How To Use Color In Photography And Create Stronger Emotions

Color is so powerful when it comes to creating moods in humans and making us feel certain emotions. As photographers we need to understand how to use color in our images to help tell our story we are trying to capture. This post was inspired by the book Captivating Color – A Guide To Dramatic Color Photography, written by Digital Photography School. 

color_photography Let’s have a little fun…shall we?

Pretend you’re in this social experiment – one group is asked to stay in a room with yellow walls, while another group is asked to stay in an entirely black room. Let’s say you’re one of those in the black room. After an hour, you’re asked to fill up a mood questionnaire.

First question – what’s your general disposition for the day? Happy? Lonely? Angry? Studies show that you’re likely to pick “lonely”, while those in the other room would probably pick “happy”. You might ask, how can staying in a certain room make me feel lonely all of a sudden? Like many others, you’re forgetting the effect of the most powerful force in the room (no, it’s not paranormal!) – the power of color.

Color is more than just light bouncing off in different wavelengths; it’s a force powerful enough to grab our attention, to call us into action (i.e. convince us to buy certain products or feel happy and sad), and it affects our mood. As photographers it also helps us create strong emotions and help tell the story in our photographs.

How does it work?

People have different levels of association with different colors. Culture and society influence it, but each of us has our own personal association with specific colors, too. You might associate blue to a feeling of sadness because of a sad memory involving that color (a painful break-up in a blue building, maybe?), while others generally feel a sense of calmness upon seeing the color blue.

Our reaction to color might also be dictated by evolution; for instance, seeing the color red causes the heart to start beating faster. It acts as stimulant to alert our ancestors back then of impending danger in the form of fire. The color red is also associated with alarm (think firetrucks and ambulances).

Photography And Colors


As far as photography is concerned, color is important in two aspects – it can help tell a story and as with other media, can help evoke human emotions. And why is emotion important? Many have said that regardless of how the photo was taken, it’s more important if a photo can make them feel something. Even without editing the photo, we can control the way color plays its effects.

For instance, the color of any landscape changes depending on the time of day, thanks in part to the lighting. Among other things, light has the most powerful effect on color, and understanding the way it works is a great achievement for any photographer.

How Much To use?

The use of too much colors in any photograph can be confusing and unpleasant to the eye, resulting in too many focal points that leads to a poor image. In a sea of colors, how do you know where to focus on? That’s partly the photographer’s job. You filter out what isn’t important in the photo and focus on one dominant color. The rule is that the more intense the color, the more dominant it is.

Another tip you might find useful is isolating particular colors, especially if you’re trying to create a dramatic image. You can either use a zoom lens or change the angle of the shot by changing your position.

Use Colors To Your Advantage

Two relatively new concepts in photography are advancing and receding colors. Advancing colors consist of warmer hues; think red, a bold and strong color. In a photograph, no matter how little red there is (a postbox or a water can in a field of greens), you’ll notice that it still has a dominating effect.

Take this in mind especially if you’re trying to draw attention to another aspect of the photograph. On the other hand, receding colors are the opposite; they like to stay in the background and support the dominant color. Shades of blue and green are perfect background colors because they allow other colors to stand out. This would be helpful in nature shots – a colorful butterfly or bright flower in a background of green.

To understand how color affects our mood and actions, it’s best to discuss each color one by one. Along the way, try to think of how each color can be used in photos, with an understanding of its different uses.

Red Hot

As mentioned, the color red acts as a stimulant, and a very powerful one at that. It can evoke emotions such as passion, excitement, anger and even fear, with the level of emotion directly proportional to the amount of red present in a portrait. If you noticed, most food establishments also make use of red – Mc Donald’s, KFC and Lays to name a few. That’s because red encourages appetite as well.

When you see the color red, you’re bound to feel hungry. That’s also why kitchens usually have red walls. Just a tip – if you’re trying to work on a logo or poster for a restaurant or a food product, make sure to include the color red – a lot of it.

Just a little trivia

The color red is also probably the most attention seeking color there is. Studies show that wearing red is a very effective way for a girl to attract a guy’s attention. They don’t call it red light district for no reason. But as far as advertising goes, red works great as an attention grabber. And just one more – studies also show that the color red might cause you to do poorly in exams! It’s associated with failure; think of a big, fat F written in red ink on your test paper.


This color is somewhere between yellow and red, and can also be used to catch attention (used in signs). Orange stimulates warmth, excitement, confidence and even friendliness. If red is a bit too much for you, orange is the perfect alternative. Examples include Nickelodeon, Amazon, and Mozilla Firefox.

Sunshine Yellow

Of all the colors, yellow might be the most painful to look at. In fact, yellow walls have been shown to make babies cry. However, yellow stimulates optimism, warmth and happiness. If you want to create an image that evokes energy, yellow is the perfect color. Examples include Nikon, Ferrari and Ikea.

Green Thumb

When you see the color green what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Nature, of course! Some might think of money, too. Just like nature, the color green offers a feeling of tranquility and peace, making it the perfect color for the bedroom. Green is also a favorite color of most people (second only to blue), and since we’re so used to seeing this color, it might make a good backdrop for a portrait or interior design. Examples include Starbucks and Animal Planet.

The Calming Blues

“Feeling down and blue” is actually a wrong expression; although the color blue calms you down and lowers your blood pressure, it doesn’t do so to the point of depression. Blue also evokes trust and strength, making it the color of choice for most offices and corporate businesses (think IBM, Twitter and Facebook). Studies have also shown that people are more productive in blue rooms (just a tip for interior design!).

Black as the Night

In almost any culture, black is associated with mourning, death, and even evil. But on the other end of the spectrum, it’s also associated with sophistication, as it is often used in luxury items (Prada and Chanel). An image of a lady in an elegant black dress or a gentleman in a black suit shows high class. Black can also be an authoritative and powerful color when used in the right amount.

Moody Feel With Splash Of Color


Here’s an image that uses dark colors, but ads a splash of red to draw your attention to the model. You can also see some orange tones creating a warm mood.

Don’t Forget The Lighting

Since colors are technically just reflections of light, it’s no wonder that lighting can also influence our mood. Lighting is not only used for visual comfort, but also to evoke certain emotions in some situations. High levels of lighting also have a stimulatory effect and can cause people to be more active (think of your productivity level in a dimly lit room), while lower levels are more relaxing and intimate. The same thing goes for the amount of daylight. In countries with 4 seasons, seasonal anxiety disorder is more common during the winter months, where days are shorter and nights are longer.

Lighting can either be soft or hard as well. Soft lighting is more diffused and allows a more relaxing visual experience. However, too little can also cause a lack of visual interest on the part of the audience. Hard lighting, when used properly, can accentuate texture and provide shadows that wouldn’t be seen in soft lighting.

Seeing how color affects our everyday lives in more ways than we thought of, can you still imagine a world without color?

This post was inspired by the book Captivating Color – A Guide To Dramatic Color Photography.

Remember these three key points about color and your photography.

  • The dream -– taking photo’s that evoke emotion, making people feel as attached to the images as you are. The type of images people pay for and memories that amaze your friends.
  • The reality – you continually take bland and lifeless photos – they just don’t capture the moment, as you see it through the lens. No matter how much you tweak in post production – you just can’t communicate the meaning behind the scene.
  • The answer – color is as much a part of visual communication as composition or light – but you need to learn to see and understand it. This eBook will teach you to do just that and will illuminate the topic of color.

 I hope this post helps you become more aware of color and how to add them to your portraits. Remember, try new things with color and you may be surprised at the results.


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