How To Get The Best Colour Out Of Your Photos

How To Get The Best Colour Out Of Your Photos

Black and white has long been the default “artistic” style for photographs, so it can be easy to forget how compelling a colour photograph can be. Here’s an in-depth guide to help you get amazing colour in your photos.

An Introduction To Colour

We could talk for hours about the science of colour and how it works, but that’s only going to go so far in helping you with your photos, so we’ll save it for another time. Instead, let’s just have a quick chat about the colour wheel and what we can do with it.

Types Of Colour

Before we can get into using colour, we have to have a basic understanding of the types. So let’s breeze through this so we can get to the fun stuff.

Primary colours are colours at their most basic level. We mix primary colours together to make the other colours. Here we have red, yellow and blue. On the computer we’re actually dealing with red, green and blue (RGB) as our primaries, but that’s not really relevant for what we want to do here: create nice colour harmonies.

Wow, those secondary colours look ugly together. In most cases, most colour groupings don’t look fantastic when shown together. They tend to look better with colours outside of their group. But what are secondary colours? When you mate two of the primary colours, you end up with a secondary. For example, yellow and blue makes green — but you probably already knew that.

Tertiary colours are the third generation — the grandchildren of the primary colours… except that’s a bad analogy because you make tertiary colours by combining a primary and a secondary colour — and that kind of breeding is frowned on almost anywhere you go.

These are colours that compliment each other. (Did you figure that out already?) If you’re looking at the colour wheel, they’re the colours directly across from one another. They’re supposed to look nice together but that’s not always the case.

Analogous colours are the colours located in close proximity on the colour wheel. In a simplified colour wheel like the one shown above, they’re directly next to each other. On a colour wheel with more colours than your eye can count, they don’t need to be strict neighbours — just pretty close. Using an analogous colour (or two) instead of a direct compliment can sometimes make for a better colour harmony:

At least I think so, anyway. Colour can be a very personal thing, so you want to choose harmonies you enjoy. Even if you don’t think you have a preference, you probably do. Colour is one of the first things we connect with when we’re young. Think about how many times you were asked, “What’s your favourite colour, Sammy?” If your name was Sammy, you probably heard that question a lot.

So if colour is such a personal thing, how do we make appealing colour harmonies? Well, there are really only so many basic colours to work with and there are some general principals (some of which we’ve now covered) that can help to guide you. Let’s look at some examples and pick them apart.

Why do red and cyan work well together? Red is our primary colour in this bunch and cyan is a tertiary colour. Cyan is also a split compliment of red. You get a split compliment when you take a colour, find it’s compliment, and then choose one of the compliment’s analogous colours. In this case red’s compliment is green. Cyan is analogous to green and therefore is a split compliment. Of course, what you’re looking at here isn’t exactly red or exactly cyan, plus there are tonal shifts, but the concept is still the same.

Good old blue and green, the colours of my high school. The problem is that my high school used really obnoxious combinations of the two. In fact, while this looks alright, it’s not necessarily the most compelling. The problem is that the colours are really close together on the wheel. They’re practically analogous. While they look alright together, and could be very compelling in some cases, there’s not a lot of variation going on here. Let’s see what else we can do…

This is interesting. Here we have the blue and green with orange and red. Orange and red are also very close together on the colour wheel, having the same sort of relationship as blue and green. While they might not always be compelling combinations alone, they’re pretty nice when the four are combined. If you’re looking at the colour wheel, you may have noticed these four colours form a rectangle. When looking for a starting point for basic colour harmonies, drawing shapes on the colour wheel can help.

Lastly, let’s take a look at something that’s probably pretty familiar. These are the colours of Flickr, and they were derived from a triad. A triad is an equilateral triangle drawn on the colour wheel. If you’re playing along, you’ll notice if you connect magenta and cyan, the missing link in the triangle is yellow-orange:

The Flickr colours are based in this triad, but orange was dropped for a simpler harmony. If you only want two dominant colours, try playing around with triads and removing one colour for some interesting options.

Before we move on, we have to talk about Adobe Kuler. If you’re looking for a way to find new colour harmonies, Kuler is a great (free) web-based tool to help you look at colour in different ways.

That said, how does all of this apply to photography?

Colour Theory In Photography

Now we’re knee deep in the water and so I have to ask: Have you ever taken a picture of a body of water during a sunset? I have. You’re probably looking at it right now, since it’s right above this sentence. It’s not going to win any awards for Best Sunset Photo or even make it onto the cover of a trashy novel, but it does illustrate a point about colour: colour harmonies can show up naturally in the most regular of places. The orange of the sun and the blue of the sky compliment each other. If you don’t happen to have a lake and a sky handy, dress up one of your Caucasian (or mostly Caucasian) friends in blue jeans and a white t-shirt. That’s a popular combination because white people are really more orange than white — especially if they’re jaundiced. If you have a jaundiced friend, or at least one with a spray tan, go buy a pair of jeans and you’re set for life.

Do you think this spray-tanning room has blue walls by accident? Neither do I.

Spray tanning isn’t the only industry taking advantage of colour harmonies. America’s plastered with an idea we’ve already discussed:

Before Flickr there was the US of A. This is the same dropping-a-colour-from-a-triad concept, only less saturated. Flickr’s colour scheme is secretly patriotic. Who knew?

But what does this all mean? It means there are colour harmonies everywhere you go, and you need to look for them. Capturing a photo with good colour can be as simple as aiming the lens in the right direction, framing up and pressing the shutter. But this is the digital age, so let’s look at how we can manipulate reality for better photos when reality just doesn’t live up to the task.

Before The Shutter

Don’t get too excited. Most of what you can do to manipulate colour for the good of your photo before pressing the shutter is thinking and planning. Sorry, there’s not a lot of magic here.

Subjects And Backgrounds

This is easier than you think. Just like the spray-tanner against the blue wall, it can be as simple as placing your subject in front of the colour you want. In the photo above, I placed my friend Christine in front of a white wall that gained a green tint from some glass that’s out of frame. Christine’s skin is yellow-orange and her lips are pink. Basically, Christine forms a split compliment of green.

Remember the rectangle example from earlier? Here it is in practice. We have analogous warm shades on the ground (orange and red) and analogous cool shades behind the trees (green and blue).

Here’s another example of split compliments at work. See the tiny piece of yellow on that foam football? The purple and cyan are its split compliments.

Obvious compliments aren’t the only solution, however. You can create some beautiful colour harmonies simply by sticking with analogous colours and shifts in tone. This is one of those situations where green and blue — two very similar colours — can work subtly together to create a nice effect.

The takeaway here is pretty simple: Put your subject in front of a background that will create a colour harmony, or change your subject to suit the background you have. It doesn’t matter if your subject is a human female or a foam football, the principals stay the same.


Colour doesn’t always look the same and that’s because of light. Light can often be a huge nuisance, whether you have plenty of it or not enough. We’re not going to get into lighting here, but we do need to touch upon its effects on colour. As you can see in the example above, the colour of the subjects benefits from some extra read light. You can see it the most on their skin. This is just a casual snapshot, but the colour pops because of the light. This light came from the same sun as less richly colourful photos taken earlier in the day, but because the sun had begun to set at the time the photo was taken, the lighting was more direct (instead of overhead). Around sunrise and sunset are the two times during the day when you get the best outdoor light and, by extension, the best natural outdoor colour. Both of these periods are referred to as the golden hours. Make use of them when you can. Use a calculator if you need to.

Chances are you’re not scheduling your family vacation photos around the golden hours of the day, so how can you take advantage of the light you have? In terms of colour, you want to be aware of the temperature. You may have noticed a little chart to our left. This gives you the idea of the light temperature (and therefore colour cast) you can expect at certain times of the day. Pretty handy. When you’re indoors, artificial light changes as well. Tungsten lighting will get you that nice yellow-orange glow you can get from the sun. Fluorescent lights — everybody’s (least) favourite — produce a fairly dull white light with a little extra green. Whatever your lighting situation may be, know what it is. It will have an effect on the colour in your photo.

Colour temperature chart from ePhotoZine

Tricks In Post

You can’t fix everything by post processing your photos — not easily, anyhow — but there are a lot of neat things you can do. Now that you know how to use colour, let’s look at abusing it.

There are a lot of clever Photoshop tutorials out there dealing with colour and just about everything else you might want to do to your photos. Generally they deal with using the tools exactly as they were intended and involve quite a bit of work. This section isn’t about best practices, but about getting the job done quickly and still doing it well. These tricks are about getting some neat colour effects, from subtle to extreme, without too many steps or anything all that complicated. Although Donnie is much more entertaining, here’s a little information on some of the adjustments we’ll be looking at so you know what you’re getting into.

Not too bad, right?

Unbalanced Colour With The Curves Midpoint Grey Eyedropper

Most of the time you probably want to white balance your photos, but sometimes unbalanced colour works in your favour. Sometimes added warmth or a lack of saturation can give a picture the effect you’re looking for, so let’s take a look at using the midpoint grey eyedropper in Curves to get some unbalanced colour effects.

What the midpoint grey eyedropper does is sample a colour in the photo and then change the colour balance of the entire photo to neutralise it so it will be a neutral, middle-of-the-road (or, well, tonal scale) grey. If you were to use it to select something blue, for example, the sampling would cause curves to neutralise it using that colour’s compliment. Most blues will get you an orange-ish compliment and so you’ll see your photo warm up. If you select a warmer colour, it’ll cool down your photos. This is a really fast way to change the feel of your photo with colour compliments.

Warming up or cooling off your photos — or adding any colour, really — can be done pretty quickly and easily using a faux-Photo Filter adjustment instead. So why use Curves? Curves gives you more control and you can tweak the settings after you’ve discovered them with the sampler. You can also make your own adjustments to the contrast after playing with the colour, letting you do all of your work in one place. If you’re not sure how to adjust individual colour channels with Curves, check out the next section for a trick for getting extreme colour effects using — you guessed it — individual colour channels.

Split Colour Dominance For Extreme Colour With Curves

Curves is a very powerful tool, and it’s easy to abuse that power — so let’s do it! You can create some really interesting colour effects by splitting which channels are dominant in your photos.

This is really easy to do, but daunting if you haven’t tried it before. To get started, either hit Command/Control + M to bring up Curves or go to the Layer menu, choose New Adjustment Layer, and then select Curves. From there you’ll see something along the lines of what’s in the picture to the left. In that picture, I have the blue channel selected. Chances are you have the RGB layer selected, since that’s the default. (Note: if you’re not using RGB you may have different channel names.) From the channel menu, select Red. We’ll start there and work our way down.[imgclear]

Adjusting Light And Colour With Gradient Overlays

Subtlety is not the strong suit of either of those tricks. If you want to show a little more restraint but still adjust colour in an interesting way, gradient overlays might be your cup of tea.

The idea is pretty simple:

  1. Create a new layer on top of your photo.
  2. Use the Gradient tool (it swaps with the Paint Can in the toolbar) to create a gradient to fill the layer.
  3. Set the blending mode of your gradient layer to Overlay.
  4. Adjust the opacity of that layer to get the desired effect (less is generally more in this case).


In the example video above you can see how using a radial gradient can create a subtle, cooling spotlight to make the photo’s subject pop out with the right colour.

Adjusting Light And Colour With Colour Channel Overlays

This is one of the easiest tricks to do and generally one of the most compelling. All you do is take a single colour channel from your photo, paste it in a new layer above the full colour photo, and set the blending mode of that layer to Overlay. This gives you a nice, washed out and contrasty colour look. Here’s how you do it, step-by-step:

  1. Open up your photo and switch to the Channels panel in Photoshop. RGB should be selected, but choose Green.
  2. Select All (Command/Control + A) and then copy (Command/Control + C).
  3. Switch back to RGB and then paste (Command/Control + V) the green layer on top of your photo. This should make everything appear to be in black and white.
  4. Set the blending mode of the green layer you just pasted to Overlay and adjust the opacity to your liking (but 20-30% usually works pretty well).

Got any great colour tricks? Let’s hear ’em in the comments!

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