How to inspire your audience’s emotions using your photography’s color palette

Sam Potenciano
Sam Potenciano

By now everyone’s familiar with the age-old associations between certain colors and their respective emotions. We tell our friends that we’re blue when we’re feeling down, pepper our texts with bright yellow emojis when we’re excited, and let people know we’re upset when we say we’re seeing red.

But as a photographer, have you ever wondered whether these visual cues can also affect the way that your audience views your work?

Photo by Robert Katzki

Here we take a look at some of the most commonly used colors in photography, as well as the emotional and psychological messages that they communicate—both intentional or otherwise.

1. Red

Inspires: passion, excitement, danger and desire

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel

Depending on the situation in which it is used, red can symbolize either love or aggression—two opposing yet very powerful and potent emotions.

Photo by Susan Kirsch

Interestingly enough, shades of red are splashed across imagery relating to war and anger just as often as they are used to convey ideas of seduction, desire, and sensuality. It all comes down to the visual context in which the color is presented.

Photo by Pete Bellis

In fashion and beauty photography, red is used to make a strong statement—one that presents its wearer as a bold tastemaker who sets trends rather than follows them. Brands often dress their subjects in red to project confidence, fearlessness, and individuality; traits that companies hope will entice their consumers into being associated with their products.

Photo by Pete Bellis

This striking hue also communicates ideas of adrenaline and action, which is why it is often present in photos that aim to get your blood pumping. Red tends to fill the frame during sporting events, concerts and live celebrations. In athletic competitions, simply wearing crimson has been known to spark fear and intimidation in fellow competitors.

Photo by Alvaro Reyes

In nature, many animals have been trained through natural selection to avoid red colors or to treat them as warning signs, which is probably why the color can also to evoke a feeling of unease or danger.

Photo by paul wallez

02. Orange

Inspires: extraversion, creativity, confidence and enthusiasm

Photo by Kevin Grieve

It’s hard to turn a blind eye to a color that announces itself as loudly and as vibrantly as orange does. Often associated with extraversion, self-expression, and sociability, this color is not for the faint of heart.

Photo by malcolm lightbody

A close cousin of red, orange is just as warm and vivid without the former’s heat and aggression. It’s often used to signal high energy, enthusiasm, and motivation, which is why it can often be seen in images relating to celebrations.

Photo by Levi Guzman

Orange is also known for its ties to creativity and stimulation, which is why you’ll often find it in the branding and photography of companies that want to attract the attention of children, such as Nickelodeon.

Photo by Lyndsey Marie

In relation to food photography, the color is also known to visually stimulate the viewer’s appetite due to its relation to liveliness and vitality. Because of this, many establishments will subtly encourage their patrons appetites by decorating their space with shades like apricot, terracotta, or clay.

Photo by Joseph Gonzalez

3. Yellow

Inspires: optimism, youth, energy and positivity

Photo by Erol Ahmed

Because it is both the lightest and the brightest on the color spectrum, yellow tends to radiate an uplifting feeling; one of warmth, optimism, and hope.

Photo by Guilherme Stecanella

It is also known to trigger the side of the brain that favors logic, which is why it is said to visually induce mental clarity and deep, analytical thinking.

Photo by Gabriel Garcia Marengo

Various shades of yellow are often used to draw attention and communicate positivity. They also generate a sense of friendliness, approachability, and hospitality. 

Photo by Redd Angelo

For this reason, shades of yellow are often present in photographs depicting travel, tourism, and leisure.

Photo by Rod Long

04. Green

Inspires: balance, serenity, security, and sustainability

Photo by Ren Ran

Combining the mental clarity of yellow and the tranquility of blue, green tends to produce a soothing, restorative effect on its viewer. A signifier of growth and renewal in the natural world, it’s no wonder that this harmonious color has been known to be visually calming.

Photo by Martin Widenka

Because of its ties to nature and the environment, this color is constantly present in photography related to health, food, and wellness. 

Photo by Kimber Pine

Food photographs featuring green elements bring to mind freshness, health-consciousness, and sustainability.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao
Photo by Brenda Godinez

Darker shades of green are also used in relation to industries that want to project a sense of wealth and security, such as banking and real estate.

05. Blue

Inspires: trust, relaxation, clarity and reliability

Photo by Miguel Delmar

Well-documented as being the most universally preferred color in the entire spectrum, photographs featuring blue reportedly inspire feelings of relaxation and tranquility. 

Photo by Beasty

Perhaps due to the colors’ natural ties to both the sky and the sea, it possesses an immediate de-stressing effect on its viewer.

Photo by Bobby Stevenson

Blue is also touted for being able to visually communicate trust, reliability, and consistency. For this reason, many photographs revolving around technology, healthcare, and authority utilize the color judiciously, often allowing it to fill up the entire frame.

Photo by Scott Webb
Photo by Redd Angelo

06. Violet

Inspires: self-reflection, spirituality, mystery and indulgence

Photo by Arūnas Naujokas

Violet and purple shades lend a touch of luxury and elegance to photos. Because of the color’s well-known history as having once been reserved for royalty, there is an innate sense of regality and nobility to it.

Photo by Jeremy Thomas

Deep violet colors also give off a sense of cosmic mystery, which is why they are often used in images that are related to spirituality, self-reflection, and religion.

Photo by Camille Couvez
Photo by Igor Ovsyannykov

07. Pink

Inspires: nurturing, sensitivity, femininity and romance

Photo by Austin Chan

Pink is the shade most predominantly associated with the gender-specific qualities related to femininity: gentleness, sensitivity, softness, and nurturing.

Photo by Ian Dooley

But because of its close proximity to red on the color spectrum, it can also bring to mind a sense of sensuality, playfulness, and creativity.

Photo by Dmirty Fisenko

The modern-day allure of ‘Millennial Pink’ (also referred to as ‘Tumblr Pink’ for the shade's resonance with the younger generation) has given this color a major resurgence in contemporary design culture.

Photo by Naganath Chiluveru

As a result, all across the world, photos splashed with paler shades of salmon, blush, and quartz can be observed in almost every industry—from fashion to lifestyle and even tech.

Photo by John Jason

Now that you understand both the subconscious and overt messages that the colors in your photography communicate, you can begin applying these lessons in the curation of your next shoot's color palette.