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How to Use Complementary Colors
Photography

How to Use Complementary Colors 

Some images catch our eye faster than others. One reason is down to the use of complementary colors. 

Complementary colors create a natural contrast that our eyes find attractive and intriguing.

Let’s see how you can take advantage of the complementary color scheme to improve your photography.

Color Theory 101: What’s the Color Wheel?

If one thing affects how a viewer sees your images, it’s color. Different colors can be striking and bold or subtle and muted. They could be vibrant, luscious, or pastel and soft.

Luckily for you, there is a concept behind the colors we use. Color theory helps us understand all these shades and tones.

It is a set of practical guidelines on the visual effects of color combinations.

Color theory helps us mold this diversity of colors into a logical structure – from warm colors to cool colors. To make sense of color combinations and understand how colors work in general.

Color theory encompasses a variety of definitions, concepts, and design applications.

But for our purposes today we’re going to use only the simplest and most important one: the color wheel.

The color wheel is a circular scheme that visually represents the relationships between colors. It presents a sequence of pure hues. And it shows the most common types of color pairings.

How Do Complementary Colors Work 

Colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel are complementary colors. They “cancel” each other, if you mix them.

This means that they create an achromatic (white, gray or black) light mixture.

That’s why you can describe a shade of yellow as having a tinge of orange/green. But you can’t say ‘reddish green’ or ‘purple with a hint of yellow’.

Basic color theory says that the more different two colors are, the more contrast they produce.

Complementary colors are as different as it gets. They reinforce each other’s brightness while preserving color balance.

Complementary colors offer the strongest contrast, creating a vivid and energizing effect. This effect is most prominent at maximum saturation.

But the beautiful thing about complementary colors is that they create contrast in a natural way. You don’t need to try to create it in post-production.

Combining them is the natural technique to catch the viewer’s attention. And to have a strong, contrasting palette.

How to Find Complementary Color Pairs

There are three traditional pairs of complementary colors.

  • red and green;
  • yellow and purple;
  • orange and blue.

But the way you find these pairs depends on which colors you count as primary colors.

That is to say colors that you can’t create through any combination of other colors. All other colors derive from these limited number of hues.

The most common color model takes red, yellow and blue as its primaries (RYB color model). This is a set of colors used in subtractive color mixing.

Painters considered red, yellow and blue as primary colors for centuries. But they still used more than three RYB primary colors in their palettes.  And at one point they considered red, yellow, blue and green to be the four primaries.

However, printers and designers who use modern subtractive color methods use magenta, yellow, and cyan. This is the CMY color model.

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