Capture Chromatic Compositions

The colors that are included in a given composition are important to the emotional response an image receives. While it’s impossible to dictate color in your subjects, it’s not impossible to dictate what you include in your viewfinder that determines where colors fall and how they work either in conjunction with or in opposition to each other. (More about this can be found below in the section on the Color Wheel.) Learn to incorporate color to make it look as if it was created with intention rather than happenstance. Warm tones affect a viewer differently than cool tones. Saturated color versus muted color provides different emotional feelings. The more cognizant you are of the colors you include or how they play off each other, the more deliberately you can affect the way the viewer perceives your images.

The Color Wheel: Study the diagram of the above color wheel. Note how the Temperature and Tint sliders in Adobe Camera RAW relate to the fact yellow and blue are opposites, as are green and magenta. The sliders are also found in the Develop module for those who use Lightroom. Combining yellow and blue hues in the same image is good to bring warm tones forward and have cool tones recede. That’s why fall foliage against a cool blue sky often has impact. Since green and magenta are opposites, it’s good to include forested mountains with an alpenglow on mountaintops to bring the early or late light forward and have the greens of the forest recede. Opposites are magenta/green, red/cyan and yellow/blue. Opposite sides of the color wheel create opposing hues. Complementary colors are adjacent to the primary hue. For instance, adjacent to red are orange and magenta. They provide color harmony since they’re in the same color family.

Temperature Control: Warm tones live on the right side of a color wheel, while cool tones exist on the left. Warm tones elicit feelings of excitement, love, passion, joy and happiness. Cool tones are soothing and evoke serenity, peacefulness and calmness. Think of it this way—you’re more likely to paint the walls of your bedroom in subtle shades of blue or aqua instead of red, orange or yellow since the bedroom is a place of rest. Images of Caribbean blue water triggers soothing thoughts, while photos of vibrant sunsets generate excitement. Apply these aspects to your photography, and you’ll impact the way viewers perceive your photos.

Employ Opposites: As stated above, yellow/blue are opposites, as are green/magenta. The warm tones of each combination come forward while the cool ones recede. In the above scenics, note how your eye first goes to the magenta illuminating the mountain and the yellow of the aspens. The greens and blues become secondary elements and are noticed after seeing the magenta and yellow subjects. As you create future compositions, if you want warm tones to really pop, create compositions where they’re offset against cool ones.

Stay Cool/Get Hot: When opposite colors are included in the same image, impact is created. However, drama in color psychology doesn’t end there. Photos with adjacent colors on the color wheel also provide impact. Images with color that lives on the cool left side of the color wheel and those that live on the warm right side can be stunning. This is known as color harmony. Don’t shy away from subjects that are predominately one color. As a matter of fact, seek this out and find compositions where a touch of warmth is added to a cool-tone image or a touch of cold is added to a warm-tone image. In the photo that represents “Stay Cool,” note how the two very tiny yellow trees in the lower left attract the eye.

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Photography is what motivates me to move through life in a positive way. Photography is ͞All About The Light͟ and it’s the first thing I seek out before I press the shutter. Optimally, I pursue great subjects in great light, but if there’s an ordinary subject in great light, I still press the shutter. I love to share the photographic knowledge I’ve accumulated and I hope my enthusiasm is contagious so I can motivate others to feel the same way I do about my photography.


    Beautiful photos as always, Russ. And your eloquent explanation of technical skills reads as beautifully concise and clear as the writings of John Muir. You explain things so well. Thank you for sharing your extensive talents and knowledge.

    James – WOW – it’s great feedback from people like you that continue to inspire and motivate me to write and share all I know so that others can apply these concepts and turn out better images. MUCH APPRECIATED!!!!!

    Russ – some people use LUTs programs to “dictate” the colours they want – personally, no – not that I have hysterics over what other people produce with their photography, and blast them for making changes like that. (If photography is “art” in any sense at all, then surely anyone is entitled to create whatever image he or she wants?)

    But jumping past all that – sometimes, we can improve the colours we are given, by “choosing” the light. There’s the warmth of the golden hours – the coolness of the blue hours – and the allegedly ghastly middle of the day, when we are all supposed to give our cameras a siesta. And this can often help change the colours to something better suited to the ideas inherent in using the colour-wheel approach.

    Jean – absolutely! Time of day is a huge factor that determines the color temperature of any photo. The fact you know that is fantastic – spread the word!

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