Did you feel like something was missing when we talked about the CMY color model? Most people are used to seeing it as CMYK. The K refers to black. In printing, it’s more efficient to use a pure black rather than create it by combining all of the colors every time, so it usually has its own toner.
The Color Wheel
Color is probably the most visual concept that exists, so different ways of visualizing color relationships have popped up over time. The one that sticks in most people’s minds is the color wheel, and since the wheel happens to be a great tool for finding complementary colors, it’s what we’ll focus on here.
No machine-readable author provided. MarianSigler assumed (based on copyright claims). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
As you can see, the colors are arranged in a circle, and you can see the natural progression from the warm colors to the cool ones and all the way back around. There are three colors on this wheel that you can’t create by mixing other colors. Those three are our primary colors, and since this is a subtractive color wheel, our primary colors are red, blue, and yellow.
When you mix two primary colors, you get a secondary color. In this case, purple (or violet), green, or orange. By mixing a primary color with a secondary one, you get a tertiary color. Because most people start to develop a mild headache at this point in the discussion, the powers that be have made the tertiary colors pretty easy to remember: you just hyphenate the two mixed colors, beginning with the primary one. So by mixing red and orange, you get red-orange. By mixing blue and green, you get blue-green.
This may seem like a digression from the main topic, but in order to understand complementary colors and use them effectively, you need to know what those colors are!
Color harmonies are a departure from color mixing, because it’s all about letting colors interact with each other just as they are. You’ve probably shot a brilliant sunset and marvelled at the seamless transition from blindingly bright yellow to deep, serene purple. Or maybe you’ve been drawn to the way the bright red of a rose stands out against the greenery of the rose bush. These scenes and others stand out to you because of the way those colors appear in comparison with one another.
Once you understand color harmonies, you can learn to recognize (and/or seek out) color combinations that work with your vision. Today, we’re focusing on complementary colors and how you can use them to give your photos a little extra pop – or avoid them to minimize tension in your composition.
We’ll link to a great color wheel resource in just a bit, but you can also buy a physical color wheel at your local craft store to carry in your camera bag. This is really helpful in an unpredictable, high-stress shooting situation like a wedding, where you may want to get detail shots on the fly and need to brainstorm about how and where to set them up.
What Are Complementary Colors?
Think back to the color wheel for a moment. The thing that makes it such a helpful tool is that you can go across it to identify color harmonies. To find a complementary color scheme on your color wheel, simply choose a color, then find the color directly across from it on the circle.
The complementary color schemes you’ll find most recognizable are red/green, blue/orange, and yellow/purple.
Colors have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with their complements. They tend to enhance one another when they’re side by side, but when you mix them, you’ll get a neutral. So they’re good for adding drama and excitement, but they can also overpower your composition very quickly.
You can do a few things to use complementary colors effectively in your photography without letting them steal the show.
- Use one color as an accent color. Don’t worry, you only need a small amount of a complementary color to stand out against its mate.
- Soften one or both colors. By using tints (add white), tones (add grey), or shades (add black), you can get the complementary effect without knocking your viewer out of his chair. Do this in post-processing (more about this later) or look for less overpowering versions of your color while planning your shoot.
- Choose a split-complementary color scheme. To do this, choose your main color, then use it with the two colors directly on either side of its complementary color on the color wheel.
Or, you can just go wild with it! If you’re looking for a way to show chaos, confusion, or strong feeling in your photography, ultra-saturated complementary colors just might be your jam!