Colour harmonies and why they work

In colour theory, a colour harmony refers to a combination of colours that will have a certain aesthetically and pleasing outcome. In this blog post we will take a closer look at what this means and how you can apply this theory to your stock photos.

The first mention of colour theory can be found around 1435 in the writings of author and artist, Leon Battista Alberti and later repeated in Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks. The theory developed and since the 18th century these ground rules on colour have been followed in the visual arts. When working with paint, colour choices are much more evident than in photography as you physically mix them together and actively make decisions on what combinations will create the strongest visual language. However this doesn’t mean that colour combinations, or harmonies as they are often called, are less important in a photograph. If you think about it, colours in a painting are not necessarily there to represent the truth – they are there to communicate a feeling or an atmosphere that helps telling the story.

There is something magical about photographs that follow colour harmonies. They often invite us to stop and look at them for a long time, like they have something important to tell us, and the colours can give us small hints on what that might be. William Eggleston is a prime example of a photographer creating images that do exactly this.


Designer working at desk using a colour wheel
Wavebreak Media ltd / Alamy Stock Photo


The colour wheel

The first thing to get familiar with when learning about colour theory is the colour wheel. Have a look at Adobe Color CC, this tool will able you to quickly get an idea of how harmonies work, create your own combinations and even upload your own images to see how they fit in.

Hue, saturation and brightness

These terms form the basis of how colour is described and you’re probably already familiar with them in some way or another. However, these three ways of thinking about colour are at the very heart of colour theory, so they can’t be left out.

Hue is used to define the actual colour, whilst saturation is the intensity of the hue. 100% saturation means there is no addition of grey to the colour and it will be pure and vivid. If you look at colour with 0% saturation on the other hand, it will appear medium grey. Finally, brightness is the relative value of black and white that have been mixed with the hue, creating lighter and darker tones of the colour. When creating colour harmonies in your photo by, for example, toning your colours in post-production, the saturation of each colour should be of a similar level so that they work in harmony. Now that the basics are covered, let’s have a look at a few different colour harmonies and how they work. 


An image with a monochromatic harmony is based on varied tones of one key colour. Have a look at the image below and see that even the skin colour of this girl has a slightly warm pink tone and soothingly fits in with everything else in the frame.


Beautifully romantic red haired girl in a contemporary studio setting
Rekha Garton / Alamy Stock Photo



When using a complementary colour harmony all you need to do is to choose two colours directly opposite each other from the colour wheel and make them your main colours in the photo. Colours opposite to each other on the wheel work well when you want something to stand out, but can be garish when used in large doses. Purple and yellow are complementary colours or green and red as you can see in the example below.


Lucia in New York
Luc Kordas / Alamy Stock Photo


Split complementary

To achieve a split complementary colour harmony, you choose a key colour (say, red) and then imagine you have a direct line showing you the complementary colour (green). Now, instead of using the green, imagine forking the line into a ‘y’ shape and using colours slightly to the left and right of the complementary colour. You now have red, cyan-green and yellow-green colours rather than just red and green. This can give your image a more interesting dynamic, but feel equally harmonious to look at.



An analogous harmony usually consists of three colours directly next to each other on the colour wheel. This scheme is often found in nature and are therefore familiar and pleasing to the eye.


Bodyart. Imagination. Artistic Woman with Red - Gold Makeup and Flowers. Coloring
Iryna Hramavataya / Alamy Stock Photo



This colour harmony uses three colors equally spaced around the colour wheel. In the image below you can see how the key colour, yellow, the cyan-blue eye shadow and red-magenta bracelet and lipstick would make a triangle on the colour wheel. It’s good practice to make one colour more dominant than the other two for a better balance.


Relax. Daydreaming Woman over Floral Background with Flowers
Iryna Hramavataya / Alamy Stock Photo


Accented analogic

If you already got an analogous colour combination in place at your colour wheel, all you need to do is to draw a line directly across the wheel from your middle colour and add the complementary colour to the mix.

When looking at an image we can often just tell straight away if the colour works together or not, but by training our eyes to read colours like a painter, we have a much better chance of creating images that connect with people on an emotional level. Images that connects with people and stand out are key to stock photography, so we hope you feel inspired to experiment with colour for you next shoot.