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Using Color as a Compositional Element

June 13, 2014 Creativity, Nature, Techniques 3 Comments

Written by: Charlie Borland

We all know about the rules of composition. The ‘rule of thirds’, leading lines, forced perspective, framing, and more, but one I feel is very important is color. Color as a compositional element!

We are attracted to color and color helps create emotion about a photograph. Color can make a subject stand out from its surroundings. A small spot of color against a visually non-competing background creates a strong point of focus. A colorful wildflower against a subdued background of a different color, visually allows the wildflower to stand out from the background.

When the background is the opposite color of the subject, the two colors complement each other and can intensify the relationship between subject and background.
Color can also set a mood. Cooler colors like blue and green often give a feeling of comfort, cool, or even cold, while reds and yellows are vibrant and create a feeling of warmth. A snow covered mountain cabin with a warm glow of amber color coming from a window, draws the eye and tells of a warm and cozy place.

You can add substantial impact to your photography when you apply these concepts. When you spot a colorful subject, look to isolate that subject with a non-competing background of a different or opposite color.

Here are some examples:


This leaf on the forest floor, from the Smoky Mountains, is strategically placed in the composition. It also benefits from the color of the leaf over a subdued color background that also has no dominating elements.


I thought this scene was not real when I saw it. All the trees were virtually bare having lost their leaves while a couple trees on the right side still had them all. Also strategically positioned compositionally, the trees bright color is what draws the eye and captivates.


The image is a combination of color and position. The purple Lupine commands attention both with color and position as it is supported by other smaller colored flowers.

fishing floats 2

In this nice pattern and texture image, the color of the fishing floats commands attention while the color is supported by the meandering lines and shapes.


The poppy here is definitely the subject. The smaller white flowers do a great job as the background and contrast nicely with the Poppy. Here is a perfect example of color commanding the composition.

flowers 3

There are a lot of composition elements that are at work here. The leaves and their curving lines frame the flower nicely, but it is once again the color of the flower that is the star of the photo.

Not all scenes have great leading lines or perfect 1/3 elements, but if there is a strong colored subject consider incorporating it into your composition as the star of the composition for a powerful photo.

If you have any thoughts please leave a comment.

Related posts: Here’s One Key Ingredient to Creating Great Landscape Photographs, Six Remarks on Composition


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Currently there are "3 comments" on this Article:

  1. Stratocaster says:

    I really wanted the lupine photograph to be tack-sharp from front to back.

  2. […] We all know about the rules of composition. The ‘rule of thirds’, leading lines, forced perspective, framing, and more, but one I feel is very important is color. Color as a compositional element!  MORE… […]

  3. Ed Preston says:

    Fabulous examples of using color as the subject or to enhance the subject in nature photography. I seem to remember reading about Elliot Porter and Ansel Adams debating the topic, and it seemed to me Porter won by pointing out that with color photography even the light itself can be a subject.

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