The Psychology Of Color

The Psychology of Color

Color shouldn’t be taken for granted. The more you understand the psychology of color, how colors fall on the color wheel, how color harmony works and how color opposites play off each other, the better you’ll be able to use it in your photography. Warm tones such as yellow, red and orange provide the viewer with specific messages that are very different from photographs that contain mostly greens, blues and purples. Commensurate with these color family messages come circumstances where warm reds appear with cool blues and an additional understanding needs to be addressed to know how to integrate these families.

Open Photoshop and go to IMAGE > ADJUSTMENTS > COLOR BALANCE. Three sliders will appear. The top slider adjusts cyan and red in that they’re opposites. The middle slider adjusts magenta and green in that they’re opposites. The bottom slider adjusts yellow and blue in that they’re opposites. Cyan, magenta and yellow are subtractive colors. Red, green and blue are additive. Images that contain opposite colors produce impact. Think of fall-colored aspen leaves offset against a deep blue sky—the leaves pop off the page. Yellow and blue are opposites!

The Psychology of Color

Warm tones can be striking when they’re fully saturated. They can also appear in pastel tones yet still have striking appearances depending on what other colors appear in the photo. For instance, a muted set of taillights amidst a deep fog void of color will still jump off the image due to the soft gray fog. Let’s take a look at how each warm tone affects the mind and a photograph.

Reds: Red subjects are high on the list of many photographers. Red has striking qualities and it commands attention. This is one of the reasons stop signs are red. Their shape and color are universal and their meaning is obvious regardless of the sign’s language. Red is associated with many subjects—it can connote anger, love, warmth, passion, energy and more. When the color red appears in a photo, it’s hard to overlook. It’s this fact that makes red so important. If you include something red in a composition, be sure it has significance and fits the intent of the photograph. If it’s included yet lacks cohesiveness with other subject matter, viewers may be left wondering why the “red thing” is in the photo.

The Psychology of Color

Oranges: Orange has many characteristics of red, but in a less intense way. It still commands attention, but if you place a red subject next to an orange one, the eye will first go to the red and then immediately to the orange. Think about this scenario to show the power of orange: Two hikers walk a green forest trail in the middle of summer. One wears a sky blue t-shirt with green shorts. The other wears orange bike shorts and tank top. The person wearing the bike outfit will stand out much more prominently. Think about the power of orange. Traffic cones are made of orange so they can be seen. Prison outfits are orange for obvious reasons. Construction workers wear orange vests so motorists can spot them. If you want to be noticed, wear orange.

Yellows: Yellow is synonymous with openness, cheer, rebirth and friendliness. Think about spring and summer—yellow flowers bring new life and warmth. Yellow is also an attention getter—think about traffic signs such as YIELD and WARNING. On a traffic light, it also signals caution. Yellow is often used in advertisements as an attention getter. Don’t take color for granted—use it to your advantage!

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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.


    A lot of shots today looked ‘photoshopped’, so the reds, oranges, etc have a disney look to them, seemingly to grab attention for the reasons you detail; I have mixed opinions about it. What do you think and should photographers reveal this if appropriate?

    Deborah – being a nature photographer, I whole heartedly agree with you. I sometimes bring up the “Vibrance” a bit. Rarely do I touch the Saturation slider – I’ve seen lots of garish results when the saturation slider is over used. My business tag line is, “It’s All About The Light.” With this in mind, I use the intensity, angle and drama of light to rely on colors. Hope this helps.

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