Create a visual style using colour theory

Create a Cinematic Look with Colour Theory

Last week I talked a little about Colour Theory in my article How to Take Better Photographs using a Shared Visual Language and realised that it’s a subject that many photographers are intimidated by or confused about. I promised to write a full post on the topic and so today I’ll be describing how you can create a cinematic look with colour theory.

How is Colour Theory relevant to Photographers?

create a cinematic look with colour theory
Orange and Teal is a Complementary Colour Scheme

Or “Why is understanding Colour Theory important”.

There are three principal ways that human beings evaluate colour: hue, luminance, and saturation. Understanding and using these three ways of assessing what we see is an essential part of photography. How? Well, the colour value can help establish the focal point, visual style, and even the emotional impact of a photograph in the viewer’s mind.

Many visual artists use a colour wheel to help select appropriate colours for their art. As photographers, we tend to be drawn towards pleasing combinations of colour in nature, and of course, every time we add contrast, luminance, or adjust the white balance in Lightroom, we are taking the image a little further away from being a record shot and a little closer to being a piece of art.

Essentially, we can use Colour theory to inform our choices of combinations of colours, known as colour harmonies, that evoke a mood or help us to convey a story. In principle, we ‘know’ when a photograph looks right, but do we? It helps to know that there are different types of harmonious arrangements, the ones we might find most useful are – Analogous, Complementary, Monchromatic, Triad and Square. Look them up on the colour wheel.

On the Workstation

I have long advocated taking a break during the editing process because, like a frog being boiled alive, my eyes become accustomed to the changes I’m making, and they can often, in the cold light of day, seem overbaked. Put it this way, I’ve never been tempted to add more contrast after I’ve had a break!

Historically, we’ve seen some real atrocities become briefly fashionable in photography. What were people thinking when they applied the “Granny’s Attic” (Nik HDR) look to an HDR image? It seems like a bad acid trip! So what I’m getting at is, fashions change, you don’t have to create a “style for life”, simply a look that optimises the image in front of you. What you consider to be optimal reflects your innate style.

So let’s look at the psychology of colour theory. We all probably agree that blue is cold and orange is warm, but take this a little further. In a dawn shot, we know that shadows are the last to be warmed up by the sun, so warming the whole white balance will look more like a sunset shot. We need cold in the shadows, the light is subtly different between dawn and sunset and this is one reason why.

Introducing this kind of thinking into your post processing is the first step on the way to defining a visual style.

The Psychology of Colour Theory

Symbolic Color Meanings

There has been surprisingly little empirical research done on colour, but there is a degree of consensus around the following.

Symbolic meanings are associated with different colours

  • Red: Passion, excitement, love, danger
  • Pink: Soft, reserved, earthy
  • Purple: Mysterious, noble, glamorous
  • Blue: Wisdom, reliability, reason, trust
  • Green: Nature, growth, freshness
  • Yellow: Hope, joy, danger
  • Orange: Warmth, kindness, joy
  • White: Truth, indifference
  • Black: Mysterious, cold

Think of these in the context of Branding and look closely at the photography any given brand chooses to use. IBM was known as Big Blue for a reason.


Another everyday opportunity to look closely at colour psychology occurs every time you watch a film on download, or even better in the cinema. Certain directors are very demanding of their grading process – think Martin Scorcese or Wes Anderson. Think Alien, Bladerunner and James Bond. All have very distinct colour schemes and just as the movie idea can be pitched in 30 seconds, the colour scheme does a lot of heavy lifting in creating and emphasising atmosphere. And so it is with photography.

When we hear the phrase “cinematic look” what is usually being talked about is atmosphere and this largely comes from the colour palette that has been used in the grade.

So beyond the standard routines of underexposing, introducing grain, increasing contrast you can also consider changing the colour palette. Let’s take a look at how to create a cinematic look with colour theory in Lightroom.

The Science of Colour

The first thing to say is that throughout, we’re talking about the colour of light. Remember, RGB is an additive scheme, so it’s the properties of lightwaves that reflect off an object that gives it it’s Luminance, Hue and Saturation.

First, we look at White Balance and Colour Temperature. This is the order that Adobe choose for their tools, but I tend to use white balance and colour temperature first if I’m in a hurry or as a correction tool if I can’t get the results I need in Calibration.

You’ll also find that if you use the calibration tool to do the initial adjustment, many other choices will open up for you that would not have been possible using the basic global adjustments.

White Balance

White Balance can be set in-camera; most give an option for choosing lighting conditions eg, Sunny, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent. I never, ever use this in-camera. I prefer my RAW files to be unchanged because I’m finicky about colour, and I can make much more subtle corrections in Lightroom.

That being said, if the white balance is irretrievably screwed in the photo, for example, by mixed tungsten and fluorescent lighting, then I’ll try and correct it in the White Balance tool.

The sliders represent colour temperature and cast. You can warm a picture up, cool it down and correct magenta or green colour casts to an extent. These are global changes and subtlety is required to get a good result.

Colour Temperature

Beyond the global slider in the White Balance tool, Lightroom has other finer grained tools to modify individual colour values. These are found in the HSL/Color Tool

What is Hue?

The components of colour value are found in the sliders provided in the HSL /Color Tool in Adobe Lightroom

Moving the Red slider in the Hue section, for example, changes the appearance of red on a scale between a pure red and orange.

What is Saturation?

Saturation measures the intensity of the colour. Moving the slider to the left reduces the saturation towards greyscale, moving to the right increases saturation.

What is Luminance?

Luminance or “Colour Value” is the relative brightness or darkness of a colour when those reflected light waves reach the eye.


Each of the Hue, Saturation and Luminance tools has a “point and select” tool – the little button at the top left of the tool. Clicking this allows you to click on a colour in the image that is not obviously represented by a slider and move the mouse up (to increase) or down (to decrease) the effect. You can see that depending on the colour in the image, sometimes multiple sliders are affected.

As this utility demonstrates, the sliders in the HSL tool overlap (Orange is a mix of Red and Yellow) and are global in scope, so as convenient as it is, it’s easy to introduce weird colourations in areas of the image that you’re not focusing on. For this reason, I tend to use the Calibration Tool to unify my colour palette and the HSL tool to make minor adjustments afterwards.

Calibration Tool

Do you recall, as a child, considering the possibility that the blue you saw in the sky was not the same as the blue somebody else sees? I do. Colour is subjective and this was quite a shocking realisation for me.

The Calibration tool can be viewed as an opportunity to objectively nail down the values of Red, Green and Blue – this is a powerful tool for the bad in the wrong hands; you can produce really extreme colour schemes, but if used carefully, it’s a powerful way of defining your palette for an image.

This takes practice, and plenty of it to produce a coherent colour scheme, but if you view it as a way of unifying the colours in the image so that it looks less like it’s been thrown together accidentally over time and more like a deliberate colour scheme then it’s a potent tool.

Here is an example of a picture that had problematic colours out of the camera, multiple shades of green and blue jostling for precedence, grey, dull cobble stones and some ugly red/orange contrasts on the right.

Street Scene After Calibration

I used the calibration tool to smooth out the differences between the shades of green and the red and orange on the right. This version is after using the calibration tool adjustments. These changes were very subtle; this is definitely a “less is more” tool.

Create a Cinematic Look with Colour Theory

In terms of ‘owning your style’, this is a very gradual process. Photographers don’t generally emerge from the womb with a fully-fledged, coherent visual style. Usually, colour is the final component that seals the deal.

In fact, the tooling isn’t designed to help create visual styles; if it were, it would be far more difficult to master! The way that software developers market their tools requires new blood – new photographers to learn the tools. Because of this, they tend to be laid out in the easiest possible way to help beginners to become productive quickly.

Adobe, for example, want you to start with the global adjustments, and honestly, some photographers never get much further. In landscape photography though, subtlety is needed to draw out both detail and colour, so we learn to relegate the basic tools to correctional use.

Now when I talk about creating a visual style using colour theory, I’m not talking about something that will be the same forever, distinguishing your photos from the rank and file, I’m simply talking about moving beyond the basic controls and embracing the more difficult to master controls at the bottom of the tool area. And building on that by embracing the HSL tools as a means of adding contrast selectively rather than globally. An awareness of colour theory, the psychology and the science as represented in the colour wheel is clearly going to be helpful.

Over to You

My own experience was that once I had mastered the basic controls, it took me a relatively long time to really explore the colour grading potential of Lightroom because I thought that it was more complicated and I could see the value the basic controls were bringing to me.

Ideally, I should have mastered the colour grading tools much sooner than I did. It would have brought more subtlety to my photography. I used them sparingly in my professional product photography, only as a means of restoring “correct” colour values and that was the right approach, but for editorial shots there is a lot more potential that we should not be afraid of exploring. It may take a while to master, but the rewards are well worth the false starts. Check out my article Colour Grading in Lightroom Classic for a comprehensive breakdown of the tools available in Adobe Lightroom Classic.


Here’s your challenge. Take one image that seems like a reject because of the look of it as photographed. Adjust the exposure so you’re not clipping the whites or crushing the blacks. Try editing from Calibration through HSL and Tone Curve. See how you can improve the look of the image using just these tools.

Save your settings and apply them to another photo from the same session. I say this because the market in LUT’s and Presets is in some ways geared to disappoint, the effectiveness of a preset is very much geared to the actual white balance and hue of the photo it is being applied to.

Good luck, thanks for reading and enjoy the journey!


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