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How to Use Color in Photography

Updated: Jul 12, 2022

At a technical level, color can be complicated; just see our recent article on sRGB vs Adobe RGB vs ProPhoto RGB. But at an artistic level, it is one of the most important parts of an image, impacting emotions and interest unlike almost any other element of photography. This article introduces the concepts of color and color relationships, including how to use them to take the best possible photographs.

Warm vs Cool Colors

The two broad types of color are warm and cool. Warm colors include red, orange, and yellow, while cool colors include green, blue, and violet. The two categories of color have their own moods, and it helps to ask yourself which ones you’re photographing at a given time if you want to optimize how your photos look.

Warm colors are more active and emotionally charged. They jump out at the viewer, attracting attention and drawing interest. In general, warm colors are rarer than cool colors, so an image which has even a small splash of warmth can stand out. This is one reason why photos at sunset and sunrise, as well as fall colors, are as popular as they are.

Cool colors, on the other hand, are more subdued and gentle. They fade into the background, particularly if a warm color appears in the same spot. In general, they don’t attract the same degree of attention as a warm color, though that certainly isn’t a bad thing. Warm colors can be overpowering; cool colors are more likely to appear soothing and calm. Much of nature is made of cool colors, although sunset and sunrise can turn even a blue landscape golden.