How to Use Complementary Colors in Photography

Complementary Colors Photography

Color plays a pivotal role in photography, serving as a powerful tool for conveying concepts and eliciting specific emotions from the viewer.  This underscores the significance of mastering the art of utilizing color in photography.

In this article, you will learn all about complementary colors and discover how they can be harnessed to create beautiful images that captivate the eye.


What are Complementary Colors?

Certain colors harmonize well together, while others do not.  This understanding is something most of us are aware of and routinely incorporate into various facets of our everyday routines, from selecting our attire to decorating our living spaces.

The combination of colors that blend harmoniously is referred to as “color harmony,” and one of the most widely practiced approaches used for color harmony is known as “complementary colors.”

Complementary colors are two colors situated diametrically opposite each other on a color wheel.  These oppositely positioned colors will consistently harmonize well, ensuring a high level of contrast and providing vivid, attention-grabbing combinations.

Many people are familiar with primary and secondary colors as the basis of the color wheel.  However, not everyone realizes that there are multiple interpretations of the color wheel, which can lead to different answers when identifying complementary colors.

For instance, the complementary color of yellow can be seen as either blue or purple, depending on which color model you follow.  Both responses are valid, highlighting the diversity in color theories.

Complementary Colors in Photography

Which Colors Complement Each Other?

As previously mentioned, the pairs of complementary colors vary depending on the color model used.  Here are the three most common color models along with their primary and complementary colors:

RYB (Red, Yellow, and Blue):

  • Red is the complementary color to green.
  • Yellow is the complementary color to purple.
  • Blue is the complementary color to orange.

RGB (Red, Green, and Blue)

  • Red is the complementary color to cyan.
  • Green is the complementary color to magenta.
  • Blue is the complementary color to yellow.

CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow)

  • Cyan is the complementary color to red.
  • Magenta is the complementary color to green.
  • Yellow is the complementary color to blue.

Various tools can make finding complementary colors easier, with Adobe Color being one of the most popular options.  This user-friendly website is accessible for FREE, requiring neither an Adobe membership nor an account to utilize its features.

What is a Complementary Color

On the Adobe Color homepage, you will see a central color wheel and a menu of color harmonies positioned on the left-hand side.  To begin your exploration, set the color harmony to “Complementary.”

Then, select your primary color by clicking and dragging any circle on the color wheel to your desired hue.  You can quickly identify the primary color by the small arrow enclosed within the circle.  Note that when you adjust the primary color, all the circles on the color wheel will synchronize accordingly, automatically recalibrating the complementary color.

Beneath the color wheel, you will find a corresponding color palette that synchronizes with your movements on the wheel.  Each color block in this palette corresponds to one of the circles on the color wheel, with the central block (with a small arrow beneath it) representing the primary color.

If you have the HEX code of a specific color and wish to discover its complementary counterparts, simply input the code beneath the color palette.

These are the basics of using Adobe Color to find complementary colors.  However, there are many other features worth exploring.  I encourage you to do it when you can; it’s an enjoyable and enlightening experience.

Some alternative websites you can use for this purpose are Canva Color Wheel and Palettone.

Primary Colors Photography

How to Use Complementary Colors in Photography?

Everything sounds very nice, but you’re probably wondering how to apply complementary colors in your photography.  Here are some complementary color ideas you can try.

1. Shoot During Blue Hour

Blue hour happens twice a day – before sunrise and after sunset.  During these times, the sun is below the horizon, and the residual sunlight takes on a tranquil blue hue.

In most cases, the natural light available during the blue hour is insufficient for effectively illuminating the surroundings or subjects.  However, in many locales, the houses and buildings will already be illuminated with warm artificial lighting, which usually emanates a warm yellow or orange glow.

The warm yellow and orange glow of the artificial lights is complementary to the cool blue tones of the ambient light.  By harnessing the interplay of these contrasting hues, you can take captivating photographs during this time of day.

Keep in mind the appearance of these colors can change rapidly during the blue hour as natural light diminishes and artificial lights become more pronounced.  Experiment by shooting at different times during the blue hour to capture varying degrees of contrast between the warm and cool tones.

Complementary Colors Photos

2. Choose a Complementary Background Color

Many photographers wonder which color background to choose for a headshot or a portrait session.  By choosing complementary colors, you can ensure that your subject commands attention.

This complementary color can be derived from their clothing, hair, or eyes.  The choice is entirely yours, and you can apply this principle in a studio setting or out on location.

For example, if your model has striking red hair, consider using a green backdrop in the studio, or venture to a park where they can be framed by lush trees or sitting on green grass.  In both scenarios, the background will harmoniously contrast with their hair color, creating a visually appealing composition.

Contrasting Colors Photography

3. Use Complementary Color Gels

Enhance your creative repertoire by employing complementary colors through the use of color gels.

Color gels are versatile accessories frequently used with flashes or strobes in portrait photography, where achieving striking color contrasts is often a goal.  These gels consist of translucent sheets of plastic that effectively modify the color of the emitted light.

To harness the power of complementary colors, utilize a lighting setup involving a minimum of two flashes.  On each flash, attach gels representing colors that sit opposite each other on the color wheel. 

For instance, you might pair a flash with a red gel with another using a green gel.  This combination produces a dynamic interplay of contrasting hues, infusing your portraits with a captivating and visually stimulating quality.

Complementary Color Photography

4. Embrace Subtlety

While vibrant complementary colors are undeniably attention-grabbing, it’s worth noting that subtler hues can also work wonders.

Don’t underestimate the impact of employing more muted complementary colors.  In fact, you can achieve captivating, stop-scrolling images by harnessing the understated charm of these complementary pairs.

This approach can lend an air of sophistication and elegance to your photography aesthetic, drawing viewers in with a different kind of visual intrigue.

What Colors are Complementary

5. Crafting a Still Life

In the realm of still-life photography, the selection of objects is paramount.  Each element in your composition should serve as a visual storyteller, conveying a concept or stirring an emotion within the viewer.

Integrating complementary colors into your still-life arrangements becomes a powerful tool in conveying your intended message or atmosphere.  By strategically harmonizing these complementary hues, you provide subtle cues to the viewer, offering a glimpse into the underlying idea or emotion that underpins your composition.

Consider, for example, a tranquil still life of a vase of vibrant red roses placed against a backdrop of deep green leaves.  The complementary colors of red and green in this arrangement can simultaneously evoke sentiments of passion and serenity, creating a captivating visual narrative that speaks volumes to the observer.

Blue Opposite Color

6. Use Complementary Color Accents

In photography, an accent is an element that stands out from the rest of the composition.  Employing accents can serve multiple functions: emphasizing a focal point, infusing visual intrigue, or disrupting monotony.

When it comes to accentuating your images with colors, the complementary approach is a particularly effective technique.  By introducing the complementary color of your primary hue, you can create accents that pop and draw the viewer’s eye precisely where you want it.

Imagine a serene landscape photograph dominated by cool, tranquil blues in a lake and sky.  You might include a small boat with warm, complementary orange tones to introduce an accent that adds vibrancy and contrast.  This subtle yet deliberate use of complementary colors not only adds a point of interest but also enhances the overall visual impact of your image.

Photography Color Schemes

7. Creating Color Palettes

Until now, we’ve explored the dynamic interplay of two colors – the primary and its complementary counterpart.  However, photography offers the canvas to weave more intricate color narratives, unveiling a rich tapestry of emotions and ideas through an expanded palette.

Take, for instance, the double split or split complementary harmonies, which are rooted in the concept of complementary colors.  These palettes extend beyond the primary and complementary colors, allowing you to infuse your photography with a broader spectrum of emotions and meanings.

You can also utilize Adobe Color to explore and create these more complex color harmonies.

Complementary Color Examples

8. Coordinate Group Attire

A useful application of complementary colors in photography comes when coordinating wardrobe choices for group portraits.  Whether photographing a family, a gathering of friends, or a professional team, this approach can infuse your composition with visual harmony.

The beauty of this technique lies in its flexibility.  Coordination doesn’t necessitate everyone wearing identical outfits.  Instead, it’s about crafting a cohesive look through complementary color choices. 

For instance, one group member could wear a top featuring the primary color, while another might opt for shoes in the same hue.  Other participants can introduce elements that feature the complementary color.  One person might choose pants or a skirt in the complementary shade, while others explore their fashion choices within this color scheme.

This approach allows each individual to express their unique style while ensuring the group presents a harmonious appearance in the final photograph.  It’s a subtle yet effective means of fostering unity and coherence in group portraits, making them visually and emotionally pleasing.

Best Colors for Photoshoot

9. Elevating Food Photography

In the realm of food photography, styling reigns supreme. It’s the art of meticulously selecting ingredients and props to craft a visually appetizing composition.  And when it comes to this culinary art form, complementary colors are your trusty palette.

Consider this: you’re tasked with photographing a succulent salmon dish.  Here, the starring ingredient is a vibrant shade of orange.  To complement and enhance its visual appeal, introducing elements like a green tablecloth or a fresh cucumber garnish can work wonders.  This strategic use of complementary colors enhances the overall presentation, creating a harmonious and appetizing scene.

The thoughtful use of complementary colors can transform your food photography into a delectable art form.  It’s a subtle yet powerful technique that will entice the viewer’s senses and whet their appetite, making your culinary creations truly unforgettable!

What Colors are Complementary

10. Elevate Your Photos with Split Toning

We’ve previously explored various ways to use complementary colors directly in your camera work, such as prop selection, lighting adjustments, or wardrobe coordination.  However, there’s another intriguing use of complementary colors that comes alive during post-processing: split toning.

Through split toning, you gain the creative power to apply distinct tints to your image’s highlights and shadows.  Here is where complementary colors can truly shine, offering a way to achieve breathtaking visual effects.

One of the most beloved combinations in the world of split toning is the dynamic interplay of teal and orange.  This classic pairing brings a striking contrast to your photos, infusing warmth into the shadows while maintaining a cool, atmospheric quality in the highlights.  It’s a timeless blend that adds depth and dimension to images.

Photographic Color Wheel

11. Correcting Color Casts

Complementary colors are known for their striking contrast when placed side by side.  However, these color pairs possess a unique ability to neutralize each other when layered together to fix color casts.

A classic example lies in the realm of film photography.  Tungsten lights, which naturally cast a warm yellowish hue, are often combined with a blue filter.  Why?  Because blue is the complementary color to yellow, and when these two hues combine, they effectively cancel each other out, restoring a more neutral color balance to the image.

In the digital realm, powerful editing tools like Color Balance in Photoshop and other software take a cue from this concept.  They utilize complementary colors, such as Cyan-Red, Magenta-Green, and Yellow-Blue, to fine-tune the color harmony in your photographs.

This dual nature of complementary colors serves as a testament to their versatility.  Not only can they ignite your creative spark by generating captivating contrasts, but they also come to the rescue when technical issues like color casts need correction.

Color Combinations for Photoshoot


Using complementary colors in your photography isn’t just a technique; it’s a potent tool for crafting visually exciting images.  Beyond this, it can play a pivotal role in shaping your brand identity and maintaining a cohesive, recognizable style.

A world of color exploration awaits you in the realm of complementary pairs.  So venture beyond your comfort zone, and embrace the vast spectrum of possibilities complementary colors offer in photography.

Do you have any questions or comments about How to Use Complementary Colors in Photography?  Leave us a comment below – we would love to hear from you!  And PLEASE SHARE our tutorial using the social sharing buttons (we really appreciate it)!

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