If you were to briefly glance at my portfolio, you would notice that color plays a key role. Rich and colorful tones are one of the driving forces in my work. 

Black and white photography has its place. But for me, color is always the first choice. There are only two reasons I will ever convert to black and white. When I find that color is distracting the overall story (such as color casts and neons), pulling attention away from the emotion of my image. The other reason I would choose a black and white edit is when color isn’t enhancing my image in anyway. This could be that my image lacks a lot of color, contrast and overall punch that I strive for within my work.

But color has my heart. It can add another layer of visual interest. It can guide the viewer through your frame. And when used with intention, it can enhance storytelling and evoke strong emotions.

Let’s explore how color can add to your images and how you can make simple choices to help it tell your stories.

color theory overhead photo of kids eating watermelon meg loeks

Repetition of Color

Use of color however, can be extremely powerful if used correctly. Let’s take a look at repetition of color.

As photographers it’s important to be intentional about guiding the viewer through our frame. We want our subject(s) to pop. We want our viewer to linger awhile and be led deeper into our image.

One of my favorite ways of doing that is with repetition of color. You can do this by including similar colors in the foreground, on your subject, and in the background.

color theory child in window eating an apple meg loeks

In this image I include pops of red both on my subject, the apple, and in the background.

color theory boy walking with red balloons meg loeks

In this shot of my youngest son exploring with balloons, the viewer is immediately drawn to the red balloon. It is a complementary color to green which allows it to stand out in the scene (more on this soon!).

Related: What are color casts and how to avoid and remove them

However, it is the repetition of the red that leads the viewer deeper into the frame. The color plays a key role in moving my viewer just as my son would move through the scene.

color theory boys walking along path meg loeks_autumn

In this image you can see there is repetition of color with the gold and green tones. The viewer is first drawn to my boys wearing gold and green clothing, and these colors are repeated in the environment surrounding them leading the viewer deeper into the frame.

color theory child kneading dough meg loeks

This still life image utilizes repetition of reds and greens to help create movement. The viewer’s eyes travel through the frame, following the colors in an organized fashion.

Repetition of color plays an important role in this image. The greens of the houseplant and towels help guide the viewer through the frame and make them linger longer.

megloeks_color chart

Complementary Colors

Complementary colors are simple hues that are directly opposite one another on the color wheel. When together, they make each other more pronounced in any given scene.

As photographers we want our subjects to pop. One way I do that is by consciously dressing my children in colors I know will pop against the background and their surroundings. Utilizing complementary colors is the perfect way to do just that.

If I’m going on a hike with my children, I often gravitate towards dressing them in red. I know we are going to be surrounded by green and red will create some contrast. At the very least, I’m going to avoid dressing them in green so that they don’t blend in with their environment. Dressing them in warmer tones like reds, oranges, or yellows will make them the first thing a viewer sees in any frame.

color theory child hands holding strawberries meg loeks

Red and Green. The repetition of the reds pop against the complementary color of green in this image.

color theory boy standing on beach looking at water meg loeks

Blue and Orange. My son was intentionally dressed in this gold/orange coat so that he would pop against the moody blue sky.

color theory young child pickign flowers meg loeks

Purple and Yellow. Again, the clothing choice was intentional here. We were visiting a local lavender farm and I dressed my son in yellow to make him stand out from the background.

Color Symbolism

Going more in-depth on color theory, we often assign colors a particular meaning. That meaning is often universal but it also is cultural.

Using certain colors within your images can add symbolism and evoke a strong emotional response. Color play can create powerful storytelling, making it a big reason I gravitate toward using it.

As an advertising major, I studied color vigorously in college. Ever wonder why stop signs are red, or organic brands use green on their packaging in grocery stores? It’s all intentional and we can be intentional too about the colors we use within our images.

color theory man in camoflage fatigues holding infant daughter meg loeks

This intentionality is doubly important as color can sometimes have dual and/or conflicting meanings. The context in which you use color will help guide your viewers to its meaning.

Red often symbolizes love. But it can also signify a warning or danger… hence why it is on stop signs.

Yellow signifies happiness and youth, energy and joy but it can also symbolize cowardice. Remember the old saying, “You are yellow-bellied.”

Green tends to mean growth and freshness but it can also symbolize greediness.

Blue is a calming color. It evokes feelings of peacefulness and serenity but on the other hand it can evoke feelings of distrust or sadness. A perfect example is the saying, “I’m feeling pretty blue.”

Want more from this author? Here’s a Clickin Moms member *exclusive* editing tutorial (with video!) from Meg!

With colors there can be positive and negative connotations. These connotations can enhance the overall emotion in your image, whether it’s a good vibe or melancholy one.

These images show how I use color with intentionality:

color theory boy with apples at orchard meg loeks

Red often signifies love. It was no accident that I dressed my son in this color. Since it’s a complementary color to green he also pops against the grass.

color theory woman nursing infant meg loeks

Blue often symbolizes calmness and tranquility. In post processing I tend to try and enhance the colors any way I naturally can.

color theory young children playing in fog meg loeks

My children are often dressed in mustard yellow. it happens to be one of my favorite colors, but it also signifies youth and childhood.

For me, the question is never simply, “Should I keep color or convert to black and white?” Instead, I seek to use color in ways that make my images stronger. I use color to help tell my story.

Color theory can be incredibly powerful. I’ve always been drawn to the way it can enhance mood within images. It can guide the viewer through your frame, evoke an emotional response and enhance storytelling. Utilizing things like repetition of color, complementary colors and color symbolism can transform an everyday photograph into a work of art.