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Color Pairing In Culinary Photography

Abbinamento colori

Importance of colors

We often see a food photograph that catches our eye and makes our mouths water. I was talking about this in the article about Storytelling in food photography. The color pairing in culinary photography plays a vital role in a story related to food. Therefore it is used to convey emotions and to entice you to perform actions. Consequently, in order to communicate in the right way through color, you have to know very well certain basic rules.

Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Colors

The basic colors are red, yellow, and blue, also called primary colors. They have the characteristic of not being able to be broken down into other colors. From the mixing of these three primary colors are three more colors: orange, green, and purple, consequently called secondary colors.

Then, there are all the resulting from the mixing of primary and secondary colors: yellow-orange, red-orange, magenta, blue-purple, blue-green and yellow-green, called tertiary colors. In total, there are 12 main colors that form the basis of the so-called color wheel.




Looking at the color circle it is easy to begin to understand the combinations of primary colors with intermediate colors, which are shades. Depending on the proximity of the colors in the spectrum, their shades are similar if they are near colors, or tend to be gray if they are distant color combinations.

For example, yellow -green-yellow or blue-green and green-blue. Unlike blue and orange, whose mixture produces a shade of gray, the mixture of red and green or yellow and purple produces other colors.


Only the physical colors are perfect. In our visual perception, every color is different from what it actually is. Color is constantly deceiving. Because of this, color is the most relative medium in art. Reproducing a color in painting in ancient times was very difficult because the paints of basic colors were not perfect, but they had dominant and were perceived in different ways.

Even now artists mix multiple colors to get the right tone and it’s often hard to get it if it’s not calculated by a computer that accurately establishes every little nuance. On the other hand, in the digital age, technology even allows us to take an exact color sample from any surface.

Photo David Pisnoy Unsplash, New

Color temperature classification

We’ve determined what the main colors are and their shades, let’s see how colors are classified based on color temperature. But what is color temperature? Scientists measured the different shades of light emitted by a black body subjected to various temperatures, establishing that each temperature corresponds to a single hue.

As a result, they associated a physical measure expressed in kelvin (K). This physical measure was called color temperature. From a temperature perspective, colors can be divided into two categories: warm and cool. The so-called warm colors are red, orange, yellow, magenta, and all their shades. The cold colors are green, blue, purple, blue, and can with all their shades. Black, white, and grey are considered neutral colors.

What is the use of color classification?

In the 1950s, every color and color received a name and a code. The classification was made by the American company Pantone and the colors with their codes were inserted into a catalog in order to be consulted. In short, what is it for? To “translate” colors into the CMYK process printing system.

On the web, however, colors can be specified as an RGB triplet or in hexadecimal format. Color classification plays an important role in studying them, to make comparisons and determine which colors are in harmony and which are in contrast, but also to understand the emotional effects they cause on people.

Color schemes

In the end, knowing the basic theory you can start with the combination of colors to build the set of our photographs. There are 6 color schemes that can be used to create inspiring images. These are monochromatic, similar colors, extended analogs, complementary, divergent complementary, and triadic.

Let’s see how to apply these patterns to our sets:

Monochromatic diagram

This scheme uses only one color, along with all its shades. How does it apply to culinary photography? For example, if we photograph lime, the bottom will be yellow-green and all props will follow the shades of yellow-green.

This color scheme in food photography is used especially for ingredients that fill the entire picture box. Using only one color we force the eye to focus on the texture of food.

Monochrome scheme
Monochrome scheme

Monochrome harmony in culinary photography
Monochrome harmony in culinary photography
Foto di / Freepik

Similar Color Scheme

A similar color scheme is composed of colors that stand next to each other on the wheel. For example, yellow-green, yellow, and yellow-orange. This color scheme will also help us to channel the focus on the texture and, if we want to use props as well, we can use color pairing to push the attention to the surrounding environment by creating a story that tells an atmosphere or a season.

Similar color scheme
Similar color scheme
Example of matching similar colors
Example of matching similar colors
Photo Michael C Unsplash, New

Extended Similar Color Scheme

The extended similar colors are those that flank the similar colors: yellow and red, orange and purple, or, as in the case of our example, green and orange.

Extended Similar Color Scheme
Extended Similar Color Scheme

Extended Analogous Colors
Example of pairing of extended similar colors
Photo by Jarritos Mexican Soda on Unsplash

The Complementary Color Scheme

The pattern of complementary colors, or contrasts, includes opposite colors, such as red and green, yellow and purple, and blue and orange. For example, if we have to photograph red berries and decide to use complementary colors to tell our story, we will use a green backdrop. Similarly, if we have to photograph eggplant, we will photograph them on a yellow backdrop.

Or the purple cabbage on a yellow plate as in the example below. However, the use of the complementary color scheme can also be associated with white, which helps to break colors and give further contrast. In particular, we can do this by photographing red tomatoes on a white plate with a green pattern and a green bottom.

Or green peppers on a white napkin with a red pattern on a red background. A complementary color can also be used in small quantities, just to give a hint of contrast and draw attention to a subject. Like a basil leaf on top of a bruschetta with tomato.

Complementary Color Scheme
Complementary Color Scheme
Example of combining complementary colors
Example of combining complementary colors
Photo © Corina Daniela Obertas /

Diagram of Divergent Complementarys

The harmony of the divergent complementary puts alongside color and the two colors adjacent to its complementary. For example, yellow is associated with blue-purple and magenta. The divergent complementary harmony is more alive than simple complementary harmony where the contrast is too strong.

Divergent Complementary Color Scheme
Divergent Complementary Color Scheme
Example of diverging complementary color matching
Photo by Estodio Bloom on Unsplash

The Triadic Scheme

The triadic pattern consists of three colors equidistant between them in the color wheel (120 degrees) type red – yellow – blue or green – orange – purple.

Triad color scheme
Pairing triadic colors
Example of triadic color combination.
Example of triadic color combination in food photography.
Photo © Corina Daniela Obertas /

The effect of colors

How does each color interact with the human brain and what actions does it determine? Warm colors are associated with happiness, summer, and physical well-being. They give the feeling of warmth, welcome, and a perception of urgency, stimulating haste.

On the contrary, cold colors give the feeling of coldness and detachment, of tranquility, slow down times, and are associated with professionalism.

Red is the main appetite stimulator.

Yellow is associated with acidic flavors.

Green means nature, and freshness and builds trust.

Blue is used in general in diets because it decreases appetite.

Black, brown, and purple should be used with care because these colors make you think about bad food. If used they should be associated with brighter colors.

Color matching by season

Primavera: green yellow, green and turquoise.

Summer: orange, yellow-orange, and yellow.

AUtunno: red orange, red, and magenta.

Winter: purple, indegree, and blue.

Pairing colors by hours of the day

Colors at dawn: blue and turquoise

Morning Color: Green

Noon: yellow-green and yellow

Afternoon and sunset: gold and orange

Evening: red and red orange

Midnight: magenta and purple

Night: blue-purple

Meaning of colors


Blue means respect, compassion, honor, acceptance, grace, trust, conviction, purification, faith, prophecy, patience, and recovery. Blue is associated with the concept of water and the sky by stimulating the deactivation of adrenaline.

In communication it is used to create a position of prestige and authority, and to convey trust. In the field of food is a less inviting color, because in nature there are few foods of this color. It is associated with fish and diet. In the packaging, however, it is used a lot because it reassures and gives a feeling of freshness and cleanliness.

The color of 2020 is the Classic Blue

“Reassuring, timeless, full of calm and security, it creates connections and gives a sense of peace and tranquility to the human spirit. Blue as a sunset sky that offers the promise of protection and refuge, it enhances our desire to have solid foundations on which to lean and build as we cross the threshold of a new era.”
Laurie Pressman Vice President Pantone Color Institute


Blue, a color of transition from blue to green, is associated with dynamism, empathy, practicality, discovery, balance, serenity, calmness, openness, and understanding.


Green means growth, renewal, productivity, spiritual development, survival, prosperity, fertility, good luck, idealism, health, and birth. Associated with food means natural products, health, freshness, and vitality. It means the scent of herbs, of spices.


Green-yellow means awakening, exuberance, intelligence, receptivity, independence, learning, meaning, and change.


Yellow means enlightenment, free expression, resolve, consciousness, warmth, optimism, extreme vitality, awareness, readiness, and clarity. It is a transient color that also means change, evolution, alertness, and danger. It transmits the heat of the sun.

If we associate it with food it will make us think about the flavor of citrus fruits, the concept of ripe fruit, and foods that stimulate concentration, good mood, and socialization. Yellow stimulates the nervous system, increasing appetite, which is why it is often used in restaurants. It also gives a dry feeling that, if it is combined with the concept of liquid (blue/green colors) stimulates thirst.

It never matches with green when it comes to meat or fish because it changes the feeling of freshness with that of rot, of spoiled food. In packaging, it is often used being associated with vitamins, heat, and authenticity.


It means enthusiasm, success, happiness, authority, satisfaction, confidence, influence, excitement, adventure, power, and fame. Associated with food has the same connotay as yellow and orange.


It is associated with joy, home, belonging, community, hospitality, pleasure, friendship, fulfillment, family, and loyalty. Relative to food it recalls spicy or sweet sensations when combined with yellow. It can be used in combination with green/blue in beverage photographs.


Orange-red conveys a concept of strength, victory, physical energy, vitality, protection, invincibility, beauty, dedication, vigilance, and willpower. The whole family of yellows and oranges conveys concepts of optimism, of warmth. When orange tends very much towards brown then it expresses culture and lifestyle.


Red means energy, courage, glory, passion, harvest, mature love, guidance, tenacity, inner strength, sensuality, and romance. Historically red is associated with blood, fire, and color that scares and increases the production of adrenaline.

It is considered one of the most dynamic and stimulating colors and is definitely the preferred color in the instinctive choice of food. Red food drives away boredom, bad mood, and depression. A photo of the tomato can convey an important message in a campaign dedicated to the fight against cancer. Red fruits express the remedy against the aging of the body’s cells.

Food styling tip:
Lycopene is the one that gives the red color to foods and has a high antioxidant capacity. Therefore, if we want to have bright red in our photos we have to be careful with cooking because the cooking increases the lycopene and the color of the food turns dark red.


Associated with creativity, originality, self-esteem, self-knowledge, perception, discernment, intuition, and poetry.


Purple is intuition, inspiration, imagination, elegance, luxury, music, dreams, destiny, and magic. If we want to convey a message of sophistication we will use the color purple or the wine. Purple gives the feeling of delicate scents, pleasant, but beware, the purple can also convey a message of moldy food, bitter, rotten, a feeling of discomfort or warning. In the world of food, purple is mainly used in the world of sweets.


Purple-blue means wisdom, spiritual mastery, judgment, truth, experience, dignity, virtue, maturity, and long life. In the world of food, it gives a touch of extravagance and fantasy like purple.

It is proven that a person’s state of mind influences his or her choices. Color is visual processing generated by the brain, capable of generating emotions that, later, affect people’s choices.

How to choose the color palette?

Once the main color of our subject is established, we must decide which color palette we will use. How to choose it?

As a basic rule in food photography, we must avoid the use of many colors in order not to give the idea of clutter. Communication must be clear. It would be ideal to choose two or three colors and no more than five. We can choose matching colors using the color wheel and one of the color schemes described at the beginning of this article.

On the web, there are many tools that help you generate a color palette. I will classify them into three groups: those that give the ability to extract the color palette even from a loaded image, those that generate a palette starting only from color, and those where you can only choose a palette from a list.

Generators With Extractor From the Image

  1. Adobe Color – formerly Adobe Kuler, this tool generates a color palette from any basic color. If you have an Adobe account, you can save and share palettes with others.
  2. CanvaColors – with this tool, you can generate the perfect color palette and discover the meanings of colors with Canva’s collection of free colors and tools. The part with the symbolism of the colors is my favorite!
  3. Coolors – one of the best tools, super fast, and with an intuitive interface.
  4. Colormind – is a color scheme generator that uses deep learning. It can learn color styles from photographs, movies, and folk art.
  5. ColourLovers – boasts over a million color palettes.
  6. Colr – if you’re looking for a simple tool that does everything, this is for you! It can generate color palettes from a random image or search through over 17,000 color schemes.
  7. Palette – very nice, allows you to look for palettes by season, theme, or place. Unfortunately, it is very busy and does not always work.
  8. ColorCombos – Simple and designed specifically to generate a palette from scratch.
  9. Colrd – Great for discovering new palettes and color patterns. It also offers a gradient builder and a search tool that is not found on other sites.
  10. ColorHunter – If you like colors in a certain image, you can use this tool to generate a palette by uploading the respective image. But also search among the palettes previously generated in their archives.
  11. MuzliColors – Search, discover, test, and create beautiful color palettes for your projects.
  12. ColorDesigner – tool molto intuitivo per la creazione delle tavolozze di colore.

Color Generators

  1. Colorsinspo – is a complete resource to find everything about colors with extreme ease. It’s part of my favorites.
  2. ColorSpace – generates beautiful color palettes, shades of color, and more
  3. Moodcube Color Sphere – is a gorgeous palette generator that lets you download them to files. AI or . Aco.
  4. Color by Hailpixel – With a unique cursor-based interface, this tool offers a fun new way to generate palettes. You can hover over to change the hue and brightness and scroll to adjust the saturation.
  5. ColourCode – allows you to generate harmonies in addition to creating palettes.
  6. Sip – is a beautiful app for Mac and iPhone, allowing you to generate color schemes from photos and name, organize and share your palettes across multiple devices.
  7. Paletton – with a convenient randomize button at the top that helps you create different color schemes, beyond manual mode.
  8. CohesiveColors – is a great tool to give your color palettes a uniform look.
  9. Data Viz – a tool that allows you to use the palette selector to create a series of visually evenly spaced colors.
  10. Colllor – Generates gradients, hues, and color palettes.
  11. Khroma – uses artificial intelligence to learn which colors you like and create unlimited palettes for you.
  12. Stairs – is a generator of color stairs.
  13. Calcolor.Co – a new way to find, edit, and share digital colors.
  14. Colorkit – It blends colors and generates shades and tints of a color.

Color Palette Lists

  1. ColorHunt – a seemingly endless list of trend color palettes.
  2. Color Leap – a beautiful tool that finds color combinations inspired by history. Absolutely to try!