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Home > Learn Photography > A Beginner’s Guide to Colour Harmony

A Beginner’s Guide to Colour Harmony


Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy and appreciate black and white photography. It’s just that colour photography has long been my preference. (A sentence to make my first photography tutor weep.) After all, the world is in colour and it makes sense to me to celebrate that fact. However, it is useful to understand a bit about colour, in particular about colour harmony. We’ll come back to colour harmony in a moment, but first let’s cover a few basics…

Colour in a digital image is created by mixing the three primary colours of red, green and blue in the right proportions. (Primary colours are colours from which all other colours are derived. Primary colours aren’t always RGB, and will depend on the device or media used. The primary colours in print are cyan, magenta and yellow, for instance.) Mix two primary colours together at their maximum value and you create a secondary colour. So, for example, mix red and blue together and you produce magenta. The simplest way to see the relationship between primary and secondary colours is by using a colour wheel, which is also useful when thinking about colour harmony.

A simple colour wheel, showing the relationship between the digital primary (red, green and blue) and secondary (yellow, cyan and magenta) colours.

Colour can be thought of in a very precise and mathematical way by assigning a number to a particular colour. (Or to be more precise, three numbers – one for amount of red in a colour, one for green, and one for blue.) However, the true power of colour isn’t its numerical value, but its emotional impact. Colours can stir feelings, both good and bad, which – you’ll be pleased to learn – you can exploit to give your photos more impact. Red, for instance, is a warm, stimulating colour associated with love and energy. Less positively it is also associated with anger and aggression. Green is natural, peaceful and balanced, but also passive and associated with jealousy. The last of the primaries, blue, is serene, cool, efficient, but, more negatively, also emotionally cold and associated with depression.

Harmony is a concept generally linked to music, and is when two or more different notes sound pleasing when played at the same time. A colour harmony is similar, and is occur when two or more colours are in close proximity and create a visually pleasing effect. There are number of different kinds of colour harmony, which are all useful to know, understand, and actively use in your photography. 

Monochromatic colour scheme

A monochromatic colour scheme shot, with the only colours essentially just variations of red-orange.

Strictly speaking this isn’t a colour harmony as such, but it’s still a useful colour scheme to know about. A monochromatic colour scheme is one where the various colours in an image are all just variations of one colour, varying only in either their brightness or level of saturation. Think of a green landscape, with no other colours just lots of different greens, and you have a monochromatic colour scheme. This may sound a bit boring, but images that use an MCS will never be jarring and will generally be balanced and pleasing to the eye.

Analogous colour harmony

An analogous colour harmony of orange, yellow and green.

An analogous colour harmony is created when an image uses three or four colours that are next to each other on a colour wheel. Orange, yellow and green would produce an ACH, for example. As with monochromatic colour schemes, ACH images tend to lack dynamism, but ACH is ideal when you want to create a restful effect. A particularly effective way to use ACH is to have one colour as the dominant factor in a shot, supported by one of the analogous colours in a lesser role and the other colours used more sparingly still. 

Triadic colour harmony

Use three colours in an image that are at an equal distance on a colour wheel – such as the three primaries – and you’ve created a triadic colour harmony. (Well done!) This is the first colour harmony that is considered visually interesting. Images created with a TCH in mind are generally vibrant and stimulating. However, you do have to take care and get the balance right between the various colours. Avoid using an equal amount of all three and try using one dominant colour, with the other two colour giving lesser but equal support.

Complementary colours

Warm and cool complementary colours work well together. However, warm colours are more visually ‘heavy’ or dominant than cool colours. Generally you can get away with more cool colour across an image than warm, but still have the image feel balanced.

Complementary colours are those colour that are on opposite side of a colour wheel from each other: orange and blue for instance, or magenta and green. Complementary colours reinforce each other, with no one colour overwhelming the other. Complementary colour schemes add energy to an image, with a high colour contrast. What complementary colour images are not is subtle. They demand attention so should be avoided if you want to create a more subdued, restful image. 

Split-complementary colours

Split-complementary colours are superficially similar to complementary colours. The difference is that split-complementaries involve three colours rather than two: a base colour and two other colours that are adjacent to the complementary colour of the base. (Sounds complicated, so take a look at the table below.) As with a complementary colour scheme, split-complementaries are bold, though with arguably less impact than a complementary colour scheme

Base ColourSplit-complementaries
Redyellow/green and blue/green
orangeblue/green and blue/violet
yellowred/violet and blue/violet
greenred/orange and red/violet
bluered/yellow and red/orange
violetyellow/green and yellow/orange

Warm and Cool colour harmonies


Images dominated by colour from the warmer end of the spectrum – yellow, orange, or red – are described as having a warm colour harmony. Images dominated by cooler colours – green, cyan, or blue – have a cool colour harmony. Both types of harmonies have their place. Warm colour harmonies will grab your attention, but can be too strident depending on the subject. Cool colour harmonies are less dynamic and more muted. 

Two shots from roughly the same geographical location. The ‘warm’ shot taken at sunset, when light tends to have a lower colour temperature. The ‘cool’ shot on a sunny afternoon, when the colour temperature of the light was more neutral.

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