One of my favourite things I was able to carry over from my life of design into photography, was my knowledge of colour theory.

It's one of those things I always fall back to when people ask me about 'style'. To be honest, I still have no clue what my 'style' is in the traditional sense. You couldn't call me a 'landscape photographer', you couldn't call me an 'aerial photographer'. I like to shoot (and post) everything, but as a deliberate generalist, I follow a few common threads in my work constantly. Things I always fall back to in every image. Personal laws – heuristics, even.

The considered use of colour is one of those heuristics.

I thought I'd share with you how I think about colour in photography: the deliberate choices I make, the formulas I use, how I've used them. One of the great things about learning this is that the majority of these learnings can be applied in post production. In post, we have time to think, to consider, to change our image depending on what we’re trying to say. This means everyone can benefit from learning this. Once you know it well enough, you begin to see how it plays out in the field and start shooting scenes in a particular way.

The psychology of colour


It all starts here. In order to know how to use colour effectively in photography, we have to know what the colours mean. We dig into the psychology of how each colour effects us differently, and why we would consider one colour over another.

There’s a ton of research on the psychology of colour on the interwebs. A quick google returns 15,100,000 results. If you really want to go deep (and I suggest you do), spend some time researching the fundamentals. The stronger they are, the easier it is to apply the techniques later.

For now though, here’s a basic primer on what the different colours mean. They’re broken up into the secondary colour palette with the addition of the two contrasts (white and black) because they’re really important.

Yellow – associated with sunshine, joy, happiness, playfulness. The colour of competence, cheerfulness, stimulation. Attention grabbing, extremely easy to overuse. Also associated with warnings, instability, jealousy.

Orange – associated with sunsets, happiness, creativity, contentment. The colour of intelligence, heat, excitement. High visibility, but not as stimulating as red.

Red – associated with energy, drive, fire, danger, strength, power. The colour of love, of passion, of desire. Intense, both in emotion and in visibility. Extremely stimulating, but very easy to overuse. Commonly associated with danger, pride (not the good kind) and traffic signs.

Purple – associated with authority, power, luxury. The colour of royalty. Rarely found in nature and thus some people associate it with being fake. When mixed with white, pink is the colour of femininity according to studies.

Blue – associated with calm, stability, wisdom, trust, competence. The colour of the sky and sea. Often associated with tranquillity and masculinity according to studies. Colour of most modern-day apps you love.

Green – associated with harmony, earth, and growth. The colour of nature, freshness and safety. Has a nourishing or healing effect and is restful for the eyes. Also associated with money, envy, or inexperience.

White – associated with lightness, purity, cleanliness, simplicity. The colour of sterility, new beginnings and sincerity. Not technically a colour, but important to understand nonetheless.

Black – associated with sophistication, fear, power, mystery. The colour of clearest contrast, both in emotion (fear, evil, unknowns, death VS formality, elegance, prestige, power) and visibility (contrasting with lighter tones of all hues well). Also not technically a colour, but important to understand nonetheless.

The reason it's important to understand how the colours effect people is that you can use the corresponding colour or hue to most effectively convey your message.

Are you telling a story of excitement? Use reds, yellows, blacks and contrast.

Is your scene a message of zen-like tranquility? Use whites, or blues, or greens-even.

How about the feel of autumn? Those typically have reds, oranges, browns and yellows in them.

Colour harmony

Now that we understand what each colour does, let's talk about the division of hues and harmony.

Colour harmony is important. The deliberate choice of what colours to use and in what formula (more on that in a second) give our image a look of cohesion. Without it, things could look fake, exaggerated, or just out of place. You'd probably think a top down beach scene where the water is purple and the sand is red would be weird, right?

Colour harmony is easily achieved by two things: Ratio and formula.

Colour ratio


I've got a personal rule I abide by – and that is not to use more than 2 feature hues. What I mean by that is in every image that I edit, there is never more than 2 feature colours. If there is ever more than 2, the rest aren't the focus of the image.

For me, this is important. I like simple compositions with a singular focus. Minimal, in feel, rich in context. My colour choice always represents that.

There's a colour division ratio I borrowed from my time as a designer which is useful here. The ratio is that if you are using 3 colours, make the colour ratio 60% (primary focus) / 30% (secondary focus) / 10% (everything else). Of course, ratios like this are never set in stone, but setting yourself a balance of colours is an easy way to make sure there is a singular focus (or an equally balanced one if that's what you're going for) and people don't get lost in the mishmash.

Colour formula and palettes


This is my favourite.

There are actually really nice ways to divide up colours that work well with one another. You've probably heard of one before – complimentary. One of the most commons being blue / orange together. But there are actually quite a few more formulas that go well together.

Some of those are analogous, monochrome, triad, compound and shade. Of course, there's a bunch more, but I use a tool called 'Kuler' almost every time I edit which has those formulas by default, and I've worked out my favourites over time.

My favourites are:

Here’s how my feed currently looks like when it comes to colour:

Pat Kay colour theory

These are just the palettes and formulas that I use, though.

There's a whole bunch more out there, from selective colouring, understanding black and white, the use of contrast and depth. Go out there and find what you like and how you want to tell your stories and let me know what you find!