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  • Steven Spicer

How to Create Powerful Colour Contrast in Your Photos

We’ve all seen it. That picture of the yellow raincoat on the black beaches of Iceland. Hell, even Stephen King did it with that iconic scene in ‘It’. There’s something innately powerful about a yellow raincoat in an otherwise black scene, and it’s not just because it reminds us of insane killer clowns.

In this article, I attempt to demystify some of the power in black and yellow and how you can apply that effect elsewhere in your colour schemes, along with some other tips on how to get powerful colour contrast in your photos (or footage). Get comfortable, this is a long one.


What is colour contrast?

To understand colour contrast we first have to understand that colour can be broken down into three values: Hue, Saturation, and Luminance. Hue being the typical thing we think of as colour (Red, Blue, Green, Purple, etc.), Saturation is how rich that colour is (how far away it is from grey), and Luminance is a type of brightness.

When we talk about colour contrast, we’re essentially talking about the difference between two or more colours with regards to these three elements. There’s three main ways you can create colour contrast in an image:

  • Using complimentary hues (hues that are opposites or near-opposites on the colour wheel)

  • Luminance disparity (combining bright and dark colours)

  • Saturation disparity (combining highly saturated colours with greys, neutrals, or desaturated colours)

But before we get into how to create colour contrast, I want to dig a little deeper into what exactly Luminance is and how it differs from other measures of brightness (this is important, trust me).


What is the difference between luminance and brightness?

‘Lightness’ or ‘Brightness’ is the measure of how bright a colour is objectively. In short, how much light it reflects (or outputs in the case of digital screens). ‘Luminance’ however, is the measure of how bright a colour appears to the human eye.

The reason different colours have different luminance values has a lot to do with the way we see colour. Our eyes pick up colour through three types of cone at the back of our retina, one is for red light, one is for green light, and the other is for blue light – the same way that every pixel on the screen in front of you is made up of red, green, and blue (RGB). Our eyes are most sensitive to yellow light because it’s the part of the colour spectrum that has the most overlap between two cones (red and green). Therefore, we perceive it as being brighter.


Why black and yellow is special

Black and yellow is unique because unlike other colour combinations, it offers heavy contrast in both saturation and luminance. Because it appears brighter than any other colour in the spectrum at full saturation, it’s the hue that has the most contrast to black. You could even say it has more contrast to black than white does because it’s completely saturated where white is not (though this is somewhat subjective and definitely up for debate).


How can we apply this to other colour schemes?

There’s a whole spectrum of other rich and exciting colours out there to build palettes from, why limit ourselves to black and yellow? But there is some insight we can draw from this into our other colour schemes, this idea of contrast in saturation. A long time ago, split tones were a staple part of my editing process. I’m not going to lie, I abused them a bit. But it wasn’t until I started paying much more attention to the colour grey that I realized this wasn’t doing my photos any favors. I still use them from time-to-time, but I’ve found ways to minimise the damage that it does to my images. Try foregoing the split tones and you’ll get much better colour contrast, here’s why:


Why grey is important When you pull a photo into Lightroom (or whatever editor you’re using), one of the first things you probably do is check the white balance. With some exceptions (if you’re going for a deliberately warmer feel for example), you’ll be doing this to get an accurate colour rendering. You’re trying to make the colours look more realistic — how they looked when you took the photo. Gray is what grounds us, it serves as a reference point for all of the other colours in the image. Going back to this idea of contrast in saturation, having purer grey tones — greys that are completely desaturated — means that the colours you do have in your image will hold that much more weight. This doesn’t just apply to greys either. You can create powerful colour contrast by desaturating other colours just a little bit. Let’s take a look at this picture of a log cabin. Notice the difference some subtle desaturation can have to bring out the colour in the log cabin. Photo by Adriaan Greyling from Pexels


Photo by Juanjo Menta from Pexels

Using complimentary colours to achieve colour contrast So we’ve talked about black and yellow, and the power of purer greys, lets move on to the more obvious way to create colour contrast in an image: complimentary colours. Two colours are considered ‘compliments’ to each other when they inhabit opposite points on the colour wheel. But taking a complementary pair and shifting all of your existing colours to match one of the two is not a surefire way to create a great image. If it was, everyone would be doing it. So how do we make sure we’re doing complimentary colours right?


Creating balance with complimentary colours

You might have heard of the term ‘balance’ before in photography — no, I’m not talking about making sure you don’t fall over while leaning down to get that perspective shot (though that is a good thing to master) — I’m talking about compositional balance. Compositional balance is the process of making sure that the elements in your frame have even weight, which can be dictated by factors like size, contrast, position, spacing, and colour. It’s an important compositional technique that — as always— can be followed or broken as you see fit.


Photo by Hossein Rivandi on Unsplash

We can also choose to dictate whether the dominant colours in our images are balanced or unbalanced. Note that this isn’t the same as ‘colour balance’, which is another name for white balance. Instead it’s the idea that colours hold weight in an image, and you can use this weight to ‘balance out’ other colours. Bear in mind that just because one colour has more presence in an image doesn’t mean that it has more weight. Take a look at this image for example: The color blue is far more present than the color red, but because his face is red, and it’s both the focal point of the image and where most of the contrast is, it creates a balance between the two. Now take a look at this photo. If you look closely, you might notice that there’s a blueish-aqua color casting a mild hue across the image, you’ll also notice there’s a vibrant little speck of orange in front of the car and in the lines painted in the road. In this example, aqua dominates the frame, but is very desaturated. However, it’s accented nicely with some subtle orange details that help enhance the vibrancy of the overall image. Saturation – like contrast – can help dictate the weighting of a color, and bring balance to your images. Photo by Aleksey Kuprikov from Pexels

When we choose to work with complementary colours, it’s important to decide whether we want a balanced colour scheme, or an unbalanced one. Balanced colour will look more ‘harmonious’, but unbalanced colour can be used creatively too. Try experimenting with both to see what kind of effects it achieves.


Other colour schemes Complimentary pairs and desaturation aren’t the only ways to achieve colour contrast in your images. There are a number of other pairings you can use to create unique and interesting colour such as analogous, triadic, split complimentary, or quadratic colour schemes. The better you understand colour, the more freedom you can afford to have with your use of it, so I definitely recommend making use of all the different types of harmony in your photography if you’re able to.


So let’s summarise:

  • Colour contrast can be achieved by pairing light with dark, saturated with desaturated, or hues from opposite sides of the colour wheel.

  • Colour schemes like black and yellow are powerful because they differ in both saturation and luminance.

  • Rendering neutral greys or desaturating colours can be used to make other colours appear more vibrant.

  • The presence, saturation, and weight of colours in an image can affect the balance of your colour scheme, and as a result how harmonious it looks.

  • Complimentary colours look great, but other forms of colour harmony such as triadic, quadratic, split complimentary or even non-harmonious can be interesting ways of using colour.

Colour is ultimately subjective in many ways, we all see it differently. I’m also by no means an expert on colour theory but just trying to share my own personal experience with colour — hopefully it’s of some use. Have an interesting colour theory concept you’d like to share? I’d love to hear about it! Thanks for reading.


Steven Spicer – Photographer

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