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News & Insight

Photographer’s Introduction to Color Theory

By fotosiamo on October 23rd 2012

The popularity of our post on the X-Rite Color Challenge got me thinking, just how well do we know our colors in regards to color theory? I used to think that it’s just something intuitive, what we just see in the real world. But why do we react to colors and color combinations like we do?

Well, Luminous Landscape has several excellent articles that talk about the basics of color theory from a photographer’s point of view. Here are the three articles on their website, as well as my brief summary for each article.

Color Theory and Orders of Colors

The first stop in learning about color theory is getting to know about the colors themselves and the orders of color on a color wheel.

Primary Colors
There are three primary colors which are considered “pure” colors because they are not “are not created though mixing any other colors.” The three primary colors are RED, YELLOW, and BLUE

Secondary Colors
These are colors that are created by from a 50%-50% mix of two primary colors.

Tertiary Colors
These are colors created by a 25%-75% or 75%-25% mix between a primary color and a secondary color

Color-Theory courtesy of PBS
Image courtesy of Off Book PBS

What’s great about the Luminous Landscape article is that it goes into the psychology of each color, as well as certain color combinations like RED-GREEN. To learn more about this, read the article on Colour Theory as Applied to Landscape Photography.

Monochromatic Color Harmony

This is the first of nine article by Alain Briot on color harmony. The first article of the series talks about the three variables of a color: Hue, Saturation, and Luminosity. These are the basic building blocks of every shade of color.

Hue: The name of the color
Saturation: The intensity of the color
Luminosity: The brightness of the color

Alain starts off with the easiest color harmony principle, which is the monochromatic color harmony. Here, the hue stays the same and only the saturation and luminosity changes.

Image courtesy of Luminous Landscape

To learn more about the monochromatic color harmony, as well as see an example of this principle, please take a look at Alain’s article on Monochromatic Color Harmony.

Complementary Color Harmony

The second article on color harmony starts to more in-depth on why we should be aware of color harmony and how it really contributes to our growth as a photographer and artist. Controlling color harmony is something that I don’t hear enough photographers talk about, and it is just as important as learning about composition and other shooting techniques.

Complementary color harmony is about using two colors that are directly opposite from one another on a color wheel.

Luminous Landscape-Complementary-color-wheel
Image courtesy of Luminous Landscape

You can see many examples in nature of complementary color harmony like the blue-orange skies during a setting sun. It is a relatively simple harmony to work with since it only involves two colors and it is something we see everyday.

To learn more about the complementary color harmony, you can read Alain’s article on Luminous Landscape: Complementary Color Harmony.

Bonus: Effects of Color Video on PBS

This is a great video by the educational folks at PBS where industry professionals explain how we are affected by color. It’s a great watch!

It’s particularly interesting to see the color trends by decades.


Reference Chart on Color Theory from

And here is a reference chart that you can keep/print from Click on the image to go to where you can download the high-resolution version.


Joe is a rising fashion and commercial photographer based in Los Angeles, CA. He blends creativity and edge with a strong style of lighting and emotion in his photographs. Be sure to check out his work at and connect with him on Google Plus and on Facebook

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Kurk Rouse

    Someone should highlight this article again, colour theory has become a big part of photography and retouching . Learning this one way to make your photography pop.

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