Color Theory Basics: With Kathleen Cashman

April 6, 2018 0 Comments

Today is more learning about the principle of color theory!  I think once you understand it, it can help you improve in your photography so much!  Kathleen Cashman (aka Kat) is sharing all she knows about the wonderful world of color with us today!


I love to use color in my photography.  My main areas of photography are the genres that allow me to control many aspects of my frames (like macro, landscape, conceptual), and most of the time, I choose to include vibrant color.  I do enjoy contrasty black and white images occasionally, but I think, dream, and see in a very wide color gamut.   One of the things that really helped me to improve my use of color in photography early in my journey, was learning about color theory.


Even if you are not a scholar of color theory, you have probably noticed that certain colors look better together than others do.  You can’t always choose what colors are present in a scene you are photographing, but it is very useful to keep in mind some basic principles about how colors can work together to emphasize your subject.  The best way to visualize color relationships is with a color wheel, like the one shown here.



You can pick any color on the color wheel and placed directly opposite is its complementary color.  Complementary colors (A) are probably the simplest and best-known color scheme, and for good reason!  Complementary colors have the greatest contrast, and using these colors together results in images that are vibrant and energetic. A very effective way to have your subject stand out, is to select a background that is of a complementary color.


The tetradic color scheme (B), involves four colors, consisting of two complementary pairs (one cool pair and one warm pair) that reside at opposite sides of the color wheel. This color scheme can be overwhelming to the viewer if you are not careful, so experimenting with judicious combinations of colors to balance cool and warm tones in the frame, and allowing one of the colors to lead the rest can minimize distractions.

Monochromatic and Analogous (C) color schemes have a similar feel, but there is an important distinction between them.  Analogous colors are next to each other on the color wheel, whereas a monochromatic scheme describes a gradient of saturation, highlights and shadows of a single color.  Analogous colors are well represented in nature, thus a quick search for landscape or nature photography on Instagram will provide plenty of examples of masterful use of complementary colors to produce harmonious, peaceful images.  One thing to keep in mind when incorporating complementary colors into your images is that this color scheme (along with the monochromatic scheme) tends to be of low contrast, so post-processing to enhance contrast where appropriate will help the overall impact.



The triadic color scheme (D) uses three colors that are evenly spaced across the color wheel, in the shape of a triangle.  Similar to the tetradic color scheme, the triadic color scheme can be very bold and vibrant.  To ensure harmony in your image, experiment with this scheme by choosing one of the three colors as your showcase color, then choose desaturated versions of the other two colors in combination.  Layering of the colors can also be used, such as in the example image.


Don’t forget to have a little fun with the color wheel, too!  You can make any combinations you like.  One of my favorite things to do is to create harmony and balance with analogous colors, but then punch it up a little bit by incorporating a complementary color as the subject, like this backlit red-orange flower nestled in with the analogous layers of green and the blue sky.

Maybe it’s because I am a scientist, but I LOVE to experiment!   I experiment in post-processing by pushing my colors as far as I can, and like blowing stuff up in the lab sometimes (I am…uh…just joking about that?) I can totally blow up my color gamut by sliding those sliders for vibrance and saturation too far at times.  Hey.  If they weren’t meant to slide, they wouldn’t call them sliders, would they?   You can always check if you are staying within the color gamut by using the soft proofing feature in Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop, or a similar feature in Lightroom alternative programs.  Even if the gamut check shows me that I have obliterated a color channel (it’s always red–the danged red channel is my nemesis), I don’t always remedy that.  It’s very important to stay within gamut for printing, but if the image will only be seen on screen, often I will leave it alone, and I don’t feel guilty about it.  Too much.  🙂


Kathleen Cashman is a career scientist and an enthusiastic hobbyist photographer. She is drawn to the painterly genres of landscape, macro, still life, portraiture and conceptual photography, mostly because she has the heart and soul of a painter, but no talent with a painter’s brush. Photography allows her to use light, technology, creative post-processing, and her imagination to “paint” with pixels.  Kathleen’s work can be seen on Instagram here and on the Click Pro Daily Project page here.

Emily Hamson

I'm a mom of 4 wild boys, who photographs mostly nature (partly because they don't run away or pull faces at me like my boys do). Being behind my camera is my therapy! In 2017 I decided to embark upon a personal photography project to find more creative ways to use my camera, and the CIC was born. I love to learn anything that goes along with photography, but I really love helping others learn new techniques even more!