Using Color to Create the Mood you Want in Photos

Color can make a huge difference in the impact of your images.  Whether you are trying to create a calm, cool mood or portray a festive, joyful scene the colors in your scene will either help you achieve your vision, or detract from it.

For this reason, it is important for all photographers to have at least a basic understanding of color theory.  Once you have a handle on how colors work together and the impact different colors have on those viewing your images you can start to make conscious decisions that will make your images stronger.  For example, you can direct your clients to wear certain colors based on whether you are shooting in a park or urban setting and whether you are going for a romantic, dreamy look or a bold, vibrant feel.

Ashley Westphal, author of the Click & Co. Breakout Bold: Seeing, Shooting, and Processing Color shares her tips for using color to set the mood for photos below.

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1# Understand the relationships on the color wheel: Learn about color schemes and how they impact the mood of your photos.  The most common color schemes and how they work to set mood are:

  • Complementary color schemes are opposite from one another on the color wheel. Complimentary combinations, such as red and blue, are vibrant and convey strength. Complementary color schemes draw the viewer in quickly.
  • Analogous color schemes are next to one another on the color wheel. Analogous combinations, such as green and blue, are often found in nature and create a harmonious and peaceful mood.
  • Triatic color schemes use three colors evenly spaced around the color wheel, such as orange, purple, and green. Triatic color schemes are vibrant but more muted than complementary color schemes.  These work best when one color dominates and the other two colors are used as supporting colors.

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2# Carry a color wheel with you: Don’t be afraid to print and bring a color wheel with you so that you can easily match subjects with backgrounds based on the story you want to tell in your image.  There’s no shame in looking at the color wheel for reference and such attention to detail will surely impress your subjects!  One quick way to always have a color wheel with you is to set it as the background as the homescreen on your phone. That way, you can quickly identify color schemes while out shooting.  Plus, if you are looking at a color wheel every time you go to send a text it will sink in quickly!

3# Understand how light impacts color: For example, direct light is going to sharpen color, while backlighting in the golden hour will tend to muddy color.  Take this into consideration when planning the mood of your image and the story you plan to tell with color.  To convey softness or peace, allow backlighting to soften that color.  However, to convey strength, drop the backlighting and photograph your subject in a way that’s going to sharpen the color using direct light or a reflector to get just the right amount of light on your subject to sharpen those colors, but not so much that it’s unflattering.


4# Learn to love neutrals:  At first glance, neutrals can appear boring, but when paired with a bold color, they create striking contrast.  Black will tend to add drama to an otherwise bold scene, while white will tend to brighten the scene. This can be used easily in two ways.  First, use a neutral background with a bold outfit to bring that extra punch.  Second, use a neutral outfit with a bright background, such as white dress on a teal blanket to create a punch in a different way.  Both methods give an equal punch and are a fun way to allow your subjects to not dress in technicolor if they aren’t into it, which still creating a bold, energetic feeling.


5# Understand how color effects emotions: In the Western world certain colors have a near universal effect on people.  Blue conveys harmony and peace while yellow represents joy and fun and red signals freshness and life. Gaining a deeper understanding of how colors effect emotions will help you choose locations, backgrounds, and clothing appropriate for the mood you want to set for your shoot, whether you are planning a serene newborn shoot or a shoot with a fearless senior ready to embark on the next phase of her life.


No matter what kind of mood you are trying to convey in your photos, gaining a deeper understanding of how colors work together and what kind of emotions they trigger will help you make better photos, whether you carefully plan the colors you will use in a shoot, as Ashley does with her seniors or whether you simply become more aware of colors around you when you are shooting.

To learn more about color theory, check out Ashley’s e-book, Bold: Seeing, Shooting, and Processing Color.  If you are looking for further guidance specifically on color theory and its application in retouching check out Viktor Feje’s class on CreativeLive, Color Theory and its applicatios in Photoshop.