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Design & Style

What Is Hue in Photography? How Hue Affects Photos

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

There are three primary ways photographers evaluate color: hue, value and saturation (or chroma). It’s helpful to think of hue as the essential building block of color theory. Learn about hue, value, and saturation in our guide here.

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What Is Hue?

Hues are made up of the three primary colors (red, blue, and yellow) and the three secondary colors (orange, green, and violet) that appear in the color wheel or color circle. When you refer to hue, you are referring to its pure color, or the visible spectrum of basic colors that can be seen in a rainbow.

When hues are combined with other color qualities, such as saturation, chroma, or intensity, then the resulting combination is known as the color’s chromaticity.

What Is the Science Behind Hue?

Each pure hue correlates to a different dominant wavelength of light that is then received and processed by the human eye. In other words, different hues correspond with a different wavelength of white light that the human eye interprets as pure color.

What Is the Difference Between Hue and Color?

It’s easy to confuse the word hue with the word color, and they are often (incorrectly) used interchangeably. Color is the broad term that describes every tint, tone, hue or shade that the human eye can see, including white, black, and gray.

The definition of hue, on the other hand, refers only to the pure spectrum color names found on the color wheel: red, orange, yellow, blue, green, and violet.

Generally speaking, every color has a dominant hue. For instance, the color “navy” has a blue hue, and according to color theory, “magenta” has a dominant hue of violet.

In digital photography, colored light can also be measured as color temperature. Every light source has its own hue. Colors from light sources that move towards blue are considered “cooler” temperature-wise, whereas colors closer to red are considered “warmer.”

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What Are Tints, Tones, and Shades?

Color is not constant, and hues can be mixed, manipulated and changed to create colors that appear lighter or darker:

  • Tints are created by adding white to any hue found on the color wheel, which desaturates and lightens the hue. You can also combine hues together and add white to create a tint of that specific color blend. When you see colors that appear as pale hues, the effect has likely been obtained through tinting.
  • Tones are created by adding grey (or a mixture of black and white) to a hue. Depending on the amount of grey added, the tone may be darker or lighter than the hue it was added to.
  • Shades are created by adding black to a hue. The amount of black added will affect the darkness of the shade, and will often make the original color appear “dark-hued.” You can use different shades of a color to achieve gradation, which refers to the technique of gradually transitioning from one hue or shade of a color to another.

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What Are Color Models?

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A color model, also known as a color space, is an abstract, numerically-based system that represents primary colors and hues. Programs that utilize color models will often include a color picker, an interface feature that allows you to select specific color hues or pure hues. As you apply your knowledge of hue and color terms to digital photography, it will be helpful to understand how they appear in common color models.

  • RGB Color Model: The RGB (which stands for red, blue, green) is an additive color model that is commonly used in digital media, such as televisions, computer monitors, and phone screens. This is known as an additive color model because the more RGB light beams are emitted, the closer the color value gets to white.
  • CYMK Color Model: The CYMK color model (which stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black) is a subtractive color model that is commonly used in print. The CYMK is a subtractive model because the more ink you add, the closer you get to black.

How Does Hue Affect Photography?

Adjusting the hue allows you to shift the color values of your images, a process that can radically change the emotional impact of your photograph. Altering the hue to achieve a complementary color scheme, for instance, can create an image that is aesthetically balanced and unified. On the other hand, a triadic color scheme—which employs colors that are equally spaced on the color wheel—results in a bold, lively clash of colors that can disorient and excite the viewer.

Hue adjustments can also be used for incremental changes, which can be effective in cleaning up unintentional color casts or correcting the white balance.

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