Photo Composition for Better Photography
Notes from the Web



Color has a number of physical and perceive characteristics that are described by various representative systems, i.e., color spaces. Each of the possible color spaces is described by a three dimensional system of related characteristic. For example

  • Digital images are describe by the red, green, blue (RGB) color space
  • Printing uses a cyan, yellow, magenta (CYM) color space.
  • TV uses the luminance-chrominance (YUV and YIQ) color spaces
  • Artists typically use a hue, saturation, intensity (HSI) color space


For this discussion, lets concentrate on the HSI color space since the hue and saturation of colors respond closely to the way humans perceive color.

  • Hue - the dominant wavelength of light that is emitted or reflected from an object; hue is what most of us call color
  • Saturation - The purity or strength of a hue in terms of its dilution by black, white, or gray. Low saturation (0-20%) results in gray regardless of the hue; middle saturation (40-60%) produces pastels; and high saturation (80-100%) results in vivid colors.
  • Intensity - the brightness or energy level of reflected light devoid of color content. Intensity is also referred to as luminance or lightness.

Intensity contains most of the "spatial' information in a scene, and the human visual system processes this first. After this has been processed, the eye then recognizes the hue and saturation of what it is viewing.

One photographer recommended squinting in order to perceive the overall balance of intensity of a scene.


More definitions

  • Shade : A hue produced by the addition of black.
  • Tint : A hue produced by the addition of white.


Primary and Secondary Colors

  • Primary - Red, Yellow, and Blue . These colors cannot be mixed from any other colors
  • Secondary - Orange, green and violet These colors are made by mixing two primary Colors.
  • Tertiary - also called intermediate colors - red-orange, yellow-green, and blue-violet are examples. These colors are made by mixing one primary and one secondary color together.

Color wheel illustration showing the relationship of primary and secondary colors


Complementary colorsĀ 

Are desirable in any painting or photograph, and can be used together to create harmony.

If you place the Primary and Secondary colors on a 'Color Wheel' you will find that

  • Red will be opposite Green;
  • Orange will be opposite Blue
  • Yellow will be opposite Violet.
  • Example, a Red barn in a Green field of grass has harmony.
  • Example: The Blue and Orange sky of sunset has color harmony.

Always look for complementary colors


UN-Complementary Colors

Certain colors 'react' very strongly with each other to give "Strong Contrasts' and to many people these will become 'Discords' rather than 'Harmonies'.


Color Schemes (from Ergo Gero Color FAQ)

Monotone achromatic: neutral colors only, white, black gray. Easy to use but requires expert care to avoid complete boredom. See the Next interface as an example of how effective a neutral design can be.

Monotone chromatic: a single chromatic color ranging in brightness and saturation: red, pink, rose, etc. Easy to use but again risks monotony.

Analogous hues: two or three colors close to each other in color space: blue-greens, etc. Easy to use.

Complementary hues: contrasting hues: blue-orange, red-green. Requires care since it can appear garish and unbusinesslike. Works best when the two differ significantly in brightness and one is relatively desaturated, , e. g., a dimmer, desaturated red and a brighter saturated green.

Split complementary hues: uses three colors, one base color plus two, near, but not directly across, color space: orange with blue-greens. Works best when colors from opposite sides differ significantly in brightness and color(s) from one side is/are desaturated. Usually produces a less garish feeling than a simple complementary scheme.

Triad hues: uses three hues approximately equidistant in color space: red-yellow-blue. Desaturate at least two hues. Triad schemes are often embedded in a generally neutral field, so it would work well on a typical Windows gray background.

Tetrad color: uses 4 hues at equal intervals in color space: yellow-green-orange/red- blue/violet. Leave this to the experts.


Psychological Factors

Colors are also commonly associated with a psychological "temperature" and are divided into warm and cool categories.

Reds, oranges and yellows produce a warm and active feeling. They also appear to advance toward the eye because they seem nearer than they actually are.

The cool colors are blues, greens and violets. Tints of these colors create a restful and soothing feeling unless they are too intense in chroma. Cool colors are also known as receding hues since they appear farther away than they actually are.

In nature, atmospheric conditions cause objects that are father away to loose their intensity. This mental conditioning suggests that some colors advance toward us while others recede.

  • A very intense, bright cool color will seem to advance, but a dull warm color will recede.
  • Whether a color psychologically advances or recedes depends on the hue. (Warm colors advance, cool hues recede)

The meanings that people attach to color changes with culture and context. For example, blue can sometimes mean power and at other times sadness.



  • Eye always goes to the lightest and brightest colors
  • Red always attracts the eye, no matter where it is in the picture
  • Background color has a strong influence on color appearance.
  • Ambient light can affect color appearance.
  • When there are more than about 6 colors, ability to pick out individual elements declines.
  • Color similarity is the best way to convey that two things are the same type. Color differences are the best way to convey that two things are different type.