Thanks to our partner, Rocky Nook, for this chapter on creating with color from “The Enthusiast’s Guide to Composition.” This title and many and more books for photographers are right here.

Color has meaning

The colors in an image are packed with meaning and can have a big impact on the overall feeling or mood of the image. Colors can be electrifying or calming. They can be sophisticated or childlike. Their ability to communicate (even at a subconscious level) is so influential that entire fields of study are devoted to harnessing their power. The psychology of color drives many of the everyday decisions made by everyone from artists, designers, and marketers to the President’s wardrobe consultant. (Who knew there was so much to consider when deciding between a blue or a black suit? And did you know that warm colors like red and gold have been proven to increase your excitement and appetite? It’s no accident that these colors represent fast-food giants like McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut.)

Carefully mixing your subjects, background, and props gives you control over creating your own color combinations
Styling a photograph with colorful props is a valuable compositional technique.

Color’s guidelines

While color psychology is the study of the effect color has on behavior, color theory is a collection of guiding principles for understanding, mixing, and combining color in logical and effective ways. (Remember the color wheel you were introduced to in elementary school? That’s a tool for understanding color theory.)

To get a feel for the basics of color theory while creating your own custom color scheme (or downloading crowdsourced favorites) check out the free tools available from Adobe.

An example of an analogous color scheme generated using the free tools at
An example of an analogous color scheme generated with Adobe Color.

Color explained

Color theory explains how the most basic digital colors of red, green, and blue—called primary colors because they can’t be made from the combination of any other colors, and they are therefore the building blocks for everything else—can be mixed in various ways to produce all other colors (known as secondary or tertiary colors).

Mother Nature is a natural when it comes to creating captivating color combinations.
Nature creates captivating color combinations.

Pick a color

Once you have a color in mind, color theory also provides rules and guidelines for creating color combinations that work well together. These are called color schemes. You can create color schemes based on analogous color (colors located side by side on the color wheel) monochromatic colors (differing shades on the same hue), and complementary color (colors located opposite each other on the color wheel) — just to name a few possibilities.

The world we live in is filled with striking color combinations.
The world we live in is filled with striking color combinations.

Combine colors

You can use color in your compositions in a variety of ways, such as taking advantage of naturally occurring color combinations you come across in nature, capturing inspiring color groupings from the world around you or carefully coordinating everything from your subject to the background along with any additional props as shown in the previous photographs.

Read more from Rocky Nook on Photofocus.