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6 Basic Color Tips Every Photographer Should Know

6 Basic Color Tips Every Photographer Should Know

Whether you’re an expert in color theory or just getting started, make your pictures stand out from the crowd with these color tips.

Color photography has played a major role in advertising for more than a hundred years, dating back to the 1920s, when advances in color printing reached a fever pitch. In our current age, amid rapidly evolving trends, the past few years have continued to change the way photographers use color. Whereas 2018 was all about candy-coated pastels, 2019 saw the rise of rainbows and neons, and 2020 ushered in an era of saturated hues.

As trends come and go, color remains one of the most powerful tools in the photographer’s toolkit, but it’s also one of the most easily overlooked. Whether you’re an expert in color theory or just getting started using the color wheel, here are our tips for using color to make your pictures stand out from the crowd.

Color Trends
Keep your eye on yearly color trends. Image by Look Studio.

Every year, paint companies and color experts announce their “colors of the year,” and these hues can serve as inspiration not only for designers, but also photographers. So far, Benjamin Moore has chosen “Aegean Teal,” a soft blue-green. Valspar has opted for a selection of calming, muted colors, while Sherwin-Williams went neutral with the nature-inspired “Urbane Bronze.”

Of course, Shutterstock recently released their 2021 Color Trends report as well, with “Set Sail Champagne,” “Fortuna Gold,” and “Tidewater Green” rising to the top. The first is a soft, pastel orange, perfect for combining with other natural tones in your images, including browns and greens. This is one color we expect to see a lot of in lifestyle photography.

Track Emerging Trends
Track emerging trends through social media. Image by Olga Shlyakhtina.

The second—Fortuna Gold—is a rich, autumnal yellow evocative of wheat fields, antique jewelry, or the setting sun. This color is well-suited to pairings with other jewel tones or earthy palettes. Finally, Tidewater Green is a moody teal. You can pair it with its complement, red-orange, for a saturated feel, or use it as an accent among neutrals like gray or cream.

Track emerging color trends by browsing Pinterest, Instagram, and other social media feeds from your favorite brands. Peruse fashion blogs and see if you notice any patterns. Finally, look outside of photography. Check out what colors illustrators, graphic designers, and web developers are using for a sense of what’s to come.

Tip #2: Create a Mood Board

Consult the Color Wheel
For additional inspiration, consult the color wheel. Image by Andrii Zastrozhnov.

Before any shoot, refer back to the color wheel and start thinking about palettes. If you’re interested in using Fortuna Gold for a golden hour shoot, for instance, perhaps you can pair it with cerulean blue or Tidewater Green for simultaneous contrast. Or, maybe you can combine it with other dessert hues like orange and yellow for a warm and harmonious vibe.

Your key color will determine your styling and accent colors, so pull some reference images and create a moodboard before your session for inspiration. Share them with your collaborators (makeup artists, models, stylists, etc.).

You can also start with a color palette generator like Khroma. Or, jot down some adjectives you’d like your photos to convey. If you’ve written “luxurious,” you might consider purple and gold. Meanwhile “energetic” might inspire you to use warm reds or oranges.

Consider Clients' Color Palettes
Check your clients’ previous color palettes for ideas. Image by GrooveZ.

Your mood board—and colors, for that matter—are likely to change based on your client or potential client. Most brands have color palettes they use, from dark and moody to bright and airy. So, looking at what they’ve released before can give you a sense of what they want in the future. Today’s lifestyle and stock photography, for instance, tend to be warm and inviting rather than cold and sterile.

Tip #3: Start Simple

Simple Color Palette
Select one dominant color, then accentuate with accentuating colors. Image by Happy Max.

Many illustrators will advise aspiring artists to stick with just three or four colors at the most, and the same principle holds for photographers. Let one color dominate, and then select your other colors to support it. Once you understand how to work with a limited palette, you can move onto more complex combinations. However, you’ll often find that simple works best. A subtle pop of color goes a long way.

Pop of Color
A small pop of color goes a long way. Image by Javier Ballester / Addictive Creative.

No matter how many colors you include, remember to incorporate both lights and darks. When color experts talk about value contrast, they’re referring to the lights and darks within your image. Without a range of values, the image can come across as flat and lacking in depth. That’s why a dark and moody color like Tidewater Green can work well with lighter colors like lavender, blush, or even Set Sail Champaign.

Tip #4: Make It Seasonal

Seasonal Colors
Color plays an essential role in seasonal images. Image by LilacHome.

Commercial photography trends are often seasonal, from holiday sales to summer ad campaigns, and color plays a crucial role here. Keep this in mind when planning your seasonal shoots. Tidewater Green can evoke a wintery feel when paired with other forest colors, but pairing it with sunset pinks will immediately give you a summery vibe. Similarly, Set Sail Champagne is perfect for summer palettes when combined with other pastels, while Fortuna Gold can feel evocative of autumn, especially when used with rich purples.

Seasonal Color Palette
Consider your client before choosing your color palette Image by Africa Studio.

Put some thought into your ideal buyer and where they plan to use your images. Those decisions, as well as the season, will help guide your color palette. Remember to upload your photos to Shutterstock well in advance, as designers start shopping for images months before their seasonal campaigns.

Tip #5: Bring a White Card

Pack a White Balance Card
Have a white balance card on hand for mixed lighting. Image by Parshunas Photo.

White balance cards come cheap, but they can be invaluable, especially when it comes to working in mixed lighting. Keep a white card on set wherever you are, and then refer back to it when you’re color correcting your images. Simply use the eye-dropper tool in Lightroom (or the equivalent) in a frame with the white card. Then, apply those settings across the images from your shoot to eliminate any color cast. You might have to go in and tweak each image individually, but it’s a good first step.

Shoot in RAW
Shoot in RAW for flawless post-processing. Image by Chelsea Cavanaugh.

Of course, don’t forget to shoot in RAW. You want to keep all the information you can for flawless post-processing. A light touch goes a long way when it comes to editing, so keep your colors true to life. Buyers respond to natural, authentic edits. You can also invest in a calibrator for your monitor to ensure your colors are just right.

Tip #6: Keep an Open Mind

Experiment with New Palettes
Have fun! Experiment with new palettes. Image by Y.Gq_photo.

In the end, color is intuitive, so once you learn the basics, trust your gut and don’t be afraid to experiment with new palettes for your photo shoots. It can be easy to get stuck in a rut with colors, so challenge yourself to mix it up every once in a while. You can even try new things during the same shoot. Bring a change of clothes, or opt for differently-colored seamless backgrounds. You could end up surprising yourself with a combination you didn’t expect.

Cover image via Javier Ballester / Addictive Creative.

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