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Basic color theory

Being red/green color blind introduces some difficulties working with color in photography. Up til now the pictures have been a majority of B&W. Mostly because I like it more, but also because of a lack of understanding color theory. We were assigned a task in my picture communication to take two pictures where we actively use color to project a certain message/emotion. The first should have color contrasts, i.e., complimentary colors. The second with color harmony, i.e., colors next to each other on the color wheel. Before we explain the terms color harmony and contrast, I though it would be a good idea to cover some of the basic color theory. Foremost for my self. If anyone else has benefit from this, it is a bonus.

Colors come from light and Photography means to paint with light. Therefore to understand colors and photography better one should start with light itself. There is an ongoing “argument/research” whether or not light is particles or waves. I am not a physicist and it is not necessary for us to know the answer. For the purpose of a photographer light is waves. Depending on the wavelength the light falls into one of several categories in the electromagnetic spectrum as explained below:

The Electromagnetic Spectrum
The Electromagnetic Spectrum

Visible light spans from around 400nm being purple to 750nm being red. The light goes through, from right to left, the following colors:

  • Red
  • Orange
  • Yellow
  • Chartreuse green
  • Green
  • Spring Green
  • Cyan
  • Azure
  • Blue
  • Violet
  • Magenta
  • Rose

Lets place the colours in a wheel going clockwise. It turns out that we can get all the colours in the wheel by mixing a set of colors together. The first set is the colours red, green and blue. These colours are called the primary colours. The second set is called the secondary colours and consists of the colours between the primary colours, i.e., cyan, magenta, yellow.

The colours between a primary and secondary color is called tertiary colours. Like the primary and secondary colours they are also produced by mixing the colours adjacent to them. They are sometimes named by the following scheme: primary-secondary colour, e.g., red-yellow or green-cyan.

Color Wheel
Color Wheel

The way I remember the color wheel is  simply by remember the primary and secondary colours: RGB and CMY. Start by placing RGB in a triangle going clockwise. Step one place “back from blue” and continue with the secondary: CMY between the primary. One thing to notice is how the primary and secondary colours are opposite to each other: Red-Cyan, Green-Magenta and Blue-Yellow. If one increase a primary color one decreases the opposite secondary color, and vise versa. This is exactly what one do with the color balance filter in Photoshop.

Colours opposite to each other are called complimentary colours. they create great contrast in the picture. The picture I created was with red and blue.

Colours that are next to each other are called analogous colours and create harmony. The picture I created was with green, yellow and cyan.

Working with this assignment actually improved my Black&White photography and was an eye opener to the beautiful colors around me. It is funny how one starts to see things first when one focuses on it. So for a couple of weeks I was constantly looking at colours around me.

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