Complementary Colours

‘Bamburgh Castle’, Bamburgh, Northumberland.
Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III, EF17-40mm f/4 L USM @ 28mm, 30 seconds @ f/22 ISO 100
Manfrotto 441 tripod, Manfrotto 322RC2 Heavy Duty Grip Ball Head.
Adobe Lightroom.

“Orange and blue are a magical combination in landscape photography”

Complementary Colours

The heavenly hues of twilight beckoned the dawn as I stood on this enchanting beach with the waves gently lapping at my feet. The bright orange lights from the castle complemented the dark saturated blues and gained presence from their reflection in the wet sand as pink pastels bathed the horizon.

Orange and blue are a magical combination in landscape photography; from a traditional perspective, they occupy opposite positions on the painter’s colour wheel, they are ‘complementary’. A cursory study will reveal seemingly conflicting definitions of complementary colours because it all depends on whether we are considering transmitted light (like that created by our computer display) or reflected light from printing ink, paint or other artists materials. I’m always happier to think of colour in the same way as a traditional artist; perhaps this ‘subtractive’ colour theory resonates best with what we do as landscape photographers. The primary colours used by painters are red, yellow and blue. The complementary colour for each of these primaries can be created by mixing paint of the other two primary colours in a 50:50 ratio. So for a painter, the complementary colour of blue is a mix of red and yellow in equal parts, making orange, and I think this provides a clue as to why blue and orange resonate so well together; it is impossible to create a more different colour to blue than that created by equal parts of the remaining two primary colours.

One fascinating aspect of colour theory is that there is so much subjectivity involved; different individuals will find certain colours warmer than others and will find different proportions of complementary colours in any given image more compelling.

Although small apertures are desirable for maximum depth-of-field, landscape photographers often avoid using the smallest apertures because diffraction causes a progressive decrease in image quality as the iris gets progressively smaller. Some of this loss in sharpness is often digitally retrievable, to a degree, even down to f/16, but I tend to limit myself to this minimum. For this image, I selected the smallest aperture possible: f/22. I wanted to emphasise the starburst effect from the orange lights on the castle as much as possible, so on this occasion, I was happy to invite diffraction to the party.

This article first appeared in Outdoor Photography Magazine. Reproduced with kind permission.