Color Theory, Lighting, and Creating a Great Portrait

– March 28, 2020 –

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to another edition of ‘Tails of Adventure’ here at Adventure Pup Photography!

Like everyone else these days, I have been adhering to the ‘stay-at-home’ orders and have had a lot of time to focus on some of the “theory” side of photography. Since I am not actively practicing my shooting, I’m learning more about things that I haven’t really thought about or given much consideration to. In my journey, I listened to a podcast covering Color Theory and how it helps create a mood for an image.

I want to share a little bit about what I have learned (so you can understand it too) and my own approach to color theory. Ultimately, I want to help you develop a more critical eye when it comes to viewing the many dog portraits on social media and beyond. I’ll go into theory and explanation here at first. But, if you want to read about my own approach to colors and lighting, just skip to the bottom.

But, before I begin…

I want to say upfront that photography, like all other art forms, is purely subjective. What one person likes isn’t going to be the same as another, so the rules of defining a great photo are never set in stone. There are indeed rules that photographers follow to create “good art,” but each photographer expresses themselves in different ways. It is those differences that make each photographer unique!

One of the key things to remember about photography is that photographers capture moments. With the finished portrait, the goal is to elicit a memory or emotion in such a way that it puts the viewer back in that time (if they were present), or to give a viewer the impression of what it was like at that time. In other words, photographers try to connect with their audience by having them feel a certain emotion that will connect them to the portrait itself – “connecting to an experience.”

Connecting to an experience

There are a few different ways to connect a viewer to an experience. The main one is to provide a relatable composition – ie, a photo that is interesting to the viewer. Beyond that, though, the common way to create a connection is via color and lighting.


Color plays a vital role in prompting emotions. Color affects our perception and impacts the feeling of a photo by playing on common “color meanings” as well as the viewer’s own beliefs and experiences with colors. For example, you might remember your favorite bike as a kid was red, or your first car was blue, or your first time seeing a vast field of wildflowers was filled with purple. While colors have their own psychological meaning and connections, they also have their own distinct connections with your experiences.

Color itself is very objective – it is a quantifiable position on the color spectrum and cannot be changed. However, what a photographer does is place a subjective emotion (their own) on an objective color in order to evoke a subjective emotion from the viewer. By adding or accentuating colors, a photographer can effectively tell a story, elicit an emotion, or strengthen an overall look of a photo. In order to do that, there are a few color expression methods commonly used.

How colors are expressed

There are quite a few different parts that a part of the color theory discussion, but to prevent this from becoming a novel, I’ll only touch on a few different considerations.

Color schemes

This consideration is one that people often know about and relates closely to what people remember about the color spectrum – primary colors, secondary colors, etc. Color schemes are essentially choosing the best color combinations.

There are three primary schemes: complementary (colors on opposite sides of the color wheel), analogous (colors that sit next to each other on the color wheel), and monochromatic (not just black and white, but using solely one color value).

Color variables

There are three main color variables that you might be familiar with – hues (shades), saturation (color intensity), and luminance (perceived brightness). These also happen to be the main three color variables that photographers manipulate in post-processing (ie – Lightroom and Photoshop) to bring out the “true colors” of a photo.

This is where photographers “create” and add their own expression to an image. It is often in these expressions that you see color theory at work – bringing prominence to some colors while scaling back on others that might compete for attention or mood.

Color temperatures

“Cool” and “Warm” tones are things you often hear, with the cooler tones being blue and warmer tones being yellow. Cool tones can convey a sense of a crisp or invigorating ambiance, while warmer tones are considered calm, comforting and cozy.

There can also be negative emotions associated with each. Warm colors can convey anger and hostility, while cool can convey sadness and indifference. Because of this, color temperatures can play a large role in determining the mood of a photo.

So what about lighting?

While colors bring out the brilliance of a portrait, lighting is what does all the heavy lifting. Light brings out details, helps set focus points, and can make an image bright and airy, or dark and mysterious.

How lighting is expressed

Just like color, there are a few themes among the lighting perspective of an image, but to prevent this from becoming a novel, I’ll only touch on a couple of different considerations.


Exposure is the most important part of lighting because it provides all of the “information” for the image. If something has low exposure, there will be a lot of missing visual information. If something is too high, you can have the same problem but in reverse – a lot of visual information lost in a sea of light.

The amount of light in an image helps the photographer navigate all of the editing they want to do. With sufficient light, they can work on color details, as well as provide depth and drama with highlights and shadows.

Highlights and shadows

Highlights and shadows play another important role in terms of providing a sense of depth and/or drama to a given photo. While exposure will determine the intensity of the brights and the darks, having a balance of the two will create the desired effect.

Sometimes highlights can “blow out” and create a distracting element to an image, or sometimes they are too low and make images look dull. Shadows can be too high and create more dark space than necessary, or they can be too low and not create any sense of depth for a given subject. The balance of these two is key!

What about flash photography?

Flash is a very effective tool for providing a suitable amount of light (thus, a higher exposure) for an image, but like all things – it must be done correctly! While I am not an expert in flash (by choice), I know there is a lot to learn in order to be successful with it. Flash is a necessary tool used by studio photographers, and in some cases, outdoor photographers. Some of those outdoor photographers take advantage of flash with varying results.

I’ll speak on the outdoor aspect of flash photography since it lighting for the outdoors is my forte. I have seen it successfully accomplished many times, but I have seen it done poorly more times than that.

The best time for outdoor photography is during the golden hours – the hours after sunrise and the hour before sunset. If you have poor lighting within that time range, like if you’re under the shadow of a tree or if the sun has already sunk behind the mountains, there is a case to bring out a soft light to supplement the natural light that is lacking. However, I have seen flash photography used a lot where it’s not needed.

The purpose of a flash is to fill the darker areas of your subject to bring it back to a more natural look and feel. I often see it used in instances where it overcompensates for the lack of light, or in the case where ample light is available, overexpose the subject. Even in cases where flash is legitimately needed, I see many instances where people don’t use appropriate settings and create more problems.

My philosophy on color and lighting

Since my focus is on dogs in landscapes, my goal is to achieve a natural look and feel. Because our great state of Colorado provides a rich color palette to work with, I have the benefit of expressing the many different colors in a way that best fits my photo compositions.

The look I try to achieve depends mostly on the setting and time of day. As a natural lighting photographer, the window of opportunity for me is a lot more limited than what others will experience. I avoid using flash because it can easily create miscoloring in an image, such as a dog that looks too bright compared to their surroundings, or a color discrepancy with the lighting of the dog and the natural light from the sun. Relying solely on natural lighting will ensure that I get a consistent color temperature for both the pup and the landscape around it.

Since I rely on natural light, that means I like to shoot during the “golden hour,” which as I stated before is the hours after sunrise and the hour before sunset. There is a slight time cushion around these, but the light becomes more challenging to work with because of the bright/dark conditions. It’s the golden glow that I really prefer to work with because it brings out rich colors of pups and their surroundings without being too bright (introducing blown-out highlights) or too dark (making it difficult to draw out details of a pup, like their eyes).

Because of my affinity for the golden hour and its lighting, my preference for colors is on the warmer side while maintaining rich colors. I prefer vivid greens that convey feelings of life and vigor. I prefer true-blues as well, but because of our elevation and the rich and dark blue of our skies, I tone it back a bit as to not bring too “heavy” of color into the mix. I prefer my skies to be light and airy.

The golden hour also helps bring out rich colors in dog fur. The best, for obvious reasons, being golden or brown colored dogs. The only challenge I might run into is with darker furs (black to almost-black), but that is easily remedied by shooting later in the sunrise or earlier in the sunset hours because they require a bit more light (requiring a higher exposure) to bring out the details in the darker areas.

More than anything, though, I want to provide a consistent feel to an image where lighting and color are consistent, and nothing is overdone. My goal is to provide imagery that is on par with museum-quality portraits, and overall, timeless.

I often see images where blues are too dark, greens are too bright, or dogs that are too well-lit based on where the light is coming from in an image. I also see a lot of color and editing trends that are “in” for now, but they will ultimately become dated as the days and years go on. Mind you, I see this from both new photographers as well as those that have been in business for over a decade. While each photographer has their own ways for editing, I prefer to do mine in a way that has staying power and will look fantastic as it is displayed on your wall for many years.

What do you think?

So that’s me, but what about you? When you scroll through your social media feeds or even look back on photography you have had done in the past, what can you look at more critically now that you know what to look for?

Do you notice how lighting is inconsistent between a dog and its surroundings? Maybe an image that is clearly over-exposed and looks washed-out? Perhaps you notice how images are more “cool” or “warm” compared to others? Or even see how blacks aren’t as deep and seem to be a passing trend?

There are many things you can look out for, and ultimately how you identify these “issues” is based on what you value in a portrait.

Scroll to Top