Complementary colors in photography | betapixel

Photography, as the name implies, is the process of creating images with light. But if you use files Just light, the whole image will be pure white (or any other color). So we also need the absence of light or shadows to create and display what we want. It is the interaction of light and shadows that creates the final image.

Likewise, composition alone does not make a good photo great. Colors and sometimes their absence (for black and white photos) along with the composition complement the final image.

The colors in an image are the first thing that catches the viewer’s attention, and they can make or break the image. If you go shooting outside on a boring day and there isn’t a lot of color, it might be a good idea to turn the photo into black and white or monochrome so that the viewer focuses more on the composition and isn’t distracted by the lack of faded colours.

So color theory is important to learn side by side formation. It works with all types of photos, be it portraits, landscapes, or any other category. One of the color schemes most used by photographers is Complementary color scheme.

In this article, we will explore what complementary colors are and how you as a photographer can use the concept to capture eye-catching color images that will capture the attention of viewers.

table of contents

Introduction to the color wheel

Color theory at its core is the interaction of different colors, and this interaction is often represented by what is known as color wheel.

We use the color wheel to determine colors and their relationships to each other. The colors in the tricolor color wheel model fall into three broad categories.

  1. the principle colors. Red, yellow and blue. All other colors on the color wheel can be made from mixing these three shapes.
  2. secondary colors. Violet, orange and green. These colors are created by mixing equal parts of two primary colors.
  3. Tricolor. Blue-violet, red-violet, red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green. These colors are created by mixing equal parts of a primary and secondary color.

NB: A tricolor color wheel model can also contain the primary colors of red, green, and blue, which are known as additive primary colors. This article includes some added color wheels as well, but the discussion and examples will focus largely on the classic color wheel based on the subtractive primary colors of red, blue, and yellow. Complementary color pairs differ under the primary RGB colors, but the concept of complementary colors remains the same for both color wheels.

One of the best resources for seeing and understanding the color wheel is Adobe Colorwhich provides an interactive color wheel and color palette generator.

Harmony of colors and schemes

Once we understand the color wheel we can focus on it color harmony in the wheel. Color harmony refers to the harmonious and aesthetic combinations of colors based on geometric relationships on the color wheel.

Let’s take a look at the harmony of different colors in a nutshell.

monochrome. A single hue on the color wheel that includes various color values ​​for a color. It draws attention to light and shape and is visually coherent. The chosen color affects the mood. Most of the time, it’s not always monochromatic.


similar. A group of adjacent colors on the color wheel. These colors are often found in nature and can feel harmonious and calm. These can be created during twilight scenes, during blue hour, or in areas dominated by one color family (such as forests).


tripartite: A group of three colors spaced evenly around the color wheel. This color harmony generally conveys a cheerful and lively mood.


your dyads. A set of two colors separated by two tones on the color wheel. This type of combination is generally created in post-processing or using artificial lights because they are not easily found in natural environments.

your dyads.

complementary: The last and most common color harmony is the complementary color. This is a combination of colors on the color wheel that lie directly from each other.


This is the complementary color scheme we focus on in this article. This is a high contrast color combination that adds vibrancy and liveliness to the image. It helps highlight the subject in the photo, especially if the background is chaotic.

It is most useful when the subject really stands out from the background (in cases where the background is blurry) and the color contrast makes it more visible.

The power of complementary colors

Complementary colors, also called “opposite” colors, can be found widely both in nature and in the creative world. The opposing nature of the colors provides the strongest possible contrast of the two colors, and the result is a feeling of boldness, loudness and energy.

The unique nature of complementary colors and their use in art has been noted since ancient times. It can often be seen in the works of master painters.

In his famous 1889 self-portrait, Vincent van Gogh used the complementary color of blue to provide a sharp contrast to his orange hair and beard.

Complementary colors are also widely used in Hollywood films. Orange and blue, in particular, are omnipresent in providing the “Hollywood look” of blockbuster films.

Hollywood movies like transformers Showcasing the infamous orange and blue combination so loved by modern filmmakers. Photo: Paramount Pictures.

When used effectively in art and photography, complementary colors can be used to draw the viewer’s attention to a particular subject or section of a scene.

Examples of complementary colors in pictures

The complementary combination of orange and green is often found in nature. photo from photography Joachim Doppler And licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.
A yellow dress in a field of lavender provides a sharp contrast to the complementary colors. Photo from 123RF.
Complementary colors yellow/orange and blue/purple in a shot from a theme park ride. Photo by Stig Nygaard And licensed under CC BY 2.0.
You can use colored gels to add complementary lighting to a creative photo. Stephen Hanfin’s photo And licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
Urban environments often feature complementary colors in their designs. Photo from deposit.
Complementary colors in the look and background of the portrait. Image from Depositphotos.

Take photos in complementary colors

Here are some tips for using complementary colors in your photography.

1. Use white balance as a tool. One way to emphasize or add color contrasts is to use a specific white balance setting either in camera (if you’re shooting in JPEG) or in post production (whether you’re shooting JPEG or RAW). Choosing white balance (at least for color inaccurate photography like product photography, etc.) is purely creative. For scenes or subjects with complementary color schemes, creative white balance is usually important.

Choosing a specific white balance in scenes with artificial lighting can help create the complementary colors you want. Photo by Carlos Ebert And licensed under CC BY 2.0.

2. Look for mixed lighting environments. In mixed lighting situations, complementary colors are often created: for example, at sunset, the light-lit parts of the scene will appear warmer than the shaded parts of the scene (which are mainly lit by reflected light from the blue sky above, and therefore look relatively cool). The complementary color scheme will be destroyed if you “correct” the white balance to correct blue light in the shadows. One should try to find scenes with natural complementary colors

This image, taken during blue hour, depicts the contrast between the blue sky and yellow artificial lights. It helps to visually separate the building from the bridge in the background. The most vibrant shades of complementing colors provide the highest levels of contrast or striking contrast. But this is not always what you might want from an aesthetic point of view as in the photo above.

3. Use one of the colors as an accent color. Sometimes you don’t want such a high contrast. You will then need to balance a visually vivid image with a vibrant image.

You can go for a more balanced, natural look. To make the design less stressful, tone down one or both colors.

The red jets stand out against the blue sky because the two colors complement each other and create a strong contrast.

4. Find or provide complementary colors for your background or theme. You should watch the compositions as you can easily combine complementary colors. If you’re indoors, try to find backgrounds that complement your subject, either depending on the color of the theme if it’s a person or the actual color if it’s an object you’re photographing.

When you have the ability to bring colors into the scene – the ability to choose the look on your subject, for example – keeping complementary colors in mind can be a great way to add some “pop” to your image.

5. Keep your eyes open when you are out in nature. Complementary color combinations are often easier to create than other combinations as they are relatively easy to find in nature. If you are shooting outside, you should look for natural phenomena such as sunrise or sunset which gives you the perfect opportunity to capture complementary colours. You should pay special attention to the changing colors as the sun travels across the horizon during sunrise and sunset and the colors changing from orange and pink to blue twilight.

6. Use complementary colors to express feelings. You should try to associate the color combination you use with the emotion that the image conveys. It may be due to societal reasons or personal experiences, but some colors resonate with people in certain ways. This is something to keep in mind while looking for complementary color combinations.

Here are the emotions associated with common complementary color combinations:

  • red and greenLove, healing, energy, freshness, energy, growth, excitement, life.
  • orange and blueSuccess, confidence, confidence, peace, courage, loyalty, optimism, freedom.
  • purple yellow: creativity, ownership, happiness, luxury, warmth, ambition, fun, spirituality.

7. Use a complementary split color scheme. It is not always necessary to have two color palettes in your image. If you wish, you can even go to a separate complementary chart where you choose the main color, then use it with the two colors directly on either side of the complementary color on the color wheel.

Split complementary color scheme.

The intricate and step-up version will be a four-tone harmony where you use two complementing pairs.

Quad color harmony.

Consider complementary color schemes whenever possible. You can create colorful and exciting photographs by contrasting colors.

Image credits: illustration based on Photography by Umberto Nicoletti And licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Leave a Comment