Color by the numbers: How digital color works

Color by the numbers: How digital color works

Color plays a major role in photography. It can enhance an already well-captured photo and vice versa. With that said, how much do you know about digital color?

I believe it is safe to say that we are now living in a predominantly digital world. We as a society are glued to digital screens of all sizes whether that be our cellphones, computer or television. We consume most, if not all of our media through digital means.

As artists, it is now more important than ever before to understand digital color. In this post, I’ll be diving into digital color, covering the fundamentals of color as well as some basics of color theory. Let’s dive in.

How we see color

Perception is reality, and color is perception. If you see an apple and you perceive it to be red, then it is red. Why is this the case though? How do humans actually see color?

The eye contains two different kinds of receptors — rods and cones. Rods convey shades of gray while the cones allow our brain to perceive different color hues.

We also have three types of cones. The first type is sensitive to red-orange light, the second is sensitive to green light and the third is sensitive to blue-violet light. We are able to identify colors through the stimulation of these cones.

Humans see colors in light waves and the varying intensities of light sources of these three colors allow us to see the wide range of colors we see.

Understanding RGB and CMYK

By understanding the basics of how our eyes process color, we can move on to RGB and CMYK and their purpose.


RGB stands for red, green and blue. It is the most common profile. Televisions, screens and projectors use RGB as their primary colors and then mix together to create other colors. This is known as an “additive color” profile.

Red light added to green light creates yellow light, red light added to blue light makes magenta and blue light added to green light makes cyan. All colors combined make up a white color.


On the other hand, CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow and black. For the most part, any color you see on physical surfaces such as packaging, paper, etc. are using this profile. You may also see this profile on ink cartridges for inkjet printers.

Opposite to the RGB profile, CMYK uses a “subtractive color mixing model” and the colors combined in this profile create black.

It is called subtractive because you are “subtracting” the light. You may remember this “subtractive” model in elementary school when combining a cyan color with yellow to make green.

Here is an example to help picture it. If you are looking at a photograph of a red car, then every color except for red was subtracted out. The hues (colors) you don’t see in the photograph were “subtracted out” to only leave the color you do see, which in this case would be red.

If this still confuses you a bit or are more of a visual learner, this video does a great job explaining it.

This is also one of the main reasons why prints can never look quite as good as they do on your screen. Prints are in the CMYK profile, while you were looking at a digital screen with a digital RGB profile. CMYK profiles are generally less vibrant and their colors are a bit more muted, so it is important to remember this!

Using color to our advantage

Now that we know some information about color, how can we use it to our advantage? Color theory is a big topic in itself, however, I will cover the basics.

When talking about color schemes/color harmonies, the three basic schemes are complementary, analogous and triadic.


A complementary color scheme consists of two opposite colors on the color wheel.

This color scheme is very popular and you often see this scheme with sports teams logos as well as restaurant logos. It’s also the color scheme of Christmas (red and green).

A complementary color scheme works because it creates a sharp contrast between the colors.


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An analogous color scheme consists of colors that exist next to each other on the color wheel.

To have an effective analogous color harmony — because there are three colors you are working with — it is important that one color is the dominant color, one color is the supporting color and the other color is an accent to the other colors.

This creates a nice balance within the image without making it look like a forced analogous color scheme.


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A triadic color scheme consists of colors that are evenly spaced within the color wheel and are often brighter colors.

These are the three main color schemes. I encourage you to play around with these different color schemes and take advantage of Adobe’s free color wheel when you are editing your photos.

When I edit my photos, I use dual monitors so I have one monitor with the color wheel on it and one monitor with my photo so I can look back and forth between my image and the color wheel.

Now that we have covered the basic of the color wheel, it’s important to also discuss color calibration.

Achieving consistent colors with monitor calibration

With all this talk of colors, you may or may not be eager to dive into your most recent photo edits and play around with what you have learned regarding colors.

If you are, it’s also important to discuss monitor color calibration. For true image and color accuracy, you will want to make sure your monitor is calibrated for true colors.

Remember that part when I mentioned that we, as humans perceive color? Well if your monitor is calibrated to have an orange color look like red, then you will perceive all the orange colors in your image to be red. Then when you print it or upload it to a social media platform, you may be surprised by the end result.

With all that being said, it is important that you calibrate your monitor with a calibration tool such as the SpyderX to ensure that the colors you are perceiving, are the colors the majority of the population will perceive as well.

Final remarks

Color is truly fascinating and there is so much to learn about color.

With that being said, leave a comment down below and let me know if you learned something new or if you are excited to try out a new color scheme in your photos!