Color Theory and How to Apply it to Your Photography

Color Theory and How to Apply it to Your Photography

Hey, you! Yeah, you! Stop taking pictures for a few minutes! 

You may have just found a new camera from Santa under the tree. Or maybe you’re a budding influencer upgrading from Pinterest and Instagram to a full-blown blog with a camera for your own pictures. Maybe you just want to be a photographer and you’re dipping your toes in. If any of those sound like you, read on. Whether you plan on going into newborn photos, portraits, or just shooting as a hobby, this information will help you.

A black and white image of a bush or tree, with bright red berries still in color.
Red berries isolated against the bush.

So let me ask you this: how do you feel about color grading? Do you know what a  colorist is? If you don’t, there’s no need to feel bad. You can be a professional in the photo/video world without being a full-blown colorist. That said, I do think it’s important to understand what a colorist is, what they do, and why. 

An understanding of color is essential for any photographer in the same way that an understanding of composition is. Color, like framing, can tell a story. So in this article, I’m going to peel back the curtain on what colorists do and the basics of color theory. I’ll start out talking a lot about film, but this applies to photography as well. To top it all off, I’m going to show you 5 completely free Adobe Lightroom preset packs (like Instagram filters, but more extensive and customizable) that you can use as a jumping-off point for playing with and understanding the role of color in your photos. You don’t need the best camera for photography to use these, but starting with an already well-shot image is best.

So, what the heck is a colorist?

In photography and film production, colorists take the footage and… they alter the color. Why does the color need altering? Well as we all know, photos and videos are never ready to go right out of the camera.

Colorists use color grading and correction to accomplish two goals, one technical and one artistic. First, to correct any technical issues with the raw footage, like over or underexposed shots or to drastically alter elements in the frame, like changing day to night. Second, to alter the colors in a way that changes the tone, mood, or emotions in a scene. Remember, we work in a visual medium, primarily. The first thing our audience uses to absorb our work is their eyes. That’s not to say sound and writing aren’t important in film, but that what we see matters most. From The Cinema Cartography: “If you change any of [the colors], then you change the tone of the film. Change the tone, then you have a different movie.”

In Depth Cine
Why does color matter?

Colorists, in film production, work alongside the director of photography to establish what’s called a color language. In a sense, they are using color theory to form a coherent color language (like putting different words together to form a meaningful sentence) that helps the director drive home the themes and emotions already being evoked by the writing and acting of the film. A skilled colorist can take a good movie and make it great. So, all of this sounds really cool but this is an article about photography, not cinematography. Well, here’s where we get down to it. You might want to look at a color wheel while we discuss this.

The Cinema Cartography

Take a look at the two images above. They are the same picture, but color graded using two different kinds of harmony according to color theory. Think about what you feel looking at each of them.

Color theory in ten sentences, and how to apply it to your photos.
  1. You’ve got three color groups: primary, secondary and tertiary colors.
  2. Primaries are red, blue, and yellow.
  3. Secondaries are what you get by mixing primaries, like green, orange, or purple.
  4. Tertiaries are what you get by mixing primaries and secondaries; these are also called hues, like red-purple, blue-green, and yellow-green.
  5. Color Harmony is the idea that certain colors look good when seen together.
  6. Analogous colors are any three colors that are side-by-side on a color wheel.
  7. Complementary colors are those opposite one another on the wheel, like red and green.
  8. Certain colors paired together are interpreted differently by your brain, like red on orange versus red on cyan.
  9. Colors can be interpreted subjectively (America’s red versus China’s red) or objectively (blood-red is stressful and dangerous, sky-blue is benign and calming)
  10. Both ways of interpreting color can be used in your work to evoke thoughts and emotions, and tell a story.
Alright, fine. Here’s those 5 packs I told you about.

Just one last thing for you: while these preset packs are free, I’m giving them to you with two pieces of advice. First, pay for things like this when you can. Professional, hard-working photographers put together these presets using their years of experience as artists. Many of them will ask for donations, or charge for their higher end preset packs; pay for them, they’re well worth it. Second, don’t use these presets as a shortcut in your workflow. Sure, if you find one that’s an immediate match for what you want to say, then use it. But if you want to do it right, always be learning. Use these presets as a teaching tool for yourself. Study the ways the presets change your photo, pay attention to how the artist changes things like hues, saturation, and contrast to alter what the photograph says. Good luck!

Written by Cody Elliot Szaro

Published by Elliot Szaro

Writer and photographer.

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