Color Theory and Landscape Photography
Color. When it comes to landscape photography, color has the power to both take a good image to great, or take that same image, and absolutely ruin it. Sometimes it is a very thin line to balance on, but absolute ruin can be avoided with a little knowledge of color theory. Color theory is a technique used primarily in the varying fields of the world of art and design, and plays a major role for creating effective color palettes for those particular fields. Color theory is an important component of delivering a message, or otherwise, just making a combination of colors look great together, simply put. Color theory is not something that is typically referred to when it comes to landscape photography, but it can have extremely useful application. If we consider color theory while in the act of creating landscape photographs, we can find guidance for how to approach and manage color for better looking images.
So what is color theory? Color Theory is the technique of combining specific colors in a way that are harmonious, or in other words, just look great together! A great analogy to further explain this is that of a guitar chord. A chord is created by pressing the fingers down on the strings of a guitar in certain places. Each string then will ring with a certain note, and when all of the strings are strummed together, those individual notes play at the same time and they create a chord. If the fingers are put in the right place on the strings, and the proper notes are created on each individual string, the chord will sound beautiful and harmonious. If one or more fingers press strings in the wrong place, the chord will not sound right. It will not be harmonious. This is because certain frequencies of the sound waves work together due to mathematical relationships. Color is the same way. A color is just a specific wavelength of visible light, and when the colors that are harmonious to each other are combined in the correct way, they look beautiful together. You can think of it as a ‘color chord.'
Types of Color Harmonies
The core of color theory is the act of arranging color into harmonies, of which there are several types. These are most commonly known as analogous, monochromatic, complementary, split complementary, triadic, and quadratic. I have found analagous, complementary, split complementary and monochromatic to be the most useful when it comes to landscape photography as they tend to be more flexible and versatile than triadic or quadratic. Below is an explanation and example of each of these color harmonies.
Analagous - An analogous color harmony are a group of colors that lie directly adjacent to each other on the color wheel. This group of colors can have a limited spread of just 2 colors, or can spread further, along as much as half of the entire color wheel, although at this point or further, it will start to lose its identity as an analogous harmony.
Complementary - This color harmony is comprised of two colors that lie directly across from each other on the color wheel. The spread of color on either side can be increased to a degree to include more color on either end. A common complementary color scheme found in nature is that of a warm cool combination. Cool blue-ish tones mixed with warm orangey tones.
Split complementary - By taking two colors that lie directly adjacent to one of the colors in a complementary color harmony, you get a split complementary harmony. A more difficult harmony to utilize, but can be useful in certain situations.
Monochromatic - This is comprised of one color, with varying values, meaning varying degrees of brightness, or varying degrees of saturation. Most typically this color harmony is what a black and white image would be.
Triadic - Combining any three colors equally spaced from each other on the color wheel. This harmony is very similar to a split complementary and in the context of a landscape photograph, where a 'single' color in an image can often span over a slight range of that color, sometimes the color harmony identity in the image can be blurry.
Quadratic - Combining four colors that have a rectangular spatial relationship on the color wheel. This is often also referred to as a double complementary because it is the combination of two complementary color harmonies.
Diad - Combining two colors that are seperated by two hues of color along the color wheel constitutes a diadic color harmony. This harmony has some flexibility since it is difficult to quantify what exactly makes up a single hue of color'.
Something to note with the combination of only two colors is that there are many combinations of two colors that work well together, and they follow no mathematical rules or relationships. For instance, pink and blue is a fantastic color combination, but they are not complementary to each other, nor do they lie particularly close to each other on color wheel. If your scene only consists of two colors, there are not really any guidelines to help determine if they work well together. The best tool in this case is just your own eye.
At this point it should be stated that strict adherence to color harmonies in landscape photography is not entirely necessary. Finding perfect color harmonies in nature is rarely easy, or even possible. Nature is chaotic, and the color we find in it is presented to us, we don’t create it. In rare instances we may find perfectly balanced combinations of color in nature that fit within the color harmonies mentioned above. Sometimes we can also take measures to make a color palette more harmonious in field with decisions such as wether to combine our landscape with a colorful sky, or with a simple blue sky with white clouds, or wether or not to include colorful objects such as flowers, etc.. I personally generally do not let color influence what I photograph in nature as I know that in processing I have a certain level of control for highlighting the colors that do work well together, and managing the other colors in a way that make them less of a focus. Again, strict adherence to color harmonies with landscape scenes is not entirely necessary, but it certainly helps to understand color theory and use it avoid blatant distractions to color palettes, or to make modifications to colors in order to get the color palette of an image to be more harmonious. When making modifications to colors with processing, it's important to keep in mind the 'context of nature', or in other words, keeping a color within the realm of believability. This will be discussed in more detail later.
Managing Brightness and Saturation of Colors
A single color can itself vary in two different ways. Brightness and Saturation. Differing amounts of brightness and saturation will create versions of a single color that exist between black and white. By looking at the three dimensional version of a color wheel(shown below, click to enlarge), we can see that the top represents variations in saturation, where the middle of the circle is completely white where there is no color saturation. At any point on the top if you begin to remove brightness, moving down on the Y-axis, the color becomes darker and eventually becomes black. The second image shows a typical color picker in photoshop, which represents taking a slice out of the pie for any particular hue. Left to right movement represents changes in saturation, where as up and down represents brightness. (A combination of these variations of a single color are what would make a monochromatic color harmony, as described previously.)
This is important to note with colors in landscape images, especially in post processing, where you have control of how a color can be presented. Colors with full brightness and varying levels of saturation will feel light, airy, and colorful, whereas colors with decreasing saturation and brightness will feel dark, and eventually more ‘dingy’ or ‘muddy’ as they become less saturated. You can see how this is the case in the lower left of the orange in the photoshop color picker. Each color has a place, and being able to decipher when a certain color should be bright and light, or dark and dingy is a difficult skill to acquire. Less experienced color users tend to think that making every color their brightest and most saturated is the best choice. When this happens, the image becomes loud, noisy, usually not harmonious due to too many colors, and many viewers will label the image as over-processed. I've found a more tasteful approach that gives a dramatic result is targeting brightness and saturation to very specific areas of color generally around highlights in the scene. Generally anything receiving direct light is obviously brighter, and can also handle more saturation. Vibrant colored water, colorful flora, lit up clouds, the golden colors around the sun are all good examples of objects in landscape scenes that receive brightness and saturation well. If you were to sample most of the colors in my images, you would find that generally, the colors are not very saturated. The saturation is applied in a very calculated way to specific colors that serve the composition and the color harmony, which ultimately gives the illusion of a very colorful and vibrant image.
A technique I use often in regards to saturation is not punching the saturation overall of the entire object, but rather making targeted increases in saturation to specific areas of an object, usually in correspondence to light direction. For instance with the image to the right, of some clouds around Fitz Roy receiving direct sunrise light, rather than hitting the entire area of clouds and mountain receiving the light with a ton of brightness and saturation, it is instead done sparingly, and more targeted to different areas of the object. As a result this creates the illusion of everything being very saturated, but not overdone, and it also increases the depth and dimension of the objects.
Another example is in the second image to the right of Elowah Falls. Notice that the greens generally are darker and less saturated except in certain spots corresponding to the presence of light as opposed to just blasting all of the green foliage with brightness and saturation. Again this creates more depth and dimension, and is also used in shaping the light in the scene overall.
When making alterations to brightness and saturation with colors always keep an eye on the RGB histogram to ensure that you don't blow out a color channel. I do sometimes allow small amounts of a certain color to blow out for the effect, but letting a large area of color blow out is not a good idea.
When working with color harmonies and brightness and saturation of the colors in your scene, you want to pay attention to the dominant colors. These will be the main colors that comprise the harmony, and usually the colors of the primary subjects of the image. It works well to focus your efforts of increasing saturation and brightness to these objects/colors as that is where you want the attention of your viewer to go. As an example, the image to the left of the Kofa mountains, cholla cactus, and yellow flowers is utilizing an analogous color harmony from yellows to reddish orange colors. The scene also has green of the brush and small bits of blue sky in it, but these colors, which are not part of the analogous harmony, are intentionally left darker and less saturated. The real saturation and brightness is carefully applied to areas that are receiving more light and is utilized again to create more depth and dimension on those particular objects.
Tips For Treating Each of the Colors in the Spectrum
Yellow. This color is usually very vibrant in nature usually existing in the form of light, like in the brighter parts of the sky around the sun, or where direct light is hitting objects, and then also in certain types of flora. Yellow is usually a great color to hit with some brightness and saturation wherever it appears. I usually prefer to shift the color yellow in skies slightly more towards orange.
Orange. Similarly to yellow, appearing often in skies and in flora, it is also generally associated to objects in a scene that are very bright and thus can take more brightness and saturation. I usually try to avoid allowing colors in the orange range from becoming too dark and desaturated as it turns brown. This is especially important for skies, and I avoid it at all costs. It is just not a pleasing color to see in a sky.
Red. This color tends to appear as the most saturated on camera sensors and thus is very easy to blow out. Be careful of this. When red is present in skies, I pay extra attention in only applying saturation very selectively as described in the techniques above. Red in flora looks great when given an extra punch of saturation. Red also looks nice when it's darker, as you are out of the muddy brown color area.
Magenta. This color is powerful, and is a good color to use to create the illusion of a more colorful image overall. I see this overdone quite often, and I personally choose to use it in very subdued, darker, less saturated tones. It's a great way to get a blue sky to look a little more harmonious with warm/red clouds and light, and it is also a great color to use for night and twilight scenes. Just keep it more subdued. No Barney-purple skies. Repeat after me. No Barney-purple skies!
Blue. A tricky color that can be very difficult to reign in, especially in primarily blue skies. Pay extra attention to not allow variations of blue in blue skies, in other words, allowing the combination of teal-blues, blue-blues, and magenta-blues, unless on the magenta side, some colorful light otherwise exists and motivates the presence of magenta in the blues of the sky. I put extra care into making blue very consistent in blue skies that do not have edge of day color. Handle blue in water very carefully. It can look great when it's brightened and saturated, but I find it needs to be present in the first place to handle bringing it out further. Adding blue to water that is otherwise colorless can work well, but in very subdued levels.
Teal/Turqoise. A color that does not show up much in nature generally except in glacial/snow melt waters, or in seawater in certain parts of the world. In these scenarios it's a fantastically beautiful color and I always love to feature it in images when ever I come across it. I take extra care to not allow this color to show up in open sky as it is too much of a departure from the context of nature(discussed later).
Green. A color that is abundantly present in nature. I find greens usually look the best in analogous color harmonies such as in forest scenes or waterfall scenes where the greens can be mixed in with yellows, teals and blues. I tend to prefer a very slightly blue-ish green in forest scenes, and find that adding just a touch of blue to them can make them look really nice, as opposed to going with more of a yellow green. Yellow-ish greens tend to look a little more drab and sickly. Instead limit yellow greens to the highlights of green flora. Something I also take special care in avoiding is green in skies. This can happen in skies where the warmth of the color of the sun transitions to the blue in open sky. This can be avoided by shifting the warm colors more towards orange and the blues of the open sky slightly towards magenta.
The Context of Nature
Once an image is captured, we do have decisions that can be made in post processing to modify colors for better balance and adherence to color harmonies. When approaching the processing of colors of a landscape scene, something that is important to keep in mind is a term I call the ‘Context of Nature’. The context of nature tells us two things. First is that the colors in nature are presented to us as reality, and because of the nature of their existence, are harmonious in their own right. A grouping of colors found in nature is beautiful, regardless of its level of adherence to any particular color harmony and quite often color palettes inspired by nature are often used in the design world. Second is that any alteration to a color in nature done in post processing will eventually begin to remove the reality from the scene. And while in the scope of ‘Art’, any of this is acceptable, the unspoken ‘rules’ of landscape photography would result in an image losing its identity as a ‘landscape’ photograph at an unspecified tipping point, which is largely determined by the viewers own personal tolerance for what is acceptable to them. We have to keep this in mind when working with colors in post processing to create more harmonious color combinations, and determine when an alteration has gone too far. Of course this is largely dependent on an individual's own personal taste. Again, in the scope of art, do what you want, but in regards to landscape photography, and the context of nature, this sort of thing can have a negative impact, and you might find viewers of your images saying things like, 'this looks a little ridiculous'. Finding a balance with making alterations to colors while maintaining the context of nature is a highly refined skill that takes time to develop. A good example of this is shifting the blue of a sky slightly towards magenta. A certain subtle amount of this is generally accepted by viewers, but making a sky all out purple(barney-purple), strays too far from the context of nature, and a viewer may find themselves distracted when looking at the image, wondering why the sky is purple when they have mostly known skies to be blue.
An example of this is the image here to the right from Cinque Torre in the Italian Dolomites(click to enlarge). The reality is that the color of the sky was blue. What I was finding in processing that the the blue was not fitting into a color harmony very well, and was hurting the image. By comparing the colors to the color harmonies I figured out that a split complementary color harmony(refer to the first section on color harmonies) of orange, magenta and green would work nicely, and all I needed to do was just slightly shift the blue of the sky towards magenta. The presence of magenta flowers strengthened this. In the context of nature, taking this too far would start to look goofy, but I remedied that by not going to far with the hue shift, and keeping the magenta slightly desaturated.
Color is powerful. It can make an image shine and wow a viewer. It can also ruin an image if not handled correctly. Developing a good eye for color takes time and practice. I hope that the information I've shared in this article gives you some helpful insight into how I approach color. It is a complicated topic, with even more to discuss than what I've covered in this article, and I plan on diving even deeper into the subject in future posts. If you have any questions please don't hesitate to ask, I only request that you ask the questions in the comments section below so that future readers may also see the questions and the answers that I will do my best to diligently provide!
Also, if you haven't listened to it yet, I recently was a guest host on the Tripod Podcast by Improve Photography, where we spend some discussing color theory. If you'd like to give it a listen, check it out here!