Blue color example

Emotional Impact of Color in Landscape Photography – Part 1

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What goes into creating an emotionally compelling color landscape photograph? Certainly, subject matter is very important, as well as composition and light, but purposeful and intelligent use of color in landscape photography can bring a deeper meaning to your images and create more emotional impact.

color contrast

The cool tones of granite are contrasted with the golden tones of reflected light from above on the shallow creek bed below.

The great painters understood how to use color to create a specific mood and evoke a desired emotional response. For example, Abstract Expressionists, such as Clyfford Still (1904-1980), relied entirely on color to convey emotion in their paintings. But although painters create art with paint, we landscape photographers make art with light, and only with the light that is available to us in nature. So, how can you use the symbolic power of color to give your images more emotional impact?

First, we need to understand how we perceive specific colors, how the physical mechanics of color perception function, and how our cultural and gender biases come into play. There’s a lot to this topic, so let’s just start with the primary colors: blue, yellow, and red.


blue color example

On this morning, the whole world seemed to be a soft shade of blue. I used horizontal lines of the waves to emphasize the peacefulness of the scene.

Blue is certainly a very common color in landscape photography, as it is the color of  the sky and water. Blue has a calming effect on people because we tend to associate blue with trust, strength and purity, as in the ocean. Dark blue signifies dignity and intelligence, while light blue evokes feelings of serenity and peace. It is a spiritual color too, used in ancient art to represent the heavens. The coolest of all colors, it tends to recede because of how our eyes perceive it. It is also interesting to note that blue is the number one favorite color in the world.


Yellow color example

The yellow-ness of this ancient grove of Aspen struck me as cheerful dancers, two of the trees locked in a dipping swoon.

The most luminous and visible in the entire spectrum, yellow is the one color that catches our attention more than any other because our eyes process yellow first before other colors. As such, it can seem a secondary light source when it is present. It is a happy color, full of energy, optimism, and imagination. In just about every culture, yellow represents sunshine and warmth, and in many religions, it is the color that is most often associated with the divine. Men, interestingly, tend to regard yellow as a child-like color.


Red color example

As if El Capitan in Yosemite is not dramatic enough, the clouds swirling around her summit lit up bright red at sunset, giving the scene a sense of excitement. A vertical orientation accentuates dramatic lines of the cliff and the clouds.

Red is the color of action, danger, and adventure. It is associated with courage and bravery. Landscape photos with red in them demand attention. Our primal selves react to red because it is the color of fire and blood, yet red is considered good luck in Asia and is the most popular color in China. In fact, red is one of the top two favorite colors of all people, only after blue. Red is probably the most stimulating of colors, evoking intense, strong emotional responses. Some studies have even shown that red can elevate blood pressure, increase respiratory rates and raise confidence. Because of the way our eyes physically adapt to process red, we perceive red as advancing.

Blue color example

I made this photograph during “the blue hour” – that magical time of day between day and night when the little light that is still visible is a pleasing shade of blue.

Developing an eye for color in landscape photography takes time and practice. Start by training yourself to recognize and see color in natural scenes as design elements, noting what emotions color is evoking in yourself.

Blue is a calming color, and reflections, because they represent stability, contribute to the overall sense of peacefulness of this image.

Blue is a calming color and is frequently used in landscape photography. Reflections, because they represent stability, contribute to the overall peacefulness of this image. Placing key elements in the center of the frame and placing the horizon in the middle creates a sense of balance, adding to the feeling of serenity.

Does a blue sky reflected in blue water give you a feeling of peace and tranquility? What can you do compositionally to accentuate the blue-ness and peacefulness of the scene?

A red sunset and looming storm clouds create a sense of danger and excitement in this image.

In contrast to the image above, this red sunset against looming storm clouds create a sense of danger and excitement. By placing the horizon in the lower quadrant of the image, the dramatic clouds and red in the scene are emphasized.

Does red in a scene create emotional excitement? How can you place key color elements in your composition to create focus and impact?

Feel free to share your own nature photos that showcase the use of primary colors in the comments below.

The next part in this series will focus on secondary colors — To be continued Emotional Impact of Color in Landscape Photography – Part 2

Check out the following tutorials on Visual Wilderness:

  • Color Management Tutorial Cover

    True Colors

  • Vibrant Colors

  • Working with Color


About Author Charlotte Gibb

Charlotte Gibb is a contemporary fine art photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area specializing in landscapes of the Western United States. Her images are often taken in familiar places for the well-versed landscape photographer, but she prides herself on her keen an eye toward the subtle and sometimes overlooked beauty of the natural world. Charlotte earned her Bachelor of Arts Degree from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and has exhibited her work in several solo shows throughout California. Her darkroom, long gone now, has been replaced with digital darkroom tools, and her style has evolved from a somewhat journalistic approach, to one that pays tribute to the natural world.