Colour: The Language of Colour

Colour is a very important consideration in photography but do you know why colours react with each other like they do?

Consider a green leaf. Put it against a grey stone wall, an azure sky or a red rose and it will seem to change. Why? The answer is in the way that colours react with each other.

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Colours can do one of three things; they can harmonise, they can contrast or they can clash (discordant). How they react with each other is, to a large extent, dependent upon their position on the spectrum.

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A colour wheel is a simplified spectrum and one which places harmonising colours (for example, yellow and green) close to each other and contrasting colours (for example, blue and yellow) well apart. These six colours are then split into two groups – the primary colours (red, green and blue) and the complementary (or secondary) colours (magenta, cyan and yellow).

These complementary colours can be formed by mixing two primary colours thus magenta is a composite of red and blue, cyan is formed from green and blue, and yellow is formed from a compound of red and green.


Both groups of colours will contrast with each other although, as you can see, there is a higher level of contrast among the primary colours.

Going back to the example of the green leaf, it would be seen:

Naturally – when pictured against a neutral background such as a grey stone wall.

Harmonising – when photographed against a backdrop of a blue sky.

Contrasting – when pictured alongside a red flower.

What is given here is generally true although you will find exceptions such as on an overcast day when traditionally contrasting colours appear to harmonise. This effect is caused by the strength and brilliance of the colours being reduced by the lower light level, something which diminishes their natural contrast.

Colour strength depends upon three factors – hue, saturation and brightness.

Hue is the basic colour – e.g. blue, red or green.

Saturation is the purity of the hue. Fully-saturated is the original colour but adding black will give a shade and adding white will produce a tint.

Brightness is a measure of the level of reflectivity of the colour thus on an overcast day when there is less natural light, the colours become desaturated and those which would not normally harmonise begin to. Ironically, on a day with very bright sunshine, glare will have a similar effect, reducing colour saturation and increasing harmony where contrast would otherwise have existed.

If you would like to learn more about photography One Sky Photography has a variety of courses on using your camera at a variety of locations around Perth.

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