Using Complementary Colors in Your Pictures

Those who know me well would probably say that I’m not a fashion god. I don’t lay my clothes out before getting dressed to make sure the colors complement each other or at least match. I’m more of a “this dark blue shirt probably matches with these light blue jeans and my brown shoes go with everything” kind of person.

Now, before you rush to judgment, you should know that this is all different when it comes to photography. When I’m composing a picture, I think a lot about color. In fact, using complementary colors in your pictures can make your images stand out.

So, what are complementary colors and how do you use them in photography? Although there are large books written on color, I’ve never read them. Because I’m not an expert on the topic, I think I can make this really simple. Let’s start with the basics. Take a quick look at this color wheel diagram below. This is the most basic version of the color wheel, with the wheel itself broken out.


The idea is to mix colors at opposite ends of the wheel which are considered complementary colors. Notice that in all cases you will be mixing a primary color with a secondary and a warm color with a cool color. In this, the most basic version of the color wheel, you have three sets of colors to work with: blue and orange, red and green, yellow and magenta. Take a look at the three images below and notice how well the colors work together.

Mixing Blue and Orange

africa,african,dead tree,deadvlei,desert,forest,horizontal,namibia,namibian,sand,tree,woods

End of Day at Deadvlei : Prints Available

Evening light striking the orange dunes at Deadvlei

Mixing Red and Green

agalychnis callidryas,amphibian,colorful,flower,frog,frog and reptile,frog reptile,gaudy,heliconia,horizontal,jim zuckerman,night,red,red-eyed,red-eyed tree

Red-Eyed : Prints Available

Close-up of colorful Red-Eyed Tree Frog

Mixing Yellow and Magenta

america,barn,beautiful,building,farm,highway 55,horizontal,il,illinois,midwest,mill,north america,rural,sun,sunset,twilight,united states,us,usa,windmill

Sunset on the Farm : Prints Available

Colorful sunset silhouette of an Illinois farm

Now, of course, things are never quite as simple as they first seem. In fact, the color wheel is actually a continuum with a practically infinite number of colors. To illustrate this, take a look at the picture below. If I’ve ever take a picture that screams “complementary colors”, this is it. Yet, looking at the basic color wheel, this seems to be a mix of something closer to magenta (which should go with yellow) and green (which should go with red).

bubble,close-up,colorful,green,horizontal,macro,oil,oil and water,pink,water,water shot

Oil and Water : Prints Available

Close-up of bubbles made from oil and water

So, why do these colors work so well? Take a look at the expanded color wheel below which takes the next step and adds “intermediate colors”. The colors in the above image are actually closest to “yellow-green” and “red-violet” in the wheel below, which are indeed on opposite sides of the color wheel.


Keep in mind that you don’t need to match colors perfectly. In fact, depending on what you are photographing, you may have no control over the colors in your image. The important thing is to be aware of complementary colors and watch out for opportunities to include them in your images. It is not a bad idea to have a copy of the color wheel in your camera bag.

Natural vs Artificial Light Portraits

People like things that are natural better than things that are artificial. After all, don’t you prefer to see “strawberries” on a list of ingredients rather than “artificial flavoring” and “red dye 40”? So, when someone introduces themselves as a natural light portrait photographer, it really does sound pretty impressive. Or, does it? [insert your preferred dramatic musical interlude here]

It is true that low-angled sunlight is hard to beat for portraits. However, great natural lighting isn’t always available. Portrait photographers that use only natural lighting are at a big disadvantage in my opinion. I have seen the portraits by natural light only photographers and find the lighting is often pretty bad. Although not true for all, my suspicion is that quite a few of these photographers are simply not comfortable using flash.

I think that in the majority of cases you can get better results by bringing in flash to your outdoor portraits. Let me give an example of an image that would have been basically ruined without the help of artificial lighting. The following back-to-back images were taken on an overcast morning, both with and without flash.

No flash and no processing

No flash and processed slightly to open up shadows

With flash and no processing

I think almost all of us will agree the image using flash looks much better. In fact, without the flash, I would have probably tossed the picture due to the flat, boring lighting. There are three reasons the artificial lighting contributes so much to the image:

Reason 1: Better separation between the subject and background. The flash on the subject makes him stand out against the background. In the shot without flash, the subject’s face is darker and basically blends in with the rest of the image. Even with some post-processing adjustments, it doesn’t look as good. Starting out with good lighting is better than trying to create it in post-processing.

Reason 2: More contrast. In the pictures below, I cropped the same images to show only the subject’s face. Notice the lighting on the face looks much more dramatic and seems sharper. This is due to a greater difference in luminance between the light and dark areas of the face. This makes the subject more interesting to look at.

No flash and processed slightly to open up shadows

With flash and no processing

Reason 3: More control over the power and direction of light. With natural light, if you have great, low-angled lighting, you still have to position your subject to take advantage of the light. This gives you less options for what your background will be. Or, if it is overcast, you get soft lighting with little contrast as in the above example. Artificial light can mimic the sun, or even overpower it, and allow you to have much more control over the light, such as changing its’ direction or using multiple light sources.

Granted, if I had chosen an image taken in beautiful, low-angled light, the situation would be different than the above example. And there might be cases where the soft light of an overcast day is preferred. So, then what is the point of this blog? Here it is… Before you go down the natural light only portraiture route, learn how to use artificial light effectively. You can then decide whether to add artificial light when you want or deal with the constraints of natural light. Having seen the benefits of artificial lighting, I’ve gone with the first option.

Editor’s Note: Notice that I showed good judgment in not ruining this blog by ending it with “but I’ll still take strawberries over artificial flavoring any day!”

How to Get Sharp Pictures – Part 3 of 3

We’ve reached Part 3 of our 3-part series on getting sharp pictures. This blog has been text-heavy, which differs from my usual approach of going relatively lighter on text and including photos as examples. So far, we’ve covered the first 4 of 7 causes of less-than-sharp pictures and how to address each. Causes #1-4 included camera shake, motion blur, inaccurate focus and your ISO/aperture choices. Let’s look at the final 3 causes now. Again, I am only scratching the surface of each as there are entire articles and even books devoted to each of these individual topics.


  • Good quality camera equipment make a difference. The internet is full of articles on whether to put your money into good lenses or a good camera if you are faced with a choice. Those on the side of good lenses form the majority when discussing sharpness and image quality. Can you still get sharp pictures using lower priced lenses and cameras? Sure! But, all else being equal, high quality cameras and lenses give you a better starting point.
  • Prime vs. zoom lenses. Although it is less the case than it used to be, prime lenses (those that have a fixed focal length, such as 50mm) are generally considered to be sharper than zoom lenses. Good quality zoom lenses can be sharp, but keep in mind that use of a zoom lens (especially a low or medium quality one) might affect overall sharpness.
  • Keep your lenses clean. You don’t want to be shooting pictures through dirty glass. Take it easy on lens cleaner, though. There are proper ways to keep your lens clean, so make sure to do some research on that.. and watch for a future blog on it.
  • Use filters of comparable quality to your lens. If you put filters over your lens, then the “weakest link” principle holds true. Don’t put poor quality filters over a premium lens.


Lighting is everything in photography. Try shooting a subject in a dimly lit room and then in beautiful lighting (natural lighting or using flash) and you will see a difference in perceived sharpness even if both images are exposed properly. If you are shooting in dim light and your pictures don’t seem sharp, then lighting could be a contributing factor. You can’t always control lighting, but many times you can. Consider shooting at a different time when the lighting is better or adding flash. The important point here is to know that lighting quality affects perceived image sharpness.

Compare the next two photos. Although there are a variety of factors going into the perceived sharpness of these two images, lighting is probably the key factor here. The top image was shot in dim light with no flash, whereas the bottom image used flash. Yes, these are processed differently, but the starting point was a lot sharper in the bottom image due to the flash lighting.

asia,asian,bali,costume,dance,east java,female,girl,indonesia,indonesian,java,legong,preparation,traditional,ubud,young

Balinese Dancer : Prints Available

A Balinese dancer looking out the window

asia,asian,environmental portait,indonesia,indonesian,jakarta,java,male,man,old,portrait,rumpin,smoking,west java

Early Morning Smoke : Prints Available

Indonesian man having a morning smoke in a village outside Jakarta


If you notice your images are not as sharp as your favorite photographer’s images on his or her site, it could be partially due to post-processing. Post-processing can really make a night and day difference in the sharpness of the final image. If you shoot your photos in RAW format, then the files themselves are structured to preserve as much data as possible. These files often look dull and flat without processing. The idea is to add an “appropriate level” of sharpness for the medium in “appropriate areas” of the image. The point here is that, if you don’t sharpen your images in post-processing, you will likely not get the level of sharpness you see in images that have been sharpened in post.

Well, that’s it for this series. I hope this at least gave you some ideas on how to get tack sharp images. As I have only touched on each topic, feel free to shoot me an email through this site if you have any questions.

How to Get Sharp Pictures – Part 1 of 3

There is an old saying amongst professional photographers that “blur happens”. Okay, there is no such saying. I just made that up. However, there should be such a saying. That’s because we can all identify with being disappointed upon the discovery that our pictures were either blurry or less than sharp.

So, how do you get tack-sharp pictures? There is a long list of ways. I have identified 7 causes of less-than-sharp pictures and have included some specific suggestions on how to address each. Because there is a lot to say on the topic, I will only be summarizing and, even so, will be splitting the blog into three parts.

Before we get into it, here is some helpful advice: Evaluate your images for sharpness by zooming in closely on the image and checking key parts for sharpness, such as a person’s eye. You might be surprised that the pictures you thought were sharp are not so. With that piece of advice, let’s get right into the causes and corrections for less-than-sharp images. Part 1 focuses exclusively on the first of seven causes….

CAUSE #1 – CAMERA SHAKE. The exposure of an image… how light or dark it is… is determined in part by shutter speed. Unless your camera is stable, longer shutter speeds (even 1/125 is too long in some cases) can lead to blurry photos due to the natural movement of the camera. I recently wrote a blog on suggested shutter speeds which offers guidance on acceptable shutter speeds if you are hand-holding the camera. I suggest you read this blog first.

In case you skipped over the above link without reading (you know who you are!), the general rule for shooting STILL subjects is to NOT hand-hold the camera at shutter speeds slower than the reciprocal of the focal length of the lens. So, if you are shooting with a 50mm lens (or zoomed in to that equivalent), then you would not want to hand-hold the camera at speeds slower than 1/50. (There is no 1/50, so you go to the next fastest speed, which is 1/60.) If you are shooting at 200mm, then 1/250 (there is no 1/200) is the slowest you will want to hand-hold. This is just general guidance, although a good starting point. As for me, I try to avoid going slower than 1/60 even with wide-angle lenses. I like to err on the side of caution.

If your shutter speed is fast enough to hand-hold and you will get better results due to the mobility of NOT using a tripod, then follow these suggestions when hand-holding the camera:

  • Hold the camera steady. Holding the camera still during shooting is important at any shutter speed. For digital SLR cameras, you grab the right side of the camera with your right hand and use your index finger to press the shutter button. Rest the camera on the palm of your left hand. Hold the camera close to your body, which means looking through the viewfinder, as opposed to holding the camera out in front of you. I usually breathe in and hold my breath for a second while pressing the shutter, then exhale. You will also want to stand in a stable way. You can lean on something if you can. If there is nothing to lean on, then spreading your feet apart (perhaps about even with your shoulders) will help. Standing straight up with your feet together is not optimal.
  • When in doubt, fire off a few shots using continuous shooting mode. If I have no other choice but to use an uncomfortably low shutter speed, I’ll stand as still as possible and hold the shutter button down in continuous mode, firing three quick shots. This increases the chance of getting a sharp image.
  • In some cases, use your lens’s image stabilization (a.k.a. vibration reduction) feature. Some of the better lenses have a feature that allows you to shoot STILL subjects at considerably slower shutter speeds. This does not work for moving subjects. It also should not be used if the camera is on a tripod or otherwise completely still, as many photographers (including myself) have gotten blurry images by forgetting to turn this feature off when using a tripod.

Next, if your shutter speed is too slow to hand-hold OR you want to help ensure your camera is completely stable, then do the following:

  • When appropriate, use a tripod. Photographers have a sort of love/hate relationship with tripods. They can be bulky and a pain to carry, but help us get sharp pictures at slow shutter speeds. It is important to know that not all tripods are created equal. A flimsy tripod might be okay in some circumstances, but add a little wind or place the tripod in moving water and you will be unpleasantly surprised when you see your pictures. Your tripod must be stable. The following picture always comes to mind when I talk about the stability of the tripod… I had the camera on a stable tripod, but my friend and I were shooting on a flimsy bridge when another photographer came running up on the bridge and was moving around while shooting, resulting in the bridge moving around slightly. As a result, one of my (otherwise) best landscape pictures is not completely sharp.
america,brilliant,north america,southwest,sunset,united states,us,usa,utah,vertical,watchman,zion national park

Sunset Over the Watchman : Prints Available

Brilliant light hits the Watchman after an intense rainstorm

  • When using a tripod, use a remote shutter trigger and mirror lock-up. Even with a tripod, there are two things that can cause camera shake. First, pressing the shutter button will move the camera slightly. Secondly, with single lens reflex (SLR) cameras, the internal mirror must move out of the way in order to expose the camera’s sensor and create the image. This movement of the mirror can shake the camera slightly. You can address both of these issues by using a remote shutter trigger (or the camera’s self-timer if you dropped your remote in the water like I did), combined with a “mirror lock-up” feature. If your camera has mirror lock-up, then enabling that while your camera is on a tripod is a good idea. You trip the shutter twice instead of once.. the first time to lock the mirror up and the second to expose the image.

I should quickly mention the monopod here. A monopod is basically a stick that you can put your camera on. This falls somewhere between hand-holding and using a tripod. Your legs and the monopod together form a sort of less stable “tripod”. The advantage of the monopod is that it allows the photographer more freedom to move around while providing some stability. Sports and wildlife photographers who use heavy lenses often use monopods to take on the weight of the long telephoto lenses.

Coming up in Parts 2 and 3… causes #2-7 for less-than-sharp pictures.