How to take your photos to the next level with the color wheel

Learn the basics of color theory, focusing on applying the color wheel to choosing the right color for your photography composition. The post How to take your photos to the next level with the color wheel appeared first on 500px.

How to take your photos to the next level with the color wheel

Whenever we have conversations about improving photography techniques with the 500px community, we often hear questions focused on the mechanics of photography. What type of camera and lens should I use to take the photo? What is the rule of thirds, and how did you apply it? How do I work with great models?

These are common questions the 500px team gets asked, which are all valid questions with concrete answers. But as we all know as photographers, having the answers to these questions doesn’t necessarily mean you will produce high-quality photos. Sometimes, it’s essential to take a step back and focus on the intangible — the photographer’s eye.

We all know how important colors are in photography. You usually can tell right away when a color (or a color palette) is or isn’t working. The challenge is learning to identify what is causing the photo to be “off”.

Mastering when to use the right colors is another matter. The color wheel is our guide to determining what is causing the photo to be off, and mastering the wheel is the first step to creating eye-catching photos consistently.

In this article, we’ll cover the basics of color theory, focusing on applying the color wheel to choosing the right color for your composition. We will walk you through examples of various configurations to help you choose the best color palette for your photos, using examples from the 500px community.

You are going to learn:

  • What the color wheel is and how it works
  • How color psychology affects our emotions (and our customers’ emotions)
  • What color harmony is and the characteristics of it
  • How to find the right color in post-processing

Understanding the color wheel is the first step to applying it in photography

It is important to note that consumers are attracted to color schemes that are commonly used in photos on print designs and websites. These use of these specific color trends are precise and calculated by the brands that are using them.

What this means is that producing an eye-catching cohesive photo with the right colors has become even more essential in creating great photos that match today’s consumer interests.

Once you understand how to use colors, you can learn to recognize (and/or seek out) colors that work with, and communicate, your vision.

Colors hold power, and injecting the right color is the real power of a great photographer.

Let’s talk about the color wheel

The color wheel is a set of rules and guidelines that designers, artists, and photographers use to visualize the relationship between colors and is the primary tool we will be using today. It will be much easier for you to take great photos if you understand which colors go together and are pleasing to the eye.

As you can see from the color wheel picture above, the colors are arranged in a circle, with a natural progression from warm tones to cooler colors and back.

Red, yellow, and blue are the primary colors. By mixing these three primary colors, you’ll end up with the secondary colors, which are orange, green, and violet. Combining those secondary colors results in one of six tertiary colors: red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet, and red-violet. To understand the full power of the color wheel and how to use it effectively, you need to know the feelings color can evoke in the viewer.

For a primer on color theory, or if you want to go deeper into this topic, be sure to read our introduction and intermediate-level articles on color theory:

  • to Color Theory
  • Color Theory:

What feelings does each color convey to the viewer?

The colors used in a photo can impact the way a viewer feels when looking at the image, and different colors bring out different feelings.

Here are some examples of images that use a key color to evoke a certain mood.

This color is optimistic and youthful, and it is often used to grab the attention of window shoppers.

Color wheel - AMA by Juliana  Frug on

Color wheel - Ahoy by Ian Ross Pettigrew on

Brands often use red to convey a feeling of energy and to increase the viewer’s heart rate. It also creates a sense of urgency, which is why you see it used at clearance sales.

Color wheel - El burladero by Santiago Bañón on

Color wheel - Doug Locke by Eivind Hansen by Eivind Hansen on

Blue is a calming color that conveys trust and security. It is used often in the marketing of banks and businesses.

Color wheel - Denim Editorial Desiree Thomas by Desiree  Thomas on

Color wheel - CHU.BSH by CHU.BSH  on

Black is seen as powerful and sleek, and is often used to market luxury products or services.

Color wheel - Red betta fish by Jirawat Plekhongthu on

Color wheel - Angie by Jirawat Plekhongthu on

This may seem simple enough, but, in reality, it would be naive to think that a single color creates one specific emotion for everyone — colors can have multiple meanings to different viewers, which can change based on their own experience and the culture they grew up in.

What is color harmony?

Color harmony is a fairly simple concept — it is the process of creating balanced combinations of colors that are pleasing to view.

Color harmony looks at how colors interact with each other instead of how colors mix. For photographers, this is a crucial concept.

The photos you just saw above all have color harmony. There is a seamless transition between each color. For example, in one of the yellow photos, there is an eye-catching transition between the red lips and yellow background. Or, you may have seen photos of the sky which show different colors of blue, each interacting with each other perfectly. These shots stand out because of the way the colors live together, and the color harmony.

Once you understand color harmony, you can learn to recognize (and/or seek out) color combinations that work with your vision. Put simply, this means using colors that go together. Determining which colors combine well can be accomplished by consulting our color wheel and identifying the color palette of a photo. You can then get in the habit of selecting a color palette that includes colors that interact well based on their location in a photoshoot.

Here’s what you need to do to see the color palette of your photo or location.

Upload your photo to Canva Color Palette Generator, Adobe Color, or Paletton

Color wheel -

It’s essential to understand how the colors in your photo are interacting with each other. An easy way to do this is to use tools like Adobe Color or Canva Color Palette. All you have to do is upload your image, and you will be able to see how the colors are interacting with each other.

Use your color palette to determine harmony

You can use your newly created color palette as a base to determine and create harmony. There are a few different ways that you can develop the best color palette for your photos. Let’s break down the different ways these combinations can be selected by focusing on blue and pink as examples.

What are analogous colors?

Think back to the color wheel for a moment. You can find an analogous color scheme on your color wheel by choosing a color, then choosing another color right beside it on the circle.

Analogous palettes use their key color and at least two nearby colors to create a palette.

The key color is the base color, while the secondary colors should only be used to highlight or as accents. One important aspect when it comes to analogous palettes is ensuring there is enough contrast when choosing the palette.

Color wheel -

Color wheel -

As you can see from our examples above, using blue and pink, each color palette is similar in range to each other. Let’s investigate how we can use them and, most importantly, why.

Why use analogous colors in photography?

When using an analogous color scheme, there is one key color and two or more secondary colors placed symmetrically around it on the color wheel. What this does is creates a palette that communicates consistency and uniformity within a photo.

Below are some examples of photos by members of the 500px community that are using analogous color palettes effectively.

Color wheel - Middle Child by Jessica Drossin on

Color wheel -

Color wheel - Maurice- Bastian aged analogous picture by Verena Redfox Gredler on

Color wheel -

Color wheel - Analogous Colors by Jon Samuel on

Color wheel -

Color wheel - Blooming Identity by Mateusz Bortlik on

Color wheel -

What are monochromatic colors?

Monochromatic colors are all related in terms of a single hue, with variations in luminosity and saturation of that hue. These variations can be found in the tints, shades, and tone of the key color.

Now, if you aren’t a painter, you may not know offhand what tints, shades, and tones are, so let me just give you a brief rundown. A tint is a color to which white has been added, a shade is a color to which black has been added, and a tone is a color to which gray has been added.

Color wheel -

Color wheel -

How to use monochromatic colors

Monochromatic colors are a great way to add emotion to your photos. Black and white is a well-known monochromatic type of photography, but it’s not only limited to that color scheme. Similar to black and white photography, monochromatic colors are also a great way to simplify the photo.

Below are some examples of photos by members of the 500px community that are using monochromatic color palettes effectively.

Color wheel - Phendrana's Edge by Alex Noriega on

Color wheel -

Color wheel - Still waiting for you II by Roland Shainidze on

Color wheel -

Color wheel - Sofia by Ruby James on

Color wheel -

What are triadic colors?

A triadic color scheme uses three colors that are evenly spaced from each other on the color wheel.

Color wheel -

Color wheel -

How to use triadic colors

While analogous colors make a photo look soothing and calming, triadic colors are vibrant and uplifting. They create contrast in the eye, but the colors still work together.

To use a triadic color scheme, the colors should be carefully balanced so that you have one dominant color, while the other two support.

It’s easier to find triadic color schemes in the human-made world, as these palettes are often seen in architecture, painted objects, and human-made designs.

Below are some examples of photos by members of the 500px community that are using triadic color palettes effectively.

Color wheel - Color Triad by Andrew Bosak on

Color wheel -

Color wheel - Pink glazed donut on a colorful background with geometric shapes. Color block food photography. by Dina (Food Photography) on

Color wheel -

What are complementary colors?

When it comes to complementary colors, the key color is generally dominant, while the other color is used sparingly. This usually results in striking visuals, as complementary colors are always opposite to each other on the color wheel.

How to use complementary colors

Complementary colors are all about opposites, so one trick we’ve seen our community use is focusing on one color.

Below are some examples of photos by members of the 500px community that are using complementary color palettes effectively.

Cloud Atlas by Meer Sadi on by Nacho Zàitsev on

A Dreamer's Paradise . by Meer Sadi on

Complementary colors by Pierre Schwaab on

Masha portrait by Nacho Zàitsev on

The Golden Pavilion. by Jimbos Padrós on

Finding your color in post-processing

When it comes to getting the color just right in your photos, post-processing is where you’ll have the most flexibility. You’re probably using software like Photoshop to edit your photos, but may not have considered using it to manage, evaluate, and change your color harmonies.

Something to remember about using color theory in post-processing is that you need to always start with the key color (the most dominant color). So when you are focusing on making your color harmony — for example, looking to find the complement of a yellow hue — you may get a blue result rather than a purple. Consider this to be a starting point, and don’t be afraid to make tweaks to the overall photo.

If you have colors in your photo that do not have great color harmony, or are hostile to the eyes, you can play around with them until the palette you are using fits one of the categories we’ve covered (analogous colors, monochromatic colors, triadic colors, and complementary colors). The original photo may look very different when the dominant and agency colors are altered to fit one of the categories mentioned.


Chances are, you have already used color theory in your shooting and not even realized it. Your eyes will have noticed on their own that some colors behave differently when they’re near others, and you probably made some adjustments in the moment to where and how those colors appeared in your image.

The difference is that now you know the “why” and can not only make better decisions when faced with complementary color combinations, you can actually plan for and harness them! Whether you use this information to plan your shoots more efficiently, or when you are editing your images in Photoshop, it’s a powerful new tool that you’ve added to your kit.

What are your favorite type of colors to use in your photos? Let us know below.

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Unplugging: Taking a break from technology

As consumers carve out more time away from their devices, brands are following suit, and images of life “unplugged” are in-demand in the commercial sphere. The post Unplugging: Taking a break from technology appeared first on 500px.

Unplugging: Taking a break from technology

As an April report from the Pew Research Center revealed, more than half of American adults say that the internet has been essential for them amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, and a significant majority (90%) say the internet has been mostly a good thing for them during this time. As brands continue to find new ways to connect with customers, we’ve seen this positive attitude towards technology reflected in commercial photography.

At the same time, we’ve witnessed a seemingly contradictory trend. As technology becomes more ingrained in our everyday lives, occasional “unplugging” has become both a luxury and a necessity.

Popular resorts like Miraval, for instance, feature an array of outdoor activities, all meant to encourage mindfulness and promote wellbeing—while limiting screen time. Other exclusive vacation destinations, located everywhere from Big Sur to Denali Park, don’t provide Wi-Fi or ask guests to give up their devices completely.

At the start of June, the Creative Insights Team at Getty Images announced a new trend: Our Life Offline. According to their research, 41% of people say some of their relationships have been damaged by technology use, speaking to the potentially negative consequences of tech addiction and life online.

They also cited new information on what experts are calling “Zoom fatigue”; because video chats require more energy and concentration than face-to-face meetings, they can leave us feeling tired. Pair that exhaustion with the stress and isolation of quarantine, and it’s no wonder more people are craving a technology break these days.

This movement towards mindful living has been brewing for a long time; last year, customer searches on Getty Images for the term “digital detox” rose by 153%, far exceeding expectations. As consumers carve out more time away from their devices, brands are following suit, and images of life “unplugged” are in-demand in the commercial sphere. Here are our tips for incorporating these kinds of photos into your Licensing portfolio.

Capture the little things

When we hear the phrase “digital detox,” we might imagine pristine landscapes and wilderness retreats, but not every photoshoot around this theme has to be so dramatic, especially when so many of us are confined to our homes and neighborhoods. These days, a digital detox can be as simple as a family game night in the living room or a barbecue in the backyard.

Lifestyle photoshoots, particularly those organized around this theme, offer plenty of opportunities for candid “micro-moments” that highlight the beauty of everyday life. Unplugging is all about connecting with loved ones and spending time together, so consider working with family, and look for those emotions in your images.

When you upload your photos to your Licensing portfolio, remember your conceptual keywords; in addition to trendy phrases like “digital detox” or “unplugging from technology”, consider speaking to larger, more universal ideas like “community”, “mindfulness”, or “personal growth”.

Give your models an activity

Perhaps the easiest way to get those authentic, relatable “micro-moments” is to give your models something to do! For a timely twist, incorporate an at-home hobby. In May, for instance, “backyard birding” exploded in popularity, with Google searches for “birds” hitting an all-time high.

Home gardens also experienced a boom in the United States, with one gardening installment business telling that its orders had doubled in a month. In March, the seed company W. Atlee Burpee & Co sold more seed than it had in more than a century in the business, according to . Many homeowners are getting into gardening for the first time due to lockdown measures.

A day in the backyard or indoor garden with family and friends can easily be turned into a commercial photoshoot, as can an evening of cooking and meal-prep. Have a quarantine haircut planned or doing a craft project with friends? Those are all photography opportunities. Of course, some other trendy quarantine activities include DIY-ing, hair bleaching, and tie-dying, so you’re not limited when it comes to ideas.

Whatever you choose, make sure it’s something your models enjoy. The more comfortable they are, the better the images will be.

Get your hands dirty

Okay, you don’t have to get your own hands dirty, but your models can. This year, Facebook IQ identified “getting hands-on” as one of their top emerging topics and trends, with everything from 3D printing to laser cutting entering the mainstream. Visual media has been moving in this direction as well, with more brands using zine-inspired aesthetics and tactile elements in their advertising.

When planning your shoots, consider how you can modify your concept to incorporate the “unplugged” theme. For example, in addition to photographing people listening to music on their phones, maybe you introduce a classic, hands-on vinyl set-up. Or, when you are using a common prop like a tablet, perhaps you also photograph someone reading a physical book or magazine as well.

Hit the trails

Within the last decade, hiking has grown in popularity, as have other outdoor activities like trail running and jogging. As long as you’re contentious about taking care of the land and follow the “leave no trace” principle, these outdoor spots are ideal for beautiful lifestyle and travel photos—sans devices. “Hiking, biking, BBQing, or just enjoying being outside in nature are all ways to visualize breaking from technology,” the 500px Content Team tells us.

Maintain a social distance

As restrictions lift, you’ll return to working with models and other people on set. While photos of people video-chatting and live-streaming will continue to be popular, so will photos of face-to-face, in-person interactions. But in the near future at least, these photos might look different than they did before the COVID-19 crisis.

Remember to stay at least six feet apart from your crew and team members, including models, and encourage them to do the same. Think about how social distancing might influence our offline activities; for example, parties might be smaller, lines might be longer, and dinners at restaurants could involve partitions or separators. Lifestyle photos will still evoke feelings of community, connection, and togetherness, but people might be standing or sitting a little farther apart.

Showcase a healthy coexistence with technology

Tapping into the “unplugged” trend doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding technology altogether; sometimes, it just means showing a more balanced and beneficial relationship with our devices. According to a 2017 study of 5,000 students in the UK, 71% of schoolchildren reported having taken temporary digital detoxes. Disillusioned with everything from “fake news” to excessive advertising, even this generation of “digital natives” craved a break every now and then.

Illustrating these temporary respites can be as simple as keeping technology in the periphery of your images; instead of including them as a main subject in your photos, you can focus on human interaction with devices in the background. Try to get as much variety as you can out of every shoot. Start with some shots that highlight the positive effects of technology—like its ability to bring us together during this time—and then get some shots where it isn’t so prominent.

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