Color Harmony: how to achieve a 'colorful' image

What makes an image 'pop'? Off course a shallow depth of field will pop your subject but don't underestimate your color harmony in your image. So what make your viewers say: "Waw, it is colorful?"  Is it the presence of so many colors in the composition or the use of bright colors like red and yellow, or is it something more than that? Well it is the color contrast in your photo and using complementary colors that make or break your image.

In theory the combination of colors that work well together is called color harmony. Have you wondered why the Superman Comic suite is sooo beautiful? Or why the Hulk wears purple pants that goes well with his green skin? This is Color Contrast i.e. whenever two distinct colors are placed next to one another. The two colors clash with one another. The more distinct the two colors are, the more your image pops out. Reds appear more red and blues more blue. 

The image to the left has exposure contrast but has less color contrast than the one on the right. The bright violet flower definitely stands out against the green background. We say, the one to the right is colorful... 

Painters discovered the three primary colors; Red, Yellow, and Blue and when they started mixing those three colors they ended up with more colors. In modern printing these were replaced with Magenta, Cyan and Yellow and Black was added to the formula to create darker colors, thus C, M, Y, K. From this concept came the Color Wheel! 

The wheel is 'theoretically' all the colors formed in a circle. Primary colors are on three equally distanced points of the wheel. These are Red, Blue and Yellow and what lies in between are the mixed colors. For example, purple is between red and blue, orange is between red and yellow, and green is between yellow and blue. 

Closer to the middle of the circle, colors are less pure and at the edges they are more pure and saturated. Orange can range from a dark brown, to a bright orange to a pale skin tone. All of these are ORANGE when it comes to the color wheel.

The color wheel helps identifying complementary colors. Just select a color on the wheel and look at the exact opposite side. In the wheel above, green is exactly the opposite of red for example. 

But, do you have to keep a color wheel with you all the time in the field? No, just look at it from time to time and, there’s a simple formula to find the complementary of primary colors. It is very easy and it will give you something to start at with secondary adjacent colors. Just think of what would you get if you mix the other two primary colors. Meaning: to get the compliment of red: mix blue and yellow and you get green, to get the compliment of blue mix yellow and red and you get orange, and to get the compliment of yellow mix red and blue and you get purple.

Off course this is the simplest harmony called Direct Harmony. There are mainly 5 type of color harmonies but we won't get there. But one type you should think of is the Triadic Harmony (aka Triads). This refers to the opposite colors of a triangle by equal spaces on the color wheel. In other words, you are using three equally distanced colors on the color wheel. This is an extended approach to the color harmony notion but to use a triadic harmony successfully, the colors should be carefully selected. One color should dominate and the two others should be slightly used or desaturated. Too much of all three colors and your image appears too vibrant.

Blue boat against orange rocks in the background

Red building against greenery

Yellow foreground against blue skies

Now, your mission next time you are in the field: find two complementary colors that appear right next to each other like a yellow field of grass with a blue sky, or a red fire station against a green field. If you can’t find anything, try to change color hue and saturation in post processing. Once you start applying this understanding of complementary colors in your photographs, you and your audience will notice a huge difference.