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What to Wear ~ Colour Coordinating & Colour Tips

If colour coordinating your own outfit can be tough, working out what to wear for everyone in a couple, family or group for a photography session can be even trickier – especially if everyone has their own distinct styles and, if dressing everyone in a white t-shirt and jeans is not for you! One of the simplest ways to determine what to wear is to coordinate outfits is by colour. And for this, an understanding of colour theory can be very helpful.

The concept behind colour theory is simple. Colours have natural associations that either strengthen or soften them. It’s based on the colour wheel and understanding the colour wheel, combining and matching colours becomes much easier.

The Colour Wheel for Colour Coordinating Outfits

If you’re not sure where to begin when it comes to mixing and matching colour coordinated outfits for your photo session, consider using a colour wheel. The colour wheel is a circle diagram that illustrates the relationships between different colours in the spectrum. 

Colour theory is a set of guidelines for mixing, combining and manipulating colours. Colour theory includes ideas like Colour Harmonies, Colour Temperature and the Psychology of Colour.

Every colour can be broken down into combinations of the three most basic hues – the primary colours red, blue and yellow. Mixing any two primary colours in equal measure results in a secondary colour – either violet, green and orange. Tertiary colours are created by mixing a secondary colour with its adjacent primary colour – red/orange, yellow/orange, yellow/green, blue/green, blue/violet & red-violet. Neutral colours are those which have no hue, that it the shades of white, grey or black. Colour families are the group of all the colours in a Hue, plus those created by adding white to lighten (tint), black to darken (shade) and grey or the opposite colour to mute (tone).

What to Wear & Colour Harmonies 

From the colour wheel, there are four basic categories of colour harmonies that create visual interest and a sense of order which make colours coordinating your outfits easy:

Monochromatic Colours

Monochromatic colours are colours in the same colour family and are a simple way of colour coordinating.

Complementary Colours

Complementary colours are any two colours that are directly opposite each other on the colour wheel, such as red-green and violet-yellow. These opposing colours create maximum contrast and intensify one another more than they would appear separately.

Analogous Colours

Analogous colours are any three colours that are side by side on the colour wheel, such as blue-green, blue, and blue-violet and create a more harmonious and more subdued look. This can be wonderful in photography where we want the focus to be on faces and connections.

Triad Colours

Three colours that are 120 degrees apart on the colour wheel. The primary colours red, blue and yellow are examples of triad colours.

What to Wear and Colour Temperature

Colour temperature deals with breaking colours down into warm colours and cool colours. Experimenting with combinations of warm and cool colours can help you mix colours to achieve a particular effect. Warm colours are associated with sunset and daylight. Colour coordinating around them can reflect passion, happiness, enthusiasm and energy. Cool colours are associated with overcast light and colour coordinating around them can reflect a sense of calm or give a sense of professionalism.

What to Wear & the Psychology of Colour

Consider the psychology of colour in coordinating the colours of your outfits and the style of your session. Below you can see some of the emotions that are typically associated with different colours.

Colour Coordinating for Your Photo Session:

Select a core colour for the principal clothing items across the family. 

Use accent (second or third colours) coloured clothing items from the complementary, triad, analogous or neutral families. Substituting colours from within these same families is fine.

Determine a neutral colour preference that will balance your colour scheme.

Some Examples of Colour Theory for What to Wear in Photo Sessions:

Monochromatic – Pairing dark blue jeans with different shades of lighter blue tops. If going for monochromatic coordination it is beneficial to add visual interest by varying clothing textures and patterns. As such, the tops may be cable knit, or feature stripes for different family members to add variety.

Complimentary – Sticking with our blue example, we could add pink accessories (jewellery, scarves, tie) to the outfits. The balance between complementary colours needs to be carefully considered – too much of both will likely be an eyesore. If it’s possible to reduce this risk by using a complementary colour with a paler tint, such as blue with pale gold.

Analogous – Using accents in blue-green and green colours. For guys, pair a forest green jacket with our blue jeans. Women might add a blue-green scarf while the kids don an aqua cardigan and a green hat. The image below is a great example of outfits coordinated in analogous colours.

Triad – Triad colours can often appear very bold, so to subdue them with less intense versions is often a good idea. To our blue outfit, add pink (from the red family) or cream (from the yellow) accessories for a lovely subdued triad colour theme.

Neutral – Neutrals work well with all colours and maybe worn together. Add white accent items or accessories to our blue theme for a classic nautical colour theme.

Warm and Cool: Select two warm colours with one cool or two cool with one warm to create dynamic harmony. Examples: a yellow shirt, rust-coloured jacket and blue jeans. Or add a small splash of warm colour to a cool colour palette to add interest e.g. a yellow tie on a blue shirt or yellow accessories with a blue dress.

More Colour Coordinating Tips for Your Photo Session

Limit yourself to a maximum of 3 colours (including neutrals) per outfit unless the additional colours make up a pattern or print. Some failsafe colour combinations to wear:

  • 1 colour and 1 neutral e.g. grey and yellow.
  • 2 colours and 1 neutral e.g. green, purple and white.
  • 1 colour and 2 neutrals e.g. purple, grey and white.
  • 2 neutrals e.g. black and white
  • 2 warm neutrals e.g. brown and cream
  • 1 pattern and 1 or 2 plain neutrals
  • 1 print pattern and 1 plain colour from within the pattern
  • 1 pattern, 1 neutral and 1 plain colour from within the pattern

Bright colours in large amounts and different patterns can overwhelm. Keep to one pattern only per outfit, even if the colours match. Use bright colours as accents rather than the whole outfit, or tone down a bright coloured feature piece with the use of accessories.

Lots of pastel colours together can look too sugary sweet. Try one pastel colour with a neutral (e.g. yellow and grey) or one pastel with a deeper colour from the same colour family instead (e.g. pale blue and dark blue).

Black and brown can be tricky to wear together without looking mismatched so make sure you pull it together with accessories to make it into a real colour scheme. If you’re wearing all black don’t wear brown shoes.

Seasonal colours: Some colours are more appropriate at certain times of year than others. Whites and yellows, are usually associated with summer, while autumn colours are brown and burgundy. Wearing colours out of session can look out of place.

Brown and ‘warm neutrals’ look lovely when combined together and make great fashion colours for fall or autumn. However, they do not mix well with warm tones such as red, pink and purple so instead, team them with cool colours such as blue or green.

Some colour/neutrals don’t mix and should be avoided – black & navy, white & cream, brown & grey.

Consider the colour of your location or studio background. Factoring this in is going to create an overall beautiful colour aesthetic for your photos.

Dark and dull colours recede thus making you look smaller and thinner. Light and bright colours project which tend to make you look larger. If you want to wear light or bright colours consider using them as an accessory or to compliment.

Dark colours are more formal than light.

Analyse what colours go best with your hair, eye and complexion. If you have pale colourings, wearing light colours can you appear washed out and drawn.

The “Rule of 7” states that there should be no more than seven points of interest on your body at any one time! The theory is that too much visual stimulation detracts from the total look. Points of interest are anything that could draw attention to that item. For example a watch, a hat, a scarf, a bright tie, braces, cuff links, fashion glasses, hairstyle, facial hair, vest.

See more ideas and inspiration on What to Wear for your photo session in other posts we’ve written here.

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Kerry is 'Top Dog' here at Puppy Tales. With her own adored dogs, she completely gets that your four legged furry buddy is absolutely part of the family. That they sleep on the bed, that you want to take them everywhere, that you plan holidays so they’re included & that their presence makes your life incredible.

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Dog Mum Kerry Martin is the editor and photographer at Puppy Tales.

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