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Color Contrast

The purpose of this article is to define color contrast in a way that’s relevant to photographers. To better understand color we can break it down into 3 separate components: Hue, Saturation and Luminance.

Hue names the color. So a red rose has a red hue, while a yellow shirt has a yellow hue.

Saturation defines the purity of a color. The color can be either high in saturation (e.g. a vivid Red light at a stage performance) or low in saturation (e.g. pastel pink bridesmaids dress).

Luminance describes the relative lightness or darkness of the color. You can have, for example, a bright blue sky or a dark blue shadow. And yes, as we’ll discover in subsequent articles, shadows are often blue.

Software applications like Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop allow us to make very specific adjustments to each of these separate color components (HSL). For example you can make a magenta shirt render more towards red than purple. You could also make that same shirt more or less saturated and, of course, lighter or darker. 

It’s important that photographers understand the basic relationship between the colors within the RGB color space, which we can define as follows:

Primary Colors            Complimentary Colors               Complimentary Colors

                                                                                                         Formed by Mixing

Red                                                    Cyan                                    Green and Blue

Green                                                Magenta                              Red and Blue

Blue                                                   Yellow                                  Red and Green 

The above chart reveals the following:

  •       Each Primary color has it’s own Complimentary color, which is directly opposite it on the color wheel
  •       Cyan is created by mixing, in equal proportions, the 2 primary colors not directly opposite it (Green and Blue)
  •       Similarly Magenta is created by mixing, in equal proportions, the 2 primary colors not directly opposite it (Red and Blue)
  •       Yellow is mixed in the same manner, this time with Red and Green


The image on the right illustrates the 3 primary and 3 complimentary colors.  It also illustrates how mixing 2 primary colors together, in equal proportions, produces a complimentary color. 

Color Contrast

Contrast is probably the major element that influences balance and movement in a composition. In colour photography contrast is not solely dependant on light reflectance, as is the case in a black and white photograph. In color photography contrast is the result of the colours present in the scene, the relationship between those colours and the amount of light reflected back towards the camera. 

The combination of both a primary and its corresponding complimentary color will add a dynamic to your image by increasing color contrast. This can be achieved either locally (e.g. a pattern in a garment) or by separating foreground from background (e.g. yellow flowers against a blue sky).

Conversely colors that are close to each other, sometimes referred to as Harmonious Colours (e.g. yellow and red, or blue and cyan), produce a calmer result with lower colour contrast.


Leica M6 camera with Leica 35mm f2 Summicron-M Aspherical lens and Kodak Ektachrome E100VS Professional film

Leica M6 camera with Leica 35mm f2 Summicron-M Aspherical lens and Kodak Ektachrome E100VS Professional film

The above image illustrates high color contrast. It was made, shortly after sunrise, on ANZAC Day in Mansfield, Victoria. A picturesque country town, at the foot of the Australian Alps, Mansfield is a great jumping off point for explorations and adventure sports, all year round. The warm reddish yellows in the balloon contrast against the highly saturated blue sky. The use of contrasting warm and cool colors together with the definite foreground, mid ground and background elements enhance the sense of 3 dimensional space. The image was made on Kodak Ektachrome E100VS Professional film with a Leica M6 camera and Leica 35mm f2 Summicron-M Aspherical lens.

© Copyright All Rights Reserved

Glenn Guy, Blue Sky Photography


One Response

  1. E100VS is a great film, isn’t it?

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