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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Newhall

Color Contrast in Digital Photography

Updated: Jan 10

So, I've mentioned (briefly) about color contrast in other posts. What is color contrast? Color contrast is where two opposing colors on a color wheel are closely connected in an image. In other words, the colors are contrasting against each other.

In digital photography (and a little in color film), color contrast is very important to consider when composing a good image. Otherwise, your subjects might blend together! Blending colors can be good, but not if you are trying to get your subject to stand out.

In my opinion, Color contrast is a much better way to get this effect. An example in my work is found here. While texture was what I focused on while learning about film photography, color contrast is one of the first things I learned in digital photography. In fact, it's probably one of the most useful things I learned!

You'll notice that the color wheel I've put up in this article is labeled a "RYB colour model". This refers to the primary colors in the color wheel; red, yellow, and blue. Outside of the fact that "colour" is spelled wrong (that's right, I'm an American), this is actually the incorrect color wheel! More specifically, it's the wrong color wheel for photography. Painters use colors found in paint, but photographers use the colors found in light. This means that photography uses an entirely different color wheel!

color contrast sample
This stock photo is an example of color contrast (blue against a red background) in photography.

Shocked? So was I when I learned this. While other artists use the RYB color wheel, photographers mainly use a color wheel called the "RGB colour model." The difference between the RYB color wheel and the RGB color wheel (besides the obvious acronym change) is that, when combined, the RYB color wheel (theoretically) creates black while the RGB color wheel (again, theoretically) creates white.

At first this seems very confusing, but eventually it starts to make sense. It's really quite simple. The medium of painting requires the application of paint or pencil or some more "physical" way to create. It meshes together and the more paint (or perhaps pencil or ink) there is, the darker it gets. Photography, on the other hand, requires the use of light. What color is light? Without the complicated scientific explanation, the "color" of light is essentially a combination of all the colors at once. Unlike with paint, which blends into a shade of black, light (until otherwise affected) doesn't blend into any color that's apparent to the human eye. Because of it's lack of color, its called "white light". In order to create color with light, you have to use a prism to divide the "white light" into a rainbow. Without the prism the light is "white light." That is why the color wheel for photographers combines in white, rather than black.

In my experience, people tend to notice a photo that has contrasting colors over photos that focus on texture contrast. Perhaps this is because it's easier to notice color contrast from across the hall than it is to see textural differences. Regardless, color contrast can be an excellent way to make a subject in a photo. The contrasting colors will certainly stick out to a viewer. There are examples of this in some of my work.

Color, and how one uses it in their work, is certainly critical to the practice of creating art. The use of color in photography, especially, is relatively new in photographic history. There is a lot to explore in color photography, particularly with the manipulation of colors.

What types of color contrast have you seen? What are you waiting for? Get out there and explore color contrast! Have fun!

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