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Understanding Color Contrast to Maximise Visual Effect

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The type of colours that you use in a photograph will fundamentally affect the way that photo works. For instance, if you want a gentle, moody image, then you should choose soft, pastel colours.

If you want a picture with impact, then you’re more likely to use strong, saturated colours. And for maximum impact with these, you might want to make use of colour contrast.

colour wheel

To find out which colours contrast most strongly with each other, you need to think about the colour wheel, or colour circle. This has been around for several hundred years as a diagrammatic representation of the way different colours interact with each other. There are various different aspects of this, but today I want to look at contrasting colours.

Any pair of colours which are directly opposite to each other on the colour wheel are known as complementary colours, and will give the strongest colour contrast.

So if you have a red subject, for instance, and you want to give it maximum impact in your photograph, you would put it against a green background. Similarly yellow will contrast most with violet, and orange will have most impact against blue.

poppy bud

However, you also need to bear in mind that the reds, oranges and yellows are dominant colours, and leap towards the viewer, while the blues, greens and violets are receding colours, and don’t leap out from the picture.

This means that while a red subject will leap out from a green background, if you use the same pair of complementary colours the other way round and have a green subject against a red background, there may be a feeling of visual imbalance, because the background is a more dominant colour than the subject.

The more saturated your colours are, the more impact the colour contrast will have. So although pink (which is a diluted version of red) will contrast with green, the contrast won’t be as strong as it is with fully saturated red.

This is just one aspect of the way colours behave. If you’d like to learn more about colour, you might like to take Phil Malpas’s course, A Master Class in Light and Colour.

Geoff Harris

I am a photography journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill, Steve McCurry and the late Mary Ellen Mark. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time.

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