Make Your Photos More Colorful with Complementary Colors :: Digital Photo Secrets

Make Your Photos More Colorful with Complementary Colors

by David Peterson 5 comments

What makes an image colorful? Is it the mere presence of bright colors, or is it something more than that? Color isn’t always about having bright reds and striking blues. It results from creating color contrast in your photos and using complementary colors whenever you can. In this article, I’ll show you how.

What is color contrast? How does it make your images pop?

Color contrast happens whenever two distinct colors are placed next to one another. Contrast is simply a way of saying the two colors are very different from one another. In the above photo, you see a lot of contrast because bright red tulip is very different from bright white tulips in the background and foreground. The two colors clash with one another.

The image to the right has a little less contrast than the one before it. The bright red pig definitely stands out, but not as much as the red rose. The same goes for the pink pigs next to it. They’re colorful, but not as colorful as the white roses. What gives? How is this possible?

There’s something to be learned from this. The more distinct two colors are, the more they pop out of the frame. When you increase color contrast in your photos, you increase the total amount of perceived color. Reds appear more red and whites more white. Depending on the effect you’re trying to achieve, this can be a very good thing.

What are complementary colors and how can you use them in your photography?

Let’s not make this more complicated than it needs to be. complementary colors are different colors that, when placed next to one color, increase the total color contrast in the image. But a complementary can’t just be a different shade of one color, as we’ve seen with the pig example. It needs to be a different type of color altogether.

Painters invented the concept of complementary colors when they started mixing the three primary colors, red, yellow, and blue. As you know, red, yellow, and blue are the primary colors because you can mix them to make every other color known to human visual perception. You could not, for example, mix a primary color with a few other secondary colors and still get all possible colors.

There’s a simple formula to find the complementary color for any known primary color. This will give you a baseline when you’re out in the field. To get the compliment of a one primary color, just think of what you would get if you mixed the other two primary colors. So...

  • To get the compliment of red, we mix blue and yellow to get green.
  • To get the compliment of blue, we mix yellow and red to get orange.
  • To get the compliment of yellow, we mix red and blue to get purple.

Here’s a good way to think about some of this. I like to think of popular sports teams and their team colors. Most team managers intentionally pick two complementary colors because it results in a brighter design. Think of the Denver Broncos. Orange and Blue. How about the Minnesota Vikings? Yellow and purple. You don’t even have to know anything about the color wheel. You just need to know a few football teams.

The color wheel definitely helps as well. To find a complementary color, look at the exact opposite side of the color wheel. In the wheel below, green is exactly opposite to red, so they are complementary. So in the image above, the red fire hydrant is a complementary color to the green grass. It’s also handy to know how the secondary colors transition into one another so you know what works with, say, a more bluish-green (answer: a more orangish-red). You don’t need to keep a color wheel with you all the time. Just have a look at it now and again so you it stays fresh in your mind.

The next time you’re out shooting, try to find two complementary colors that appear right next to each other. If you can’t find anything, try to create a photo with complementary colors by doing the setup yourself. Once you get thinking about these ideas and applying them to your photography, you’ll notice a huge difference in overall brightness and contrast. I think you’re going to like it!

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  1. Benico says:

    Hi Renier
    With the 3100 I found that one tends to move the camera too quickly after the shutter sound.
    I had to train myself to hold it still for one count after the shutter sound before moving it.
    This is now with a large iso, open aperture and slow shutter.

  2. Renier says:

    Dear David

    Over the past few months I have been receiving e-mails from you with wonderful tips, which I kind of ignored until I bought my first "real" camera, a Nikon Digital SLR D3100. Probably not the best on the market, but great for me.

    I have one question: I tried to take a photo under relatively low lighting conditions, but had no idea of ISO and F-stops etc. with the result that the pictures were completely blurred and rather ugly.

    What advise can you give me concerning action photos under the circumstances I described?

    Regards and many thanks for your great advice!



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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.