If You're Shooting in Color, There's Something You Really Need to Know

If you are shooting in color but have no familiarity with color theory, you could be leaving a lot on the table when it comes to the quality and impact of your photography. Even an image with perfect exposure and artful composition can still be a dud if it lacks a compelling color palette.

In an age of digital media in which technology often plays an essential role in the creation of art, there’s a natural tendency to divide the elements of the creative process along technical and artistic lines. In photography, for example, we might place in the technical category knowledge of sensors, optics, the exposure triangle and the use of software for processing images, etc. On the other hand, elements like composition, texture, form, and the use of light, are more likely to be considered as artistic aspects of photography.

The photographic tools that we use today can require so much technical knowledge that it’s easy to convince yourself that you’ve mastered the technical aspects of your craft once you’ve mastered the technology. Beyond all the technical aspects of your digital camera, optics, and software however, there are technical aspects to the “art” of photography that many photographers are unaware of, to the detriment of their artistry.

Moses Harris, from his book “The Natural System of Colours” (1776) - Project Gutenberg
The study of color theory has since antiquity been a core component in the technical education of visual artists, and has been applied to great effect by painters in particular, in the creation of some of the world’s greatest art. It should therefore come as no surprise that some of the world’s greatest photographers started their careers as painters, and brought what they learned from their training as artists, into the world of photography. Saul Leiter for example, was a lifelong painter who also achieved great renown as a street photographer. In fact if you have not already done so, I would recommend checking out Saul Leiter’s catalog. It is a veritable showcase of the mastery of color, and an invaluable resource for any photographer seeking to improve their color work.

In this short but very informative video that is a must-see for any photographer who has never encountered color theory, Justin Laurens introduces its basic concepts, backed up by practical demonstrations of how different color combinations can work together to enhance or diminish the visual impact of a photograph. The examples he shows in the video illustrate very nicely how much a thoughtful color palette can enhance an image, using, for example, complementary or analogous colors to augment the mood or feeling that you want to capture in your photograph. In demonstrating how a poor choice of color palette can turn an otherwise excellent photograph into something pretty bland, Justin also makes a really good case for why every photographer should acquire at least some basic knowledge of color theory if they are serious about making great images.

Gordon Webster's picture

Gordon Webster is a professional photographer based in New England. He has worked with clients from a wide range of sectors, including retail, publishing, music, independent film production, technology, hospitality, law, energy, agriculture, construction, manufacturing, medical, veterinary, and education.

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Nothing wrong with this, but it would be way more useful if the repetition about the importance of colour was cut out and replaced by some examples fixing shots that lack harmony.


Good overall article but if your monitor(s) aren't calibrated or your printer(s) don't have the proper setup in you editing software you can still not achieve the color balance you desire.

haha appearing to call black and white images 'ordinary' vs color 'exceptional and memorable'