What the Hell are RYB CMYK and RGB - Learn Blog Photography

What the Hell are RYB CMYK and RGB

By Orana Velarde

May 10


Color Theory for Photography

The mysteries of RGB, CMYK and RYB

Have you wondered what the hub-bub is all about surrounding colors?

Orana Velarde is our very special guest blogger today who is going to explain everything we need to know about color theory for bloggers.


Color Wheels...no, this has nothing to do with cars

Remember when you were in Kindergarten and your teacher taught you about color theory by painting the color wheel?

Well it turns out that for photography, colors don’t exactly work that way.

The color wheel you learned about when you were five applies to the arts involving paint and pigment but not to photography which deals with light.

There are in fact, three color wheels, which we call Color Spaces.

You might have heard their abbreviations; RGB, CMYK, and RYB.

Funnily enough, it is the last one which you learned in school with sticky temperas and lots of mixing.

RGB = Red, Green, Blue

CMYK = Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black

RYB = Red, Yellow, Blue

Color Theory actually goes much deeper and complex for art than it does for photography, because pigments and paints are made so differently from one medium to the other that it’s almost like each medium has its own color wheel.

Thankfully for photography, we only deal with light and light will always react in the same ways, you just have to know how to use it to your advantage.

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Additive Color vs. Subtractive Color

The color wheel you learned about in school was the classic RYB.

In this Color Space the primary colors are Blue, Red and Yellow.

In the world of printing processes, the Color Space is called CMYK and the colors are Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black.

Both these Color Spaces are called Additive Color spaces, meaning that the colors are added on to each other, in the same way that paint is mixed or ink added onto paper.

An additive color space is one that as the primary colors mix, the result becomes a darker color that never quite makes it to black.

In RYB you might remember that no matter how much of each color you add to the tempera pot, the color will always be a muddy brown, that is the reason why printers use pure black as one of the colors in the CMYK Color Space.

The Color Space that photographers need to be more aware of is RGB, because it’s a Subtractive Color space that pertains to how we see color through light.

The mixing process for RGB is called Subtractive because the more the colors mix the whiter the color becomes.

The process is comparative to a rainbow in which light creates the color.

As you know, light is the essence of photography, therefore knowing how color works with light will make your photography even better.

Color Hues

A color hue is the purest form of any color.

There are infinite hues, therefore creating infinite colors. For example, the transition between red and yellow contains various hues of orange and the transition between blue and red contains many hues of violet.

Why is it important to understand a hue in photography?

The colors you see in the viewfinder/screen of your camera are what inspire you take a photo a certain way; by knowing what hues go well with others you can create better compositions and then edit your photos (or go classic with lens filters or studio light color chromas) using saturation, temperature and lightness, there are more things you can do to your photography with color but let’s stay simple for now.

The FULL color wheel

Look again at the image above, as you can see on the left the Subtractive colors RGB mix in the center to create pure white light.

When two color lights blend, a secondary color is created, in the case of RGB, they blend like this; Red and Blue create Magenta, Green and Red create Yellow and Blue and Green create Cyan.

In the CMY, additive color wheel Yellow and Cyan create Green, Magenta and Yellow create Red and Magenta and Cyan create Blue.

Did you notice a link between the two? Yes, they complement each other! That is why for photography, you need to know the full color wheel that includes all these colors, and looks like this;

Look closely and you will see that all colors are represented, Cyan, Magenta and Yellow, Red, Blue and Green; along with all the secondary, complementary and tertiary colors.

This particular color wheel also show levels of tint/lightness, as the color reaches the center it has more white layered on. The color on the far outside is the hue.

How do colors affect your photography?


To properly know how colors affect your photography we need to understand, hue, saturation, lightness and temperature.

We have already talked about hue and how that is the color in its full capacity. Using this knowledge we can talk about Temperature and how each color has a rather psychological aspect to it.

If you were to separate the color wheel in half vertically, the colors on the left would be cool colors and the colors on the right would be warm colors.

Think about it, reds oranges and yellows reminds of hot things while blues and greens remind us of cold things.

This is a very basic approach to temperature but good enough to understand how you can edit your photography with the temperature filters in photoshop and other digital editors.

Giving your photograph a warmer tone will turn the color first a little more yellow then a little more orange and then a little more red.

Giving your photograph a cool tone will turn the color first a little greenish yellow, then a little green, then a little blue.

The psychological effect that this will give your photograph is very easy to grasp.

Saturation and Lightness

Saturation and Lightness are the processes of adding black or white to a color. When you saturate a color you add black to it, when you desaturate you take away black, therefore lightening it.

The magic of photography lets you lighten some areas while saturating others, creating all sorts of effects in your photography.

Before the days of photoshop, lightness and saturation were created with grey toned lens filters and allowing more light to go through the enlarger in the dark room.

The relationship between RGB and CMYK in Photography

How do these two color spaces coexist in photography?

Well, RGB is the color space that your camera and computer will be working with to take the photographs and display them to edit and manipulate.

CMYK is the color space that a printer uses for printing your photographs if you so wish to do so.

Knowing that RGB and CMYK are pretty much opposite to each other in principle, how does a printer make beautiful prints of your photos with the right colors?

Apart from their general Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black inks, they also use Photo Magenta, Photo Cyan, Red and Green ink.

Unlike graphic design that must be transferred to the CMYK color space for printing, your photographs do not need to go through that process.

When your RGB photos are transferred to CMYK, all the colors change and look muddy because the range of color of CMYK is much less than RGB.


Knowing the basics of color theory for photography will help you understand your photography better. How different color lights affect your photography and what you can use in digital editing with color to change the photograph to have a different psychological reaction from your viewers.

Orana is an artist of many trades currently working as a Graphic Designer for bloggers and small businesses. Her love of art and travel create the perfect artist nomad combination. Orana founded Orana Creative to help freelancers, solopreneurs and bloggers master a better visual strategy. She is passionate about eye happiness and loves constructive criticism.

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