Color theory in picture - Sunrise over the water with mountains and bird - Pink and blue pastel colors

What is Color? In a nutshell, it's a mix of a hue, saturation & luminance (HSL). But In real life, color is more complicated than that. You have cones & rods in your eyes that will affect how you see colors, some of us only perceive some colors. And humans can only see a little part of the color spectrum, starting at the shortest wavelength which is red all the way up to purple. Our human eyes can't see beyond that :(

HUE = The value of the color | from 0 to 360 | Blue, red, orange, pink are all hues.
SATURATION = The strength of a hue | Usually from 0 to 100 | 0 = grey, 100 = overly saturated
LUMINANCE = How black or how white a hue is AKA color balance | Usually from -100 to +100 | -100 = pure black +100 = Pure white

So, what is Color theory? Simply put, it's how we as humans perceive different kinds of colors. With a graphic design background and a real love for editing and shooting, this is something I really want to talk about. Color influences your images WAY more than you might think. If you don't learn color theory, you are shooting yourself in the foot. Learn how to exploit colors in your images and films to engage your audience and create the emotion YOU want them to feel. Understand what Color theory is, how to use color psychology and the color wheel. Create color scheme and palette to manipulate your art. Create nice colour combination like complementary colors. Master the psychology of colors, one step at a time. I'll break it down in 3 parts: Color psychology | Tones and shades | Color palettes.

Every main hue and what they are associated with AKA: Color Psychology

There are no set ways to apply colors, but understanding how they work, how they complement each other but also what emotions they transmit will really add to your creativity. To be honest, I am not someone who have emotional intelligence, and Color psychology really helped me out to understand life & people around me, not only in photography and filmmaking.

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  • Red
    Anger - Danger - Passion - Lust - Love - Sex - Cruelty - Hate

    In the shadows (Like the thumbnail picture) it can add a subtle nostalgic feel to your picture. If red is your main hue, which is really hard to pull off correctly, you can create a strong connection.
    We humans react very vividly to red. But again, really hard to pull off for that specific reason.

  • Yellow
    Radiant - Optimistic - Sunny - Energetic - Optimism - Cheerful - Hazardous

    Apply in shadows for a flattering tone - Use in highlights to add a sunny vibe. Otherwise overly yellow images make your subject happy and energized, but can be used creatively to counteract this.

  • Orange
    Adventurous - Warm - Fun - Friendly - Vitality - Stress

    Exploit in your split-toning to help with skin tones. Orange is one of the hues that has the strongest effect when playing with it as it affects skin tones and sits right in the middle of the warm hues, it cast its presence on the other hues in a certain way.

  • Pink
    Feminine - Magical - Sentimental - Luxury - Sex - Weakness

    Pink is one hue that you don't find that often naturally if it happens it's because it's a rare phenomenon: Flamingos, cherry blossoms, lakes, beaches, some rocks, flowers - That's about it. A very specific hue. Used a lot as a feminine hue. Also, think of night shots, sunsets, and outrun or pastel colors. Pink is also light and soft. it matches so so good with deep greens :)


  • Blue
    Authentic - Cool - Personal - Compassionate - Peaceful - Secluded

    It's a relaxing hue, the complete opposite of red. You can use that fact to induce mood. if you want to add a note of mystery and serenity to your picture, blue is one you got to consider using!

  • Turquoise
    Serenity - Balance - Control - Self-awareness - Spiritual - Envy

    Turquoise recalls tropical vibes. think of that blue clear water on a beach where you can see the corals and the fish swimming (yes please more of that). A rich hue that evokes adventure and self-consciousness.

  • Green
    Knowledge - Intelligence - Natural - Growth - Wealth - Destruction - Vigority - Immaturity - Lifelessness - Toxicity

    Like orange, green is a hue that's often going to affect your edit quite a bit. Greens in highlights, if used correctly will add nostalgia (again). It replicates a film effect, a timeless look. It can also be applied to create a negative emotion. Uses of prominent greens in a dark environment can convey futility & create a trapped environment, like in the Matrix.

  • Purple
    Fantasy - Magic - Rich - Classy - Rare

    Purple is an unreal hue. You see it at sunsets, but rarely naturally, the rarest physical hue on earth. That's why it has no big effect when you use the sliders and play around with it. It's a nice color to apply in night shoots though!! And you can utilize it to add a magical effect to a scene or even transport your viewers to another world!


Pro tip: You have dominant and receding colors. Dominant colors are the ones that our eyes catch first, they are more often than not warm hues, like red & orange (it has something to do with the fact that our skin is orange, we recognizes humans first). For receding colors, they are the colors we tend to see last, like blue & purple. If you ever looked at mountains or another object very far in the distance, you notice a blue tint to it. You can apply this principle to your creations :)

Unsaturated Image
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Unsaturated images (or tones) tends to give off a feeling of emptiness, desolation & being lost. They also do not really attract our eyes. It's kind of like dulling something. But that can all be utilized to your advantage! On the other hand, saturated images give off this vibe of energy, life & purpose! Way too saturated images feel like amateur work.

Saturated image
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Color theory and psychology in editing - Overxposed shot.jpg
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To be honest, we can also call this over-exposition or under-exposition. In the best of both worlds, you want your footage to be dead center when taking the picture or recording your films, but that can all be exploited creatively. Overexposed shots will feel dreamy or fulfilling (White+Purple). Contrarily, Underexposed shots are scary and mysterious (Black+Blue).

Interesting fact: Yellow is the brightest and blue is the darkest color.

Color theory and psychology in editing - underexposed shot.jpg
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Now we are getting into the interesting part. Creating balance and discord in your images by understanding how each color work together to create a masterpiece. there's a bunch of colors that fit together very nicely, and using color palettes might help your edits.

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Probably the most known color scheme and easy to pull off, but still very impressive! Complementary colors oppose themselves on the color wheel, meaning they have the most contrast in relation to one another! Very popular ones include: Teal and Orange / Red and Green / Purple and Yellow

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Color theory and psychology - Analogous colors
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Analogous colors are close to each other on the color wheel. this palette is harmonious and pleasing to look at. You see it really often in nature! A good example would be the color of leaves going from green to red when they start to wither as the winter comes (just like me).

Color theory Wheel - analogous color palette
20181031-DSC01573.jpgColor theory and psychology - Analogous colors
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Color theory and psychology - monochromatic color palette
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Monochromatic palettes exploit only ONE hue in all its glory. Really hard to pull off as it can be dull and have no points of interests. The color you choose will influence your image much more. So make sure your image and hue really match!

Color theory Wheel - analogous color palette
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Color theory and psychology - Triadic color palette.jpg
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Triadic palette exploits 3 hues equally distant on the Color wheel. It's a palette that tends to be vibrant, even if you use different tones & shades. A good rule is to utilize 1 dominant color and accent it with the other 2. It's also one way to create saturated images that look nice without cranking the saturation slider to 100+ (please don't do that).

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Black and white achromatic clock on a building - Color theory.jpg
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Black & white color palettes are timeless. There's something to it that makes your bad photos look good. B&W is overused that's for sure & lots of people exploit this because they don't understand colors; a bit like cheating. It's really a game of contrast. Learning black and white can improve your color knowledge too! Achromatic palettes tend to create artistic images, like fine art. There's a whole art behind B&W pictures, which requires an article of its own (tone, textures, sharpness…).

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Black and white achromatic landscape and portrait - Color theory
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Rule of thirds, the golden ratio, parallel lines, minimalism, shapes, center frame, focus. But did you know that you can actually use colors to compose your shots? Here are 3 ways to isolate a subject with colors.

Single hue picture - Red flower picture - Color theory and psychology
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This will greatly concentrate the focus of the viewer to your subject. the choice of your colors will also affect what the emotion is portrayed. They are rarely occurring naturally. That is why I love to post-process my photos. Flowers and other contrasty elements work great, like a yellow cab in a street or a spark of light in the night.

Single hue picture - Black and gold - Color theory and psychology
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Bold color street - Color theory and psychology
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A minimalist and simple composition that works very well. Using bold and strong hues have a big visual appeal. Especially when you have theses composition techniques: Frame within a frame - Negative space - contrast - Shapes - symmetry. Basically, everything that includes geometry in your picture will work hand in hand with bold colors. They tend to be a little bit artsy and happens a lot in architecture and man-made things.

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Now you know how hue saturation and luminance affect your images and you also know a few colors that pair well together. You might be tempted to go guns blazing in Lightroom and start editing! That's good don't be afraid to experiment, but also don't overdo it! There's also so much that goes into a great film or photo, not only colors. We might think about composition, Lighting, Music, frame rate choice, sound effect, pacing… there's a plethora more to this list… you get the point. Keep on learning about this art form :) If you enjoyed it please consider following me on my IG, or not :)

Note: there are no "good” or "bad” application of colors, you might wanna go for a style that clashes, and breaking the rules might just work! These are guidelines and more often than not it's a good rule to follow :)

If you want to work with me you can contact me here :)

Thanks for reading. Here's a free Lightroom preset | Vintage and tones.