How to Use Color Contrast in Composition

How to Use Color Contrast in Composition

Good photographers learn to create interesting compositions using the colors they see in the natural and man-made worlds. Color contrast – which is really about the way that certain hues are related to each other – is part of this.

Let me give you an example.

color contrast in composition

This photo uses the natural color contrast between the orange/brown color of the metal sculpture and the deep blue sky behind it to make a striking composition.

The orange / blue color combination is quite common during the golden hour, when the light of the setting sun has a strong orange color cast.

Using the color wheel

We can understand the relationship between these colors more deeply by looking at an RGB color wheel.

color contrast in composition

Color wheels are used by artists and graphic designers to show the relationships between colors. They are useful for photographers as well.

The color wheel shows that orange and blue are nearly opposite each other. They are said to be complementary colors.

Analogous colors, on the other hand are close to, or next to each other on the wheel.

Learn more: How to Use a Limited Color Palette in Photography

Using complementary colors

Using complementary colors in a composition nearly always results in a strong image. The key is to keep the composition simple. Don’t include too many colors.

There are many naturally occurring color contrasts. Flowers are a great example of this.

The color wheel shows us that green is the opposite of red, purple and blue. Photographing flowers of these colors against a green background is an easy way to create a strong photo with a graphic composition.

color contrast in composition

Yellow also contrasts well with green, even though they are closer together on the color wheel.

color contrast in composition

Color contrast and man-made objects

Things start to get more interesting when you’re in a man-made environment. People have a tendency to make brightly colored things, and you can use that to your advantage.

In this photo I noticed that the boy’s yellow t-shirt created a powerful color contrast with the red good luck charms hanging from the string. Even though red and yellow are fairly close on the color wheel, the color contrast is very strong.

color contrast in composition

Color contrast with a neutral background

Another technique you can use is to place a colored object against a dark or neutral background. The lack of color in the background emphasizes the subject’s color. Again, it works best if you keep the composition as simple as possible.

In this photo, the gray background emphasizes the strong yellow of the metal artwork. Yellow is the only strong hue in the photo.

color contrast in composition

Here, in this subtler example, the colors of the hanging birds are emphasized by the dull silver-gray of the background.

Color contrast in composition

Now I’m going to show you another subtle example. In this photo, the pink and green of the candle contrast against the gray and rusty colors on the metal behind it.

color contrast in composition

If you look at the color wheel, you will see that pink and green are near opposites to each other as well as orange. The color wheel helps explain why the colors in this photo work so effectively.

Creating color contrast by adding color

You can take these ideas further by introducing colors into a scene. This gives you a chance to be creative, as opposed to relying on your powers of observation to find subjects with good color contrast.

For example, if you are shooting portraits you might ask a model to wear certain colors of clothing to fit it with the surroundings.

In this photo you can see that the colors of the concrete structure and rocks behind the model were gray. I wanted to shoot in this location, so when my model told me she had a red dress we could use for the shoot, I knew it would work well. I asked here to wear a gray or black coat with it. That meant red was the dominant color in the photo.

color contrast in composition

I opened the article by talking about the contrast between orange and blue.

You also find this contrast in the evening, when the orange glow from tungsten lights contrasts against the deep blue of the dusk sky.

You can use this to your advantage by adding orange using painting with light and other techniques. Here, we used steel wool spinning to create a dramatic image that exploits the natural contrast between these two colors.

color contrast in composition

Color contrast and simplicity

It’s worth repeating that it’s key to keep the composition simple. Imagine each of the previous examples with a splash of extra color in the image somewhere. It would pull your attention away from the dominant colors. The photos would have less impact.

The images in this article have two things in common: strong use of color (in different ways) and simple composition (simplicity often equals strength in design).

It is one thing to analyze these factors in photos – it is another to train yourself to see them. To do so, you really have to think about the scene in front of you. What colors do you see? Does the light suit the subject? How can you simplify the composition to make those colors stronger? You can make stronger images if you figure out the answers to these questions.

Further reading

Three Steps to Better Portrait Composition

How to Use a Limited Color Palette in Photography

How Aperture and Focal Length Affect Composition

Mastering Composition Book Two

This article is based on a lesson from Mastering Composition Book Two, an ebook I wrote for photographers who want to move beyond the so called rules and learn the deeper principles of composition. Please click the link to learn more or buy.

Mastering Composition Book Two

About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, publisher, traveler, workshop leader and photographer based in the UK. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He currently writes for The Creative Photographer and Digital Photography School. He is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences.

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