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What is subtractive colors in photography?

What is subtractive colors in photography?

In photography, there are two main color models that are used – additive and subtractive. Subtractive color refers to the way that pigments, dyes, inks, and other materials absorb or subtract certain wavelengths of light. This results in the visual perception of color.

The primary subtractive colors are cyan, magenta, and yellow. When these colors are mixed together in varying combinations and amounts, they can create a wide range of hues in the visible spectrum. Understanding subtractive color theory is important for photography, as it helps explain how color is reproduced in print materials and other media.

What is subtractive color?

Subtractive color is based on materials absorbing parts of the visible spectrum of light and reflecting the rest to our eyes. For example, a red object absorbs most of the spectrum and reflects wavelengths around 700 nm, which we see as red. As more colors and wavelengths are absorbed by the material, less light is reflected, resulting in darker colors like black.

The primary subtractive colors used in printing and photography are cyan, magenta, and yellow. These are known as process colors, as combining them in different ratios can produce the full range of hues. Cyan absorbs red light, magenta absorbs green, and yellow absorbs blue. When two colors are combined, they absorb more wavelengths, producing a darker color.

For example:

Colors Combined Absorbed Wavelengths Perceived Color
Cyan + Magenta Red + Green Blue
Cyan + Yellow Red + Blue Green
Magenta + Yellow Green + Blue Red

When all three primaries are combined, most visible wavelengths are absorbed, resulting in black. The more color that is absorbed, the darker the result. This is the basis of subtractive color mixing.

Subtractive vs additive color

While subtractive color is based on absorption, additive color systems like computer monitors mix wavelengths of light. The additive primaries are red, green, and blue (RGB). When combined, these produce white light.

Subtractive systems start with a white light source which is then selectively absorbed by pigments. Additive starts with darkness and builds colors by emitting specific wavelengths. Both work in opposite ways, but can produce the full spectrum of color.

Some key differences between subtractive and additive color:

– Subtractive uses reflected light, additive uses transmitted light.
– Subtractive primaries are CMY, additive are RGB.
– Subtractive produces darker colors with more mixing, additive produces lighter.
– Subtractive is used for print, additive for digital screens.

So while they have different properties, both color models allow a full range of hues to be reproduced through combining primary colors. Mastering color in photography requires understanding both models.

Use in photography

In photography,subtractive color comes into play any time an image is captured on film or rendered in print. Traditional photographic processes involve a film negative which relies on silver halide crystals reacting to light exposure. Developing and fixing the film removes unexposed silver particles, leaving behind dyes in cyan, magenta and yellow.

When printed, the remaining colors on the negative absorb their complementary colors in the enlarger light, reproducing full spectrum hues in the print. Varyingfilter combinations also manipulate the color response. Similar principles apply to digital sensors filtering RGB colors.

So despite photography being focused on light and emission, subtractive processes are happening each time colors are filtered and rendered onto film or digital sensors. Understanding these processes allows photographers to control color balance, filtration and output.

Color theory

Mastering subtractive color mixes allows greater creative control over the look, feel and mood of photographic images. The combinations result in secondary and tertiary colors:

Secondary colors

– Red + Yellow = Orange
– Yellow + Blue = Green
– Blue + Red = Violet

Tertiary colors

– Red + Orange = Red-Orange
– Orange + Yellow = Yellow-Orange
– Yellow + Green = Yellow-Green
– Green + Blue = Blue-Green
– Blue + Violet = Blue-Violet
– Violet + Red = Red-Violet

Understanding these combinations gives photographers creative ways to manipulate mood and tone through deliberate color choices. For example:

– Warm, fiery colors = oranges, reds, yellows
– Cool, soothing colors = blues, greens, violets
– Bright, energetic colors = saturated primaries
– Dark, moody colors = dark secondary mixes

Deliberately using color harmony and contrast can enhance the visual impact of images.

Advanced techniques

Experienced photographers utilize many advanced techniques relying on subtractive color knowledge:

Color filtration – Adding filters to camera lenses or light sources that selectively absorb colors, changing color casts and contrasts.

Split-toning – Using one tone (warm/cool) in highlights, another in shadows to crete stylistic effects.

Cross-processing – Deliberately using the “wrong” film process to produce unusual color shifts.

Color grading – Adjusting colors separately in post-production to achieve precise visual effects.

Duotones – Converting images to two color tones for dramatic high-contrast results.

Sepia toning – Tinting monochrome images with sepia tones for antique looks.

Cyanotyping – Using cyan and ammonia to produce monochrome blue prints.

All of these rely on subtractive color mixtures to creatively alter the look and feel of the final image. Mastering color theory grants photographers immense control over their visual aesthetics.


While operating cameras involves capturing light, processing and printing photographs depends on subtractive color. Manipulating cyan, magenta, yellow, and other mixtures in creative ways allows photographers to control contrast, mood, temperature, and style. Mastering these techniques both digitally and in the wet darkroom creates new possibilities for visual expression through deliberate color manipulation. Subtractive color remains a vital foundation for photographic arts.