How Color Theory Improves Your Photography and Retouching

How Color Theory Improves Your Photography and Retouching

The wrong elements of color can disrupt the harmony of photographs and distract the viewer from the story you’re trying to tell. When we’re deliberate though, we can use color theory while planning the components of our photos and use color grading to allow us to create compelling images that add emotion to help us create a story. Dynamic images are created through complementary colors that develop harmony in wardrobe and location, lighting, and mood. Fortunately, there are numerous resources to understanding and implementing color.

Color harmonies are color combinations the human eye finds appealing. Several color harmonies can be followed to help understand color theory: 

Apps such as Pantone Studio and Adobe Color CC, which Los Angeles-based Photographer Zach Sutton introduced me to, utilize color theory to enable us to plan and create visually-pleasing color palettes for photoshoots. For example, they can help you discover dominant colors in the environment when scouting for locations, which can help you plan a complementary wardrobe. Or, if you have a wardrobe already planned, they’ll help you find a complementary location.

Photo by Emily Teague

Let’s talk about what color actually is. The fundamentals of color are made up of three elements:

  1. Value (light versus dark)

  2. Saturation (the amount of gray in a color)

  3. Hue (the actual color)

Understanding the fundamentals of color enables us to better understand how to complement and manipulate color when color grading during post-processing. Portland-based Photographer Kate Woodman has made a name for herself as a master of color. “As human beings, our brain is designed to seek out natural patterns and a sense of order,” said Woodman. “Color harmony is the visual manifestation of this. When we see color in harmony our brain reaches a kind of contented equilibrium.”

Color doesn't only connect us to the natural world, but to our common histories and experiences as well. Woodman continues: "There is a profound psychological element to color, founded on past experiences — both individually and as a collective. The same color can bridge people from worlds apart, or it can divide those in the same room."

Photo by Kate Woodman with Color Palette.

We can use color to control mood and to shape the viewers' emotions. Patti Bellantoni's book, “If It's Purple, Someone's Gonna Die,” describes the relationship between color and emotions. The book is divided into six sections that describe different connotations attached to each color as well as how they’re used in films to evoke emotion. We can learn so much just from the chapter titles in the book:

  • Chapter 1: Powerful, Lusty, and Defiant Reds
  • Chapter 2: Anxious, Angry, and Romantic Reds
  • Chapter 3: Exuberant, Obsessive, and Daring Yellows
  • Chapter 4: Innocent, Cautionary, and Idyllic Yellows
  • Chapter 5: Powerless, Cerebral, and Warm Blues
  • Chapter 6: Melancholy, Cold, and Passive Blues
  • Chapter 7: Warm, Naïve, and Romantic Oranges
  • Chapter 8: Exotic, Toxic, and Natural Earth Oranges
  • Chapter 9: Healthy, Ambivalent, and Vital Greens
  • Chapter 10: Poisonous, Ominous, and Corrupt Greens
  • Chapter 11: Asexual, Illusory, and Fantastic Purples
  • Chapter 12: Mystical, Ominous, and Ethereal Purples

Before photographers, painters utilized color. As students of painting, we can benefit from their knowledge of color. Before beginning her photography career, Fine Art Photographer Bella Kotak studied painting. Insights she gained as a student of painting continue to inform her photography and retouching work, and form a foundation of the color grading work for her Fine Art Actions.

“When it comes to studying paintings in museums, I find myself wondering what kind of story is the artist trying to share," Kotak said, "The artist has been very deliberate in their choice of subject, color, and composition. I believe color plays an important role in the art of storytelling. And so, when it comes to my work I ask myself: what kind of story do I want the color to tell? How does it influence the mood or composition? What does it tell you about what is going on in the scene? It's these questions that help fine-tune an image and make it a little more crafted and impactful.”

Photo by Bella Kotak with Color Palette.

Each of us are drawn to different color palettes that represent our personal taste and artistic expression. The palettes we navigate to can show a bit of ourselves in our work. I would love to hear how color theory has influenced your work and what kinds of palettes attract your eye. Leave a comment below to let us know.

Images used with permission of Kate Woodman and Bella Kotak.

Emily Teague's picture

Emily Teague is an editorial & commercial photographer working out of Los Angeles and New York. Her style is greatly influenced by her photojournalism, world travels, color, and love for creating visual narratives.

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Such a great piece on a topic that is so often neglected by photographers. A fundamental understanding of color theory will advance your photography far more than the latest camera from Canon, Nikon or Sony ever will.

(and thanks for the shoutout :-) )

I like the idea of the article. As a professional retoucher, color is a big part of my work and most clients come specifically to me for my expertise in this field.

Knowing all that, I can say with certaintythat color has the most impact of all edits done to images

Cheers 🍻

Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge! Colour is something I desperately need to learn more about and this helped me greatly!

Really great read. The fundamental colour theory is key to understanding the cohesive harmony between colours ranging in our images. This is definitely where I spend most of my time when planning a shoot and I find myself often coming back to the colour wheel for guidance. Thank you for sharing!

Amazing read and fitting debut article since your work is deeply rooted in an understanding of color theory. Hope to learn from you and vise versa :)

Color theory is extremely easy to understand if you put some time into it. I once taught with an instructor you told our students that color theory was the most difficult concept that she had ever learned. Luckily for the world, she is no longer screwing with students mnds.I spend 5 minutes with each student that heard her ill conceived approach and they all walked away with a smile on their faces.

Don't let it throw you. It is easy to master and as the article makes clear, very useful in all areas of photography color or monochrome.

Thanks for the great article.


What a wonderful article. I don't have the background to contribute to the question you posed: but you've pointed me to the steps in learning about the subject.

I'm really happy to hear this- thanks Andrew! :)

This is an awesome article. Is there any article out there that would describe how to utilize this theory in Lightroom?

Incredible article girl, great job!!! The examples and explanations are perfect and easy to understand

Bravo, Emily! This is such a good topic.

Such a great article ,i wanna know more about colors .. Thinking about order Patti Bellantoni's book,

great points all around yes, color theory was one of the biggest things that transformed my work!

Anyone has recommendation for website as an app for a phone?

Wonderful bookmark I'll refer to again and again. And the Adobe Color App is a great tool! Thank you.

Lots of great points! I'm definitely interested in improving on color theory and this really helped!

This is super helpful! Thanks Emily! Now I have to check out that book

Really like this, going to invest time in learning more.

The best article on Fstoppers for a very very long time!

First, what a well written, informative, and interesting article, well done Emily!

I think I lean towards analogous... I'm honestly not sure how color does or doesn't influence me though.. haha. I think I prefer the browns and oranges color pallets, but sometimes blues are cool and sometimes I force myself to do something in/with red.

Again, great read, thx for the write-up ;)

Expertly written with amazing photos as examples. Emily Teague is one of my favorite photographers, she's just jaw-droppingly talented. I will continue to anxiously watch her career. :)

Such a big smile on my face reading this. Thank you, Ernesto!! :)