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How to Use Color Contrast to Take More Interesting, Eye-Catching Photos

Using attention-grabbing colors can make your photos stand out. To excel in photography, it’s important to understand how to use contrasting colors to create your desired results. You can follow these tips to understand how to apply proper color contrast to every image and win photography competitions.

5 Tips for Using Color Contrast in Photography

  1. Learn About the Color Wheel
  2. Keep Your Color Palette Simple
  3. Look for Examples of Color Contrast to Use in Your Photos
  4. Create Color Contrast in Your Pictures
  5. Use Image Editing Tools to Enhance Contrasting Colors

How does color contrast work in photography? In the visual arts and design, opposites work well together. There are many types of visual contrasts—including size, texture, strength of tone, and color.

Consider examples of some of your favorite black and white photos. Since black is the opposite tone from white, these types of photos have often high contrast and a broad dynamic range.

With colors, however, some work well together, while other color combinations can seem distracting or discordant. You need to have basic knowledge about color theory to optimize color contrast in your images.

In photography, contrasts play an important role. It’s common to want to focus attention on your subject in the foreground and convey a message or mood. Contrasts can help you achieve this goal.

1. Learn About the Color Wheel

The color wheel is a foundational concept in visual arts—and a handy tool to help you grasp color contrast. To understand the color wheel, first think about the familiar primary colors: red, blue, and yellow. As you know, red and blue combine to make purple, yellow and blue make green, and yellow and red create orange. Orange, green, and purple are secondary colors.

Now, imagine these primary and secondary colors arranged in the order of the rainbow: red, yellow, green, blue, and violet (or purple). Visualize bending the colors into a circle so that violet meets red. This is how you create a basic color wheel.

You can find color wheel charts online that you can use to plan your photo shoot. In these diagrams, you’ll often see additional tone variations beyond the core colors of the spectrum. Looking at the color wheel, you’ll find that it’s easy to identify a contrasting shade for various hues. Contrasting colors sit exactly opposite from one another on the color wheel. When looking for a red contrast color, look across the color wheel. You’ll see that green is an optimal choice. A good contrast color for blue is orange. And purple is an excellent contrast color for yellow.

If you want more subdued color contrast in some photos, opt for colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. Known as analogous or adjacent colors, these colors offer some contrast and work harmoniously together. So, analogous colors for green are yellow and blue, with purple and orange as analogous colors for red.

After some practice, the relationships of the color wheel will start to feel more natural to you. However, if you ever need perspective, you can find a color contrast analyzer tool online. A color contrast checker quickly shows you the best contrasting color for any hue and can also suggest other compatible colors if you need a broader palette.

2. Keep Your Color Palette Simple

When you look around, you’ll see juxtapositions of color everywhere. Some color combinations are attractive, but others can seem jarring or overwhelming. Think of how it can feel to be in a store with thousands of brightly-colored products vying for your attention. Too many vibrant colors in an image or scene can create visual noise. This can confuse viewers or cause them to miss your message.

For this reason, it’s best to keep simplicity as your mantra when exploring color contrasts. Be on the lookout for situations that pair one strong color in the foreground with a complementary or analogous counterpart in the background. This is especially valuable when you’re first learning about color contrast. In time, you may move toward working with more colors.

If you’re shooting in an environment with a lot of colors, you can try choosing a wide aperture setting. This brings your subject into clear focus in the foreground and blurs out the background. Don’t forget the rules of photography composition and adjust the shutter speed to ensure proper exposure. In addition, a zoom or telephoto lens can adjust your field of view. These lens types can help you capture a specific subject and isolate it from a busy background.

3. Look for Examples of Color Contrast

One of the best ways to practice using color contrast is to look for examples and photograph them. This can mean heading out into the natural world or visiting your favorite town or city.

If you are in a natural, wooded environment, you’ll be surrounded by lots of green. Remember that red is an ideal green contrast color. Look for pops of red that can come in the form of flowers or red clay, clothing, backpacks and other types of outdoor gear. Taking photos of these types of elements against a background of green trees can make gorgeous photos. You could also experiment with taking photos with subjects that are adjacent colors—such as blue or yellow.

In autumn, you’re likely to encounter more warm hues like orange. Look for blue to serve as a strong orange contrast color. A simple photo of a large tree with bright orange leaves against a blue sky can be gorgeous. You could also try wearing blue rain boots on your trek to a pumpkin patch and snap a photo with an aesthetically pleasing color combination.

If your travel photography adventures take you to the ocean, you may find yourself working with blue seas and yellow sands. An orange sunset lighting up a dark blue sea can make a breathtaking photo. Since yellow is a purple contrast color, look for opportunities to use those colors together to create good contrast.

When visiting suburban or small-town areas, you’ll probably encounter a large range of colors. You may find it helpful to pay a visit to your shooting location ahead of time to identify colors in the environment.

It’s likely you’ll spot a red brick wall that could be a perfect background for a person in a green outfit. Or, maybe you’ll find an area where a fleet of orange school buses dwells when not in use. Step inside buildings and look for bold, painted areas that can form the basis for exciting combinations of colors.

Also, always be looking for spontaneous photo opportunities that naturally have good contrast. Maybe you’ll find a classic car painted green right next to a red fire hydrant. Once you start looking around, you’re sure to find many options for high contrast color photography.

4. Create Color Contrast in Your Photography

At times, you’ll happen upon perfect examples of color contrast. However, you’ll also need to know how to create your own color contrasts as well. Imagine you’re shooting flat lay photography for an online promotion. If your subject matter is blue dishware, orange would be a good contrast color to use. Consider adding some oranges or orange table linens for an eye-catching difference in hue.

The same ideas can apply to any other type of photography you might pursue. For a holiday portrait session in front of seasonal greenery, red is always a good choice. Many portrait clients ask photographers what to wear for different types of photos, so be prepared with ideas that can create good color contrast.

5. Use Image Editing Tools to Enhance Contrasting Colors

With today’s broad selection of photo editing software, you can enhance color contrast in your photos after you shoot them. You can rely on industry-standard tools, such as Lightroom. Apps such as A Color Story can also help you achieve strong color contrast photography effects with your smartphone.

With apps like A Color Story, users often focus on simple modifications, such as applying filters or using Photoshop Action and Lightroom Presets in the software’s desktop mode. You can apply tints and adjust saturation and temperature to affect color contrast.

In Lightroom, you can use the first two tabs in the HSL / Color / B&W panel. These two tabs have the same function, but different layouts. On the Color tab, you’ll find a slider for hue, saturation, and luminance grouped under eight core colors.

The HSL tab lists colors under the properties of hue, saturation, and luminance. With hue, you can replace colors with adjacent colors on the color wheel. Use saturation to address the strength of a color and luminance to adjust its brightness.

Although these software tools are powerful, they are only as capable as the input you provide them. If you take an image with dark, dull colors or limited contrast, you may be able to make some difference and help it look better. But it may never be great if your original image is subpar.

Look to editing software to help take your good shots and turn them into exceptional photos. If you take the time to get the best shot possible, your image editing efforts will have far better results.

Use Color Contrast to Take Eye-Catching Photos

Mastering the art of color difference and contrast can dramatically improve your photography. As with any other photography skills, you can learn the basics, but practice is key to success.

One of the first concepts to understand is the color wheel. This essential tool can help you find complementary or adjacent colors that work well together in a visual composition. To help familiarize yourself with this idea, you can experiment with a color contrast generator or color contrast chart online.

With these resources, you can enter your color—perhaps your intended foreground color—and find its ideal contrast. You can also use these tools to create a color scheme or palette for an image. At first, test your skills with single contrasts—such as creating an image with orange as a blue contrast color or pairing red and green. You can also experiment with adjacent colors on the color wheel. These provide a more subdued contrast when you want subtle color effects.

Another great technique for learning about color contrast is to head out for a photo shoot. Look for examples of contrasting colors juxtaposed with one another either in the natural world or more populated areas. You can even head out for a walk and find color contrast in your own backyard.

All your initial work identifying and experimenting with color contrasts will help you grow your photographic skills. In every professional photography niche, photographers can be responsible for identifying and creating color contrasts to ensure good composition. If you have any aspirations to become a professional photographer, color contrast is an essential skill to master.

If you can’t quite achieve the color contrast effects that you want with a digital camera, you can always turn to image editing software in post-production. While you may be able to perform some basic edits with free or low-cost smartphone apps, investing in a higher-quality tool like Lightroom is a good idea. Professional-grade software gives you much more flexibility and control over color values in every image.

Learning about color composition is a requirement if you want to improve your photography skill. You need to know which colors work well together and which colors clash. With this know-how, you can take visually appealing photographs that captivate viewers. You’ll be on your way to making your mark as a talented and successful photographer.