Colors in outdoor model photography can make or break your images. You can use colors to your advantage to create dramatic impact just like camera lens flare, or to minimize or hide imperfections in any photo. The key to it all, be observant and understand simple color fundamentals, concepts and principles — for example, black and white are not a colors nor shades of color.

Colors Outdoor Model Photography

Colors in outdoor model photography can add impact to your final photograph as seen here with Adlee who is illuminated with a SUNBOUNCE PRO fitted with a SUNBOUNCE Sparkling Sun reflector fabric screen.

Black and White

Now an artist might argue that last statement, but a scientist will tell you different because black “absorbs all colors equally and reflects none” and black is considered the “absence of color.” Black isn’t considered a shade either because shades are colors and black often intensifies or mutes color shades. But one thing black does have in common with colors is that in order for a human to see color, we must have light. The colors we do see are generated from reflected light and the colors we don’t see are because of absorbed light.

Colors Outdoor Model Photography

In this photo, the model is photographed in a SUNBOUNCE Sun-Cage with two -1/3 No Moiré Black fabric screen for a -2/3 stop background light reduction. The neutral black and no moiré pattern of the SUNBOUNCE fabric darkens the background but the fabrics aren’t captured by the camera and as they act like a neutral density filter.

Any physicist will agree with the statements above when it comes to black, but they will also tell you, white isn’t a color because all colors are based on visible light that rely on specific wavelengths and white contains all wavelengths of humanly visible light. The physicist will also tell you, that black is not a color because of the absence of visible light or wavelengths.

Now that we understand black and white as photographers, we know that black and white will work with any color in a given scene when it comes to outdoor model photography. One think to keep in mind, the human eye always looks at the brightest part of an image first, so if you’re going to introduce white, or a white object, make sure it’s with your model and not away from the model. For example, a model wearing a white hat will always draw the viewer to her face. whereas a model holding a white coffee cup will draw the viewer to her hands.

Complementary Colors

Colors opposite one another on a color wheel, or color circle, can create dramatic impact in your photos because they are the two colors that create the strongest contrast between each other. For example, when you photograph a model in a yellow or warm colored swimsuit against the backdrop of a blue or cool-colored ocean, your model will “pop” like a mermaid from the ocean.

As photographers the most important colors we must memorize are red, green, blue and their complementary colors of cyan, magenta and yellow to capitalize on this strong contrast capture technique. In addition, it’s important for a photographer to understand that red and yellow are the warm side of colors while the blue and green are the cool side of colors.

If you understand the latter, then you’ll comprehend the impact contrast can have to an image when cool colors contrast to warm colors and you can use this to your advantage to create masterpiece photos in your outdoor model photography.

Complementary colors can also add multiple visual points of interest to the image that will capture a viewer’s attention immediately.  Great photographers will use these points of interest as part of their final composition which also will grab a viewer’s attention and still other photographers will use this to their advantage to draw the viewer to a specific point. For example, a model by the ocean where the blue-green waters are directly behind her will grab a viewer’s attention not only with a warm colored swimsuit, but with warm colored sunglasses or even a warm-colored hat or other headgear.

Colors Outdoor Model Photography

In this photo, the model’s swimsuit works because of the sunset background colors. She is illuminated with a Profoto B10 flash bounced into a SUNBOUNCE MINI with a Sparkling Sun reflector fabric

Different Color Models

The reason photographers think in red, green, blue and their opposites cyan, magenta, and yellow when it comes to a color wheel, is because a photographer’s color wheel is based on light. Light reflected off any object produces color and that’s why I often say, “Without light there is no life,” or “Light is the lifeblood of an image.” Perhaps I should add, “Without light, the world becomes color blind.”

But before Joseph Nicéphore Niépce introduced us to photography in 1826, there was a “traditional color wheel” in the 18th century, or 1700’s, based on red, yellow and blue as primary colors with the primary–secondary complementary pairs of red–green, blue-orange, and yellow–purple, still used by artists today and photographers, as artists, can do the same. For example, have your model wear a purple swimsuit or dress, then have her sport a yellow hat, or an orange dress with a light-blue hat, or even a red swimsuit with green-framed sunglasses.

Why are these color wheels or models so important to photographers, especially colors in outdoor model photography? Because when a photographer pays attention to color, they can do simple things like add or subtract a color from the scene where they’ll photograph their model that adds visual impact. For example, if you have a model sitting on the beach wearing a yellow bathing suit, ensure that the beach towel she’s sitting on is blue, not orange, red or yellow.

Similarly, don’t place a blue beach ball next to her because then the complimentary colors will compete for the viewer’s attention. A great photographer can create striking effects with complimentary colors. For example, when working with colors in model photography, have your model wear a solid red dress and place her up against a white wall and ensure that your lighting creates a shadow behind her. The shadow will have a tinge of blue-green caused by a phenomenon that creates part of the complementary color from the main object’s color.

Take the Color Test

Our minds play a role in this too. You can test this for yourself by simply staring at a solid square patch of color for at least 30-seconds or more and then place a piece of white paper in front of your eyes and you’ll briefly experience an “after image” of the square in its complimentary color.

Ironically, in his essay On Colors, Aristotle observed that “when light falls upon another color, then, as a result of this new combination, it takes on another nuance of color.” But then again, he also believed that “yellow, red, purple, green, and blue are derived from mixtures of black and white” and so did most people until Isaac Newton’s experiments with light refraction. Newton also claimed that the seven “primary or simple” colors are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet, but as a photographer you only have to remember that black and white are not colors and that the opposite of red, green, and blue are cyan, magenta and yellow.


Rolando Gomez is a professional photographer and author of five photography books that has traveled to 45 countries for assignments. The former soldier and U.S. Army combat photographer has taught hundreds of photography workshops for almost two decades. A 2016, 2017 and 2018 Top Writer for Quora, his partial credits include Newsweek, Parade, Playboy, Rangefinder, Maxim, Rangefinder, New York Times, Stars & Stripes, and various other publications.
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