Macrophages display remarkable plasticity and can change their physiology in response to environmental cues. These changes can give rise to different populations of cells with distinct functions. In this Review we suggest a new grouping of macrophage populations based on three different homeostatic activities - host defence, wound healing and immune regulation. We propose that similarly to primary colours, these three basic macrophage populations can blend into various other 'shades' of activation. We characterize each population and provide examples of macrophages from specific disease states that have the characteristics of one or more of these populations.