a rainbow of colours while also helping to cement in a certain feeling for the image based on the colour meanings.

Colour temperature

When it comes to colours we have warm colours and we have cool colours.

Warm colours are active and that encompasses the power and happiness and creativity and warmth of colours like red, yellow and orange but also the bright light greens. Colours like these tend to be used to promote action and activity.

Cool colours are the other side of the colour wheel and cover the dark greens, blues and purples. They are more passive colours usually used when you don’t want to convey action and activity.

Galactic arm meets light pollution. by Tim Wells

How to use colour theory to improve your images

Next time you’re shooting or post processing a photograph think a bit more about the story you’re trying to tell in the photo or the feeling or emotion you want to have the viewer feel when they look at your image.

Choose colours that will help provide that feeling. For example, you might not want to use bright vivid reds and yellows if you’re shooting a scene without action. It might be better suited to a cooler tone.

Think about the relationships of colours in the image and use the available tools to help limit the tones of the image to that type of relationship for a cleaner and more meaningful overall look.

Lots more

There is a lot more to colour theory than what I’ve touched on here but hopefully this has inspired you to do some more research into using colour theory in your images.

I’ve created a little quick reference image here covering a bit of what we’ve looked at here, and a little more. It might be worth keeping it around a referring to it next time you go to post process some photos.

Colour theory quick reference.

I hope this has inspired you to learn more about colour theory and look into using it in your photography.

Have a great day.

Self taught software developer and photographer.

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