Minhajul Haque

The Fundamentals of Color Theory

Sunlit Mountain Trees - Expressionistic Landscape Photography Artwork in Limited Edition Pigment Prints on Canvas Matte Paper by Minhajul Haque

Color is one of the main components of light besides its angle and intensity. Color exists because of light; where there is no light, there is no color. We see colors because light waves strike an object and they are reflected back into our eye. Some of the light waves are absorbed by the object and some of them are reflected back which determines the color of the object.

What makes this subject more complex is not the science of color rather the our perception of color. Additionally, digital imaging technologies introduce other problems since digital cameras, scanners, monitors and printers do not handle color in the same way.

It’s imperative that you must understand how computer and you see color, to obtain or maintain consistency. Besides, technical accuracy, developing an eye for color will also help you to make more creative decisions.

It is the eye of ignorance that assigns a fixed and unchangeable color to every object.

Paul Gauguin

Human & Color

Color is a function of objects, light and observer. When light hits an object, it absorbs some of the light and reflects the others which determines the color of the object. We, humans are only able to see a small part of entire electromagnetic spectrum, called visible spectrum. Our eye only responds to wavelengths ranging from about 390 to 700 nm.

Our eye has two kinds of photoreceptors that respond to electromagnetic impulse, rods and cones. Rods sense the intensity of light that also enable us to see in low-light. Where cones are responsible for our color vision and they basically function better in bright light.

Cones are further classified into three categories each with a different pigment since we have trichromatic color vision; L-cones, M-cones and S-cones. L-cones are sensitive to long wavelengths which are mostly sensitive to red light and less sensitive to either green or blue. M-cones mostly responds to green light and not much to either red or blue. And S-cones are sensitive to short wavelengths which are mostly sensitive to blue light and not much to red and green light.

Sunlit Mountain Trees - Expressionistic Landscape Photography Artwork in Limited Edition Pigment Prints on Canvas Matte Paper by Minhajul Haque
Sunlit Mountain Trees – Expressionistic Landscape Photography Artwork in Limited Edition Pigment Prints on Canvas Matte Paper by Minhajul Haque

In nature, light creates the color. In the picture, color creates the light.

Hans Hofmann

Bit Depth

Bit is a unit in the world of computing, represented by either 0 or 1. If you have a 8-bit image, it contains 28 or 256 levels of gray in each channel Red, Green and Blue. That means 256 x 256 x 256 or 16 million color information.

Today’s high-end DSLRs are capable of capturing 12 bits of information or more; where the printers will only allow 8 bits of information. So, printers will randomly discard the information that goes beyond its range. If you are a raw shooter you get a privilege of deciding what information to keep and what to discard in post-production.

Color Depth

Color depth refers to the number of color shades available on your display and is measured in bits per pixel (bpp). Typical ranges are, 256 colors (8 bpp), thousands of colors (16 bpp), and millions of colors (32 bpp).

Color Space

Computer doesn’t think of colors the way we do. It only understands RGB values. Color Space is a collection of colors described by a particular color profile. It relates numbers to actual colors.

Color Gamut

Color gamut is the range of color of a color space. In-gamut color means reproducible colors and out-of-gamut means colors that are not reproducible in a particular color space. The purity of the primaries is what determines the gamut for a device.

Color Profile

Computer doesn’t understand color. A color profile is a file that tells a computer how to render color. All it does, is it passes a varying amount of red, green and blue light through phosphors or lay varying amount of cyan, magenta and yellow dyes to render a specific color.

Color Appearance = RGB Number + Profile

There are three different types of profiles

  1. Monitor Profiles – It’s responsible for displaying true colors, brightness and contrast on your monitors. A monitor profile is usually created by calibrating hardwares and softwares. It has nothing to do with image editing programs. It automatically gets loaded when your computer boots up.
  2. Workspace Profiles – It’s a color profile for your image editing program. It doesn’t interfere with monitor or output profiles. It determines how the colors of your image will translate in different displays. Examples of such profiles are sRGB, Adobe RGB (1998), ProPhoto RGB etc. Once you embed one of these profiles with your image it tries to maintain consistency from one workspace to other. Some colors may not be rendered properly if your image is getting converted to a relatively smaller workspace profile. For example, sRGB < Adobe RGB (1998) < ProPhoto RGB.
  3. Output Profiles – Usually, printer and paper manufacturers make these profiles. It’s responsible for matching your prints with your monitor. This conversion takes place in your image editing program.

The Components of Color

A color is defined by combination three components of light; hue, saturation and luminosity.

  1. Hue – Hue is the actual color which is independent from saturation and brightness. It enables us to classify red, purple, green, yellow etc. Hue also tells us where it exist in the color wheel.
  2. Saturation/Chroma – Saturation determines the purity, richness or the vividness of a color. So a desaturated image contains no color.
  3. Brightness/Luminosity/Value – Brightness or luminosity or value tells about the intensity of light. It determines how dark or light a color is.

The Color Wheel

Color wheel is a logical organization of hues intended to show the relationships between primary, secondary and tertiary colors.

  • Primary Colors – Primary colors are sets of colors that cannot be reproduced by mixing other colors. The three subtractive primaries Red, Yellow and Blue are used to create all the other colors that we see.
  • Secondary Colors – Three secondary colors Green, Orange and Pruple are produced by mixing two primary colors.
  • Tertiary Colors – The six tertiary colors exist in between the primary and secondary colors. A tertiary color is produced by mixing the primary and the secondary color that exist either side of it.
Color Hex/Wheel, Fundamentals of Colors for Digital Photography
Color Hex

Additive & Subtractive Color Mixing

Additive and subtractive color mixing are the methods of color reproduction for digital devices.

Additive Color Mixing

RGB or Additive Color Mixing

Additive colors are produced by mixing and projecting light primarily red, green and blue that creates lighter color closer to white.

  • Red + Green = Yellow
  • Green + Blue = Cyan
  • Blue + Red = Magenta
  • Red + Green + Blue = White

RGB color space is an example of additive color model which is the primary color space for your display devices.

Subtractive Color Mixing

CMYK or Subtractive Color Mixing

Subtractive colors are produced by mixing and laying dyes, inks, or pigments. The reason it’s called subtractive is it absorbs or subtract light and the light that doesn’t get absorbed is reflected off the surface. For example, a red pigment appears red because it absorbs or subtract all light except red. So does a green or blue pigment.

  • Cyan + Magenta = Blue
  • Magenta + Yellow = Red
  • Yellow + Cyan = Green
  • Cyan + Magenta + Yellow = Black

CMYK color space is an example of subtractive color model which is the primary color space for your output devices.

ColorAdditive (RGB)Subtractive (CMYK)
White255R 255G 255B0C 0M 0Y 0K
Black0R 0G 0B100K
Rich BlackNA 50C 05M 100K
Gray128R 128G 128B50K / 55C 45M 45Y 0K
Red 255R 0G 0B 100M 100Y
Green 0R 255G 0B 100C 100Y
Blue 0R 0G 255B 100C 100M
Cyan0R 255G 255B100C 0M 0Y 0K
Magenta255R 0G 255B0C 100M 0Y 0K
Yellow255R 255G 0B0C 0M 100Y 0K

Tint, Shade & Tone

Tint is the result of mixing white with any color to increase lightness whereas shade is the result of mixing black with any color to reduce lightness and we get the tones of a color by adding gray to it.

Tint of a color is reproduced by adding white to the original hue.
Shade of a color is reproduced by adding black to the original hue.
Tone of a color is reproduced by adding gray to the original hue.

Color Harmonies

Color harmony is often regarded as color scheme. Basically, it is a method of combining colors based on the color wheel, for aesthetic purpose. These combinations of colors are often pleasing to our eye. It can boost contrast and balance a composition as well.

The pairs of colors lying opposite each other on the wheel are considered as complementary color. Theoretically, each pair of these colors should create neutral gray when mixed together in equal amount. Because they should cancel each other as they complement each other.

Complementary colors appears very vibrant and energetic. It creates a lot of contrast (especially when used at full saturation) between cool and warm colors that results a perfect balance in the composition.

Complementary Color Scheme
Complementary Color Scheme

Analogous color schemes use three colors that are adjacent to one another on the color wheel. These colors appear very harmonious, comfortable and pleasing to the eye for having less contrast in between them. Analogous colors are often found in nature.

Analogous Color Scheme
Analogous Color Scheme

The triadic color scheme is based on three colors that are evenly spaced around the color wheel. It appears vibrant and balanced.

Triadic Color Scheme
Triadic Color Scheme

The split-complementary color scheme is based on three colors. It is a variation of complementary color scheme. You choose a base color on the wheel and two adjacent colors of its complement. Like complementary it has a strong visual contrast.

Split-complementary Color Scheme
Split-complementary Color Scheme

The tetradic color scheme is made up of two complementary pairs on the color wheel. This color scheme has more possible variations than other color schemes.

Tetradic Color Scheme
Tetradic Color Scheme

Unlike tetradic color scheme the square color scheme uses complementary colors equally spaced around the color wheel.

Square Color Scheme
Square Color Scheme

Color Psychology

Colors influence our emotion and how we respond to the things around us. It also forces us to take important actions. Although, it varies with person, gender, culture and circumstances. We can roughly describe the meanings of some common colors so that we can carefully select or manipulated color to convey or to exaggerate its associated meanings.

Color is only beautiful when it means something.

Robert Henri
RedRed is the color of blood and fire. It’s the most emotionally intense color. It influences our metabolism, respiration and blood pressure. It is highly noticeable since it has the longest wavelength. So red is often used to indicate danger or warning. It can evoke erotic feelings. It symbolizes love, romance, sexuality, power, passion, danger, rage, anger, violence, war, confidence, courage, vitality, will power, action, ambition and determination.
PinkPink is associated with feminine. It symbolizes love and romance, beauty, caring, tenderness, nurture, acceptance and calm.
OrangeOrange is warm and inviting. It simulates appetite and associates with joy, sunshine and tropics. It speaks for happiness. Orange can be used to draw attention since it is highly noticeable. It increases oxygen and stimulates mental activity. It symbolizes enthusiasm, fascination, happiness, cheerfulness, affordability, stimulation, creativity, determination, vitality, endurance, desire, sexual passion, pleasure, domination, aggression, optimism and wisdom.
YellowYellow stands for happiness. It’s bright, airy and playful. It creates a great contrast with darker colors that indicates a sign of warning. For example, bees, snake etc. It’s also a difficult color to look at. It symbolizes wisdom, joy, happiness, intellect, loyalty, hunger, decay, caution, conflict, trepidation, sickness, jealousy, impatience, criticism and cowardice.
GreenGreen is nature’s color that is associated with growth and health. It’s the most pleasing and restful color for our eye. Unlike red it indicates safety, stability, security and trust. It symbolizes nature, environmental, growth, hope, self-reliance, harmony, freshness, health, calmness, relaxation, ambition, prosperity, stability, harmony, fertility, well being. But it can also evoke feelings of nausea and envy. It is also used to represent evil, witchcraft, and decay.
BlueBlue is associated with depth and stability since it is the color of sky and sea. It gives a feeling of serenity and tranquility that causes our body to produce calming chemicals. That is why it’s often used in hospital, bedroom and office. It’s a preferred color of men since it gives them a masculine look. It suggests loyalty, integrity, creativity and intelligence. It symbolizes stability, depth, youth, spirituality, truth, peace, friendliness, confidence, faith, honor, reliability, hope, knowledge, trust, coldness, and winter.
PurplePurple is very rare in nature often invokes a sense of creativity. It has a tranquil quality of blue. Like pink women mostly teenagers are more attracted to purple than men, for its feminine quality. It symbolizes royalty, magic, artificial, mystery, power, luxury, elegance, sophistication, nobility, prestige, romance, softness and nostalgia.
BlackBlack has a negative connotation. It’s the color of hidden or secretive things. It mostly associated with something evil. It symbolizes night, darkness, death, submission, scary, earth, stability, luxury, wealth, elegance, power, strengths, illegality, formality, depth, stylish and timeless.
WhiteWhite is associated with purity, perfection, cleanliness and unknown like we often think of angels in white clothes. It has a positive connotation. It symbolizes purity, simplicity, cleanliness, innocence, peaceful, virginity, truth, empowerment, sterility, snow and cold.
GrayGray suggests old age and conservatism. But gray can also be used in combination with color to create very classy effect. It symbolizes traditionalism, dull, uninteresting, sorrow, security and maturity.

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