Color Theory Photography Guide

Color Theory Photography Video

The following video gives a basic overview of all the techniques and skills covered on the following page. Watch the video first, then scroll down & read the written guide.

I also included a bonus color theory photo editing example at the end of the video.

Understanding Color & Light

Light is the single basic ingredient required to create photographs. Without light, pictures don’t exist.

Digital photography is the process of transferring light energy, carried by photons, into digital information, which can be processed and displayed by computers and cameras in the form of digital images.

Light also contains the ability to produce color. Color is produced by specific energies or frequencies of light, known as visible light.

Understanding color theory and creating beautiful images requires a basic knowledge of color & light.

This basic understanding is essential for mastering all other aspects of photography, including shooting & photo editing.

Creating Color – Light Waves & Frequency

Light waves carry energy, determined by frequency, carried by small packets known as photons. This energy provides the basis for human vision, solar power and digital photography.

The human eye can see light that exhibits a certain range of energy. Energy contained in light photons interacts with the retina ( rods & cones ), releasing energy as electrons, creating electrical impulses, communicating with our brain to produce vision. Specific colors correspond to specific frequencies of light as shown in the graphic below.

When light waves & photons interact with silicon image sensors free electrons are released from the collision.

The number of electrons released depends on the photon energy. The photon energy depends on the light frequency.

Pixels are small buckets for collecting & counting electrons. They are the basic building block of image sensors found in digital cameras.

Understanding Light Frequency

Compare light & light waves to ocean water hitting the beach as waves throughout the day.

Although the ocean is a single object, each of its waves carries different amounts of energy, acting as a separate entity.

Storm waves coming in very quickly, hitting the beach one after another, every second, contain a large amount of energy, often destroying buildings or boats.

Calm weather waves may only hit the beach every minute. The energy contained in calm weather waves is much less, allowing visitors to lay on the beach in the sun.

The energy carried by these waves can be defined by the frequency or number of waves coming in one after another.

The horizontal distance from the top of one wave to the top of the following wave is defined as 1 wavelength.

Waves coming in during a storm, very quickly, have a high frequency. High-frequency waves have small wavelengths with less distance from one wave top to the next.

During calm weather waves have a low frequency. Low-frequency waves have large wavelengths as the distance from the top of one wave to the next is much larger.

The characteristics of wavelength and frequency determine the energy carried by water and by light waves.

Pixels – Buckets for Collecting Light

As light / photons collide with the image sensor free electrons are released from the sensor’s surface.

Imagine a missile ( photons ) hitting a brick wall ( sensor ), pieces of brick ( electrons ) will fly everywhere.

Each free electron carries a small electronic charge.

Pixels, the smallest unit of the image sensor, are buckets for storing and counting electrons and their corresponding electronic charge.

This charge, collected by each pixel, produces a digital signal which communications the pixel color into digital space, using binary code ( zeros & ones ).

This massive amount of information is all carried by light, at the speed of 299,792,458 meters per second or 983,546,666 feet per second.

This entire section can be summed up by the following two equations: