Complementary Colors

When looking for interesting subjects to photograph one should consider the importance of color in the final image.  Smart juxtaposition of complementary colors can do a lot to enhance any scene and give an image an extra pop.

Color Wheel

Way back in 1666 Sir Isaac Newton created the first color wheel, meant to help pick colors that were harmonious with each other.  His were a basic 12 colors derived from the RYB color model.  There have been many changes to the color wheel since the 17th century but the basic principles still apply - For color harmonies (or chords), pick a color and its harmony color will be on the opposite side of the wheel.

Just looking at the above wheel you see why red roses in green bouquets are so visually striking!  Red and green are complementary colors.

The color wheel gives us a tool to visualize many color strategies.  For instance, analogous colors are a series of colors that sit next to each other on the wheel.  Red, orange, and yellow would be analogous.  Using analogous colors imparts a calm sense to the viewer.  This contrasts with complementary colors (opposite on the wheel) as complementary colors, when used to extremes, can become quite dramatic and exciting.

Obviously, orange and blue are important complementary colors for landscape photographers because of the ever present blue sky.  (An orange sun beset in a sea of blue can already give the image a leg up even before a main subject is taken into account.)

Pennybacker Bridge (Austin, TX), Canon 5D Mark III, 17-40mm @ 20mm for 6.0sec, ISO 400, RRS Nodal Slide and Panning Clamp, 7 images (click for larger)

For the above image the cars screaming by left headlight trails that nicely complemented a blue sky that already had a bit of orange as the sun set.  The use of a nodal slide allowed me to take this 7 image pano without line tearing towards the bottom of the frame as the guard rails would require more post work to correct without proper nodal point rotation.

As a side note, in my haste to capture this image before the sun went away completely, the camera stayed in aperture priority.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, when creating a pano it's best to shoot in manual mode so that changes in light across the frame don't alter exposure in the middle of the series.  Predictably, my final images had a range of multiple stops of shutter speed (2 stops to be exact), dramatically altering exposure and sky consistancy across the composite image.  To rectify this I chose a base exposure (generally this base exposure will be the image's exposure at the center of the pano) and adjusted the exposure slider in Lightroom to counter any image's exposure that deviated from that base exposure.  For instance, if the base exposure is 4.0secs at a given aperture you would slide the exposure up 2 stops for an image that was shot at 15secs.  The moral of this side note: Shoot panos in manual mode.

Using the color wheel as a guide and understanding the relationship of the colors it represents can greatly enhanced the impact of your images.