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Design & Style

How Do You Apply Color Theory in Photography? Learn About Color Value, Hue, and Saturation in Photography

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 4 min read

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According to color theory, there are three primary ways we evaluate color: hue, value, and saturation. (Saturation is also known as chroma, or intensity of a color.) Understanding and using these three primary color evaluations is one of the most important elements in photography. The color value can help determine the focal point, visual style, and emotional impact of a photograph.



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What Is Color Value?

Color value refers to the relative lightness or darkness of a color. We perceive color value based on the quantity of light reflected off of a surface and absorbed by the human eye. The intensity of the light that reaches the eye is known as “luminance.”

What Is Color Hue?

In order to understand the color value, it’s important to fully grasp the idea of color hue. Pure hues are made up of the three primary colors and the three secondary colors:

  • Red (primary)
  • Blue (primary)
  • Yellow (primary)
  • Orange (secondary)
  • Green (secondary)
  • Violet (secondary)

These pure spectrum colors appear in the color wheel and correspond to different wavelengths of white light.

How Do You Create Darker Values or Lighter Color Values in Photography?

By adding white or black to the different colors on the color wheel, you can manipulate their value, causing the colors to appear to lighten or darken.

  • Adding black to a hue creates a high-value color. These dark values in which black is added is often referred to as a “shade.”
  • Adding white to a hue creates a low-value color. These light values are often called a “tint” and appear to the eye as light colors.

Understanding color value and color terms can help you fully master the quality of your photography, as well as the psychological and emotional effect that your images have on the viewer.

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Annie Leibovitz Teaches Photography
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What Is the Difference Between Applying High-Value Contrast and Low-Value Contrast?

Value contrast can be an especially effective tool in photography. It allows photographers to bring certain objects in the photograph into the foreground, and create a sense of volumetric depth.

  • Having a high degree of contrast on the value scale between the objects you’re photographing helps you create space and separation.
  • Gradations of value help create contouring, depth, and detail on a surface.

So, for example:

  • If the values in an image are close to one another, it will generally cause the shapes to flatten into one another, resulting in an image where the shapes seem to blend.
  • If the values contrast, on the other hand, the shapes will pop and separate, causing them to stand out.

What Is the HSV Scale and How Do You Use It?

The HSV scale is a color model that stands for “hue, saturation, value.” The HSV color space is popular in programs like Adobe Photoshop because it resembles the way humans perceive basic colors more so than the additive or subtractive color models. Playing with the HSV scale can help emphasize value contrast in certain areas of your image, which is helpful in giving your photograph a visual entry point for the viewer.

Different hues are measured in terms of degrees.

  • For example, cyan falls between 181–240 degrees, and magenta falls between 301–360 degrees.
  • Once a hue is selected, you can adjust its value on a scale of 0–100%.
  • Darker values are closer to 0% (which is pure black), and lighter values are closer to 100% (which is pure white).
  • Raising the saturation and value to 100% results in pure color.


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What Is the Difference Between Monochromatic and Grayscale?

By adjusting the value of different hues, you can create color schemes that can have a profound effect on the viewer.

  • A monochromatic color scheme, in which only one hue is used but its value varies, can make your photograph appear visually unified.
  • A grayscale color scheme is when you remove all the hue so that your image appears only as a monochromic range of black, white, and grey. Removing the different hue and saturated colors allows you to focus on the pure lightness, darkness, and luminance communicated through the image. Grayscale photography is a great way to practice evoking mood and emotion through pure color value. Dark values can create a dark, dramatic mood, whereas light values can evoke cheerfulness and lightheartedness.

What Is White Balance?

A standard SLR camera and DSLR digital camera will come with controls for white balance, which ensures that objects that are white in the real world actually look white in your photograph.

What Is Color Temperature?

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Photographers seeking total control of their images’ color temperature use the Kelvin scale when setting their camera’s white balance. The Kelvin scale assigns temperature gradations to the color white, which in turn informs the temperature of all other colors (since white is the synthesis of the complete color spectrum reflecting back toward our eyes).

If your photographic equipment allows you to manually adjust your Kelvin scale, consider assigning:

  • a 7500K value for shade photograph
  • a 5500K value for sunlight photographs
  • a 2500K value to sunset photographs

Want to Become a Better Photographer?

Whether you’re just starting out or have dreams of going professional, photography requires plenty of practice and a healthy dose of patience. No one knows this better than legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz, who has spent decades mastering her craft. In her first online class, Annie reveals how she works to tell a story through her images. She also provides insight into how photographers should develop concepts, work with subjects, shoot with natural light, and bring images to life in post-production.

Want to become a better photographer? The MasterClass Annual Membership provides exclusive video lessons from master photographers, including Annie Leibovitz, Jimmy Chin, and more.