Using Complementary Colors :: Digital Photo Secrets

Using Complementary Colors

by David Peterson 0 comments

What could be simpler than color? Color is all around us. We understand it from the time we are very young — in fact the names of colors are some of the first words we learn. So really, it does seem like understanding color ought to be the simplest thing in the world.

You have probably heard people talking about complementary colors, split complementary colors, analogous colors, and various other fairly muddy color theory concepts. Today I'm going to try to wipe away some of the mud, so you can get a foundation in color theory that you can start to use in your photography. The concepts are actually quite simple, as long as you have access to a color wheel, and a few basic pieces of information.

[ Top image Complementary colors by Flickr user unicoletti]

The color wheel

You remember the color wheel. I’m sure you’ve encountered it at some point in your life, whether it was in that art theory class that you didn’t pay much attention to or because you’ve actually actively used it for arts, crafts or interior design. The color wheel is a very simple tool—it doesn’t change, so all you really need to do is bookmark a copy or pick up one of those little portable cardboard ones that you can stash in your camera bag, in case you think you might want to refer to it in the field.

A perfect color wheel, if one existed, would contain all the colors in existence along a circular continuum. In other words, the colors in a color wheel follow a logical transition the way they do in a rainbow: from red to orange to yellow to green (etc.), with an almost infinite number of colors in between each primary color. Fortunately, you need to be nowhere near precise when choosing colors to work with, because the human eye just isn’t that picky. But you do need to have a rough idea about which colors you should or should not be combining in a single image. For today, we’re just going to stick with the basic idea of complementary colors.

Here’s the main thing you need to know about the color wheel: certain colors work well together because of where they lie in relationship to each other on the color wheel. For example, red appears on the color wheel opposite from green—these colors, and all other colors that appear opposite one another, are called “complementary.” I don't want to use a cliché and say that opposites attract, but in this case opposites do work quite harmoniously together. When placed against green foliage, for example, a red rose looks stunning. The reason for that is because the red stands out against its complementary color, green. It pops. And the same thing is true for all other color sets that are opposite each other on the color wheel, purple and yellow, for example, or blue and orange.

  • Sony DSLR-A100
  • 100
  • f/2.8
  • 0.002 sec (1/500)
  • 105 mm

Yellow and Purple Iris by Flickr user Creativity+ Timothy K Hamilton

Combining complementary colors in your photographs is one extremely effective way to add drama. Complementary color combinations are bold, and when your viewer sees something bold he gets a very strong sense that something important and meaningful is going on in that image, even if he’s just looking at a photo of an orange flower in front of a blue sky. The content of the photo doesn’t really matter so much, it’s the color that evokes the emotion. So you can see right away how this can help you improve your photography—all you need to do to be successful at this is to seek out (or set up) complementary colors and photograph them in the right way.

Brightness and dominance

There is a little more to it than that, of course (you didn’t think it was going to be easy, did you?) When combining complementary colors in an image, you need to consider a few additional factors. Sometimes when you combine complementary colors, you need to take visual brightness into consideration. What that means is that if you have two very bright (but complementary) colors in one image, they may not look so harmonious because they’re both equally bright and competing with each other. The same thing may happen when you use complementary colors in equal amounts—because both colors demand attention, your viewer may not know where to look. So it can be a good idea to choose a dominant color and a subordinate color—that is, when you’re shooting that orange flower against a blue sky, choose either the flower or the sky to occupy a majority of the real estate in your frame. There’s no written-in-stone formula for how much of each color you should assign to any given image, but 2/3rds to 1/3rd is, for the most part, going to be a pretty safe bet.

  • Nikon D90
  • 400
  • f/13.0
  • 0.003 sec (1/400)
  • 300 mm

Three by Flickr user justmakeit

Advancing or receding?

Another thing you need to pay attention to is the fact that some colors advance, while other colors recede. Just in case that’s a new one on you, the idea is actually pretty simple: warm colors like red, orange and yellow are said to “advance,” while cool colors like green, blue and purple are said to “recede.” That actually means pretty much exactly what it sounds like it means—the eye perceives those warmer colors to be in front of the cooler colors, even if the two colors aren’t actually physically oriented that way. For example, if you place that red rose in front of green foliage, it will “pop” because the eye perceives the rose to be in front of the foliage. But what if you place something green in front of something red? Say you’ve got a green tree, and you photograph it against the red sky of a particularly brilliant sunset? That can actually look a bit odd because the receding color is in front of the advancing color. So your viewer will look at the tree and it may appear to kind of get sucked into the red background. That can be good for messing with someone, or giving them a headache, but it doesn’t always make for great photography. So when combining complementary colors, make sure that you pay attention to what order they appear in the photo.

  • Canon EOS REBEL T1i
  • 200
  • f/4.5
  • 0.008 sec (1/125)
  • 100 mm

Green treefrog on hibiscus stem - wild by Flickr user Vicki's Nature

Finding complementary colors

Complementary colors sometimes appear in nature, but they can be elusive. Flowers are a good place to start—I already mentioned red roses with their green foliage, and orange flowers shot against a blue sky. But look outside of nature, too, or combine natural and manmade objects into the same scene for an even more striking combination. A red barn on a green field in the springtime, for example, is going to make for a very bold photograph. If you’re coming up short at finding these color combinations in the environment, don’t be afraid to stage something. Float an orange beach ball on the blue surface of a swimming pool, and you’ve got a bold, summertime image. Combine purple and yellow balloons or hang a red ornament from the branches of your Christmas tree. And make sure you spend plenty of time experimenting with your dominant and subordinate colors, too. Pay attention to brightness and try not to let any two colors compete for attention, unless you have a good compositional reason to do so. Remember that if your viewer doesn’t know where to look, he may end up not looking at your photo at all. So try different things and then try to make an educated judgment call about which color combinations worked best in what amounts.

  • Nikon D90
  • 320
  • f/16.0
  • 0.006 sec (1/180)
  • 60 mm

The Hibiscus Probe by Flickr user Bill Gracey


There’s a lot more to color theory than just complementary colors, but you need to start somewhere. If you’re the sort of person who wears jeans every day because you know that jeans go with everything, you may even find the whole idea of combining colors for visual impact to be a little intimidating. So start by studying your color wheel and memorizing those complementary colors. If you have to, carry around one of those aforementioned cardboard color wheels—they’re small and light and really handy to refer to. If you’re not sure about a color combination, check your wheel, but remember that it never hurts to take a photo even if you’re not sure how it’s going to turn out. Every photo you take is free, so getting it wrong costs you nothing except for the extra effort of having to press that little trash can button.

I promise if you play with complementary colors enough, they’re going to stop seeming intimidating. You may even start to view them as your friends, especially once you start getting compliments on the bold choices you’ve made in your work. And with enough practice, it really does become second nature. And who knows? Maybe your newfound comfort with color will eventually make its way into your wardrobe, too.

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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+.