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Complementary Colors in Photography

Complimentary Colors

Complimentary colors are located opposite each other on the color wheel.

Getting colors to work together to produce a striking or harmonious image can be helped by an understanding of the ‘color wheel’ and the concepts of harmonious and complementary colors. Harmonious colors lie close to each other on the color wheel, and used together in a photograph they can produce very peaceful, beautiful images. Complementary colors are opposite each other on the color wheel. They can clash in a very ugly fashion, but they can also produce striking contrasts and vivid, vibrant images. Once you start looking for harmonious and complementary colors, you’ll see many more ways of shooting familiar subjects and enhancing their properties.

Opposites attract

You’ll see from the illustration of a color wheel that blue and orange are opposites and they do indeed produce a strong contrast in a photograph. They don’t often appear in combination in nature, though, but blue and yellow are almost opposites and you’ll get a striking contrast if you photograph a field of yellow oilseed rape blooms against a blue sky, as you probably know. Not all contrasts work so well, though. Red and green are opposites on the color wheel, but used together they can clash and create a discordant visual combination – maybe like us you’ve seen ads where red type on a green background (or vice versa) seems to ‘jiggle’? There’s actually another factor in this theory of opposites which can play a part. Effective contrast comes not just from contrasting colors but contrasting brightness too. This is why the blue/yellow combination is so striking – the blue and the yellow are very different in brightness, not just color.

Size isn’t important

Earlier we mentioned that color contrasts aren’t the only way to add impact, and that tonal contrasts can strengthen the effect. There’s a third way to add contrast, and that’s using relative size. Two complementary colors taking up an equal amount of the frame can simply ‘fight’ with each other and produce an unsatisfactory image. But if one color is dominant and the other occupies only a small part of the frame, you are – paradoxically – making the color contrast stronger, not weaker. The two colors don’t have to be equal in prominence. Indeed, a small subject can actually gain prominence because it’s so small. Remember, then, that contrasting colors don’t necessarily have to be identical in brightness or the relative size of the area they take up, and that color contrast can be made stronger still by brightness and size variations.

Composing boldly

Try deliberately finding and isolating subjects with opposite colors, setting them up artificially if no ready-made subjects present themselves. The blue-yellow combination works well for reasons we’ve already explained, but try combining red and green, despite what we’ve said about clashing colors. You can do this, for example, with many bedding plant varieties. Nasturtiums and geraniums have particularly vibrant red/ orange tones and contrasting green foliage to go with them. Try taking portraits of subjects wearing clothes that either contrast or harmonize with the background. Now’s a great time to experiment with still life set- ups, where you have precise control over both the colors and the arrangements of the objects within the frame. To create a nostalgic, antique look, for example, choose harmonizing colors consisting of largely brown tones, say, with only a few extra colors that are nearby on the color wheel.

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