Color psychology is a topic well understood by interior designers, graphic artists and fine artists alike. They understand the secret language of color that can communicate, inspire, evoke, and stimulate emotional responses. Purposeful and intelligent use of color in landscape photography can bring a deeper meaning to your images and create more emotional impact.
So, as a landscape photographer, how can you use the language of color to make more inspiring images? For example in the abstract photo below 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: 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.
I captured landscape photo of trees below 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.
While photographing the abstract landscape photo above, 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 above.
Yellow: 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.
In the nature photo above the yellow-ness of this ancient grove of Aspen struck me as cheerful dancers, two of the trees locked in a dipping swoon.
Red: 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.
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.
Secondary colors are created by mixing two primary colors, for example, blue + yellow = green. So, consequently secondary colors can contain some of the emotional energy of each of the parent colors. For instance, green has some of the soothing, peaceful qualities of blue and also some of the energy and optimism of yellow.
Green: Ever-present and an important color in landscape photography, green is the color we associate with nature, growth, hope and harmony. It carries a strong symbolism of fertility and rebirth as well. Some believe green to have healing powers as it is the most restful color in the spectrum. Because green is such a dominant color in our environment, our eyes have developed sensitivity to all of its variety of hues. In fact, green has more shades than any other color, ranging from lime green to aqua.
In the landscape photos above green symbolizes life. Water is also a powerful symbol of life, and by combining these two powerful elements with almost equal weight in one image, the result is a feeling of birth and rebirth.
Orange: Orange, a “secondary” color, is a combination of red and yellow, so it shares some of the qualities of each. The love, passion, desire, and heat of red, is tempered by the youthful energy of yellow. Orange therefore represents balance, enthusiasm, and vibrancy. It is flamboyant and vibrant. Orange is often used to represent change, because it is often associated with autumn leaves and the changing of seasons. That is why we get a little misty eyed when we see Aspens and Maples with their cloaks of Fall foliage. It reminds us of the ever-changing nature of life.
Orange is a predominant color in the Southwest United States. Indeed, the Earth itself there has shades ranging from pale apricot to bright, red-orange. I combined orange color with the moving water and diagonal lines to accentuate the feel of energy in the landscape photo above from Moab. In the sunset photo from North Coast above the vibrant orange color is associated with feelings of compassion and happiness.
Purple: Purple is rarely found in nature. As such, dyes historically were very expensive, so only the rich and powerful could afford such rare, expensive dyes. Hence, purple is the color of royalty, wealth and power. Purple is also the strongest wavelength in the rainbow, lending it a supernatural quality with powerful meaning. Purple (or violet) is the most powerful visible wavelength of electromagnetic energy. It’s just a few steps away from x-rays and gamma rays. Perhaps this scientific fact explains why purple is associated with supernatural energy and the cosmos than with the physical world as we know it.
Some believe that the color purple helps align oneself with the whole of the universe, making the landscape photo from Mobius Arch above mean more than just a picture of a man holding a flashlight. Purple is the color of royalty, and what could be more noble than above landscape photo of Half Dome, shrouded in a purple cloak of dusk?
What About Other Colors?
But nature doesn’t limit her color palette to just the hues found in the rainbow. After all, black and white images pack plenty of emotional punch that goes beyond color, composition and subject matter. A masterful photographer will understand how to balance the emotive qualities of black versus white in order to achieve a specific mood. And I cannot neglect to give a nod to two colors you won’t find in the rainbow, but are certainly part of a landscape photographer’s color palette — brown and pink. Yes, pink!
Blacks: Representing power, elegance, and death, black packs a lot of emotional punch for a color. It is the color that demands to be taken seriously. However, black is actually the absence of color — a mysterious quality which is why it is often associated with the unknown or the negative. Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is located in Yosemite National Park, it was once a beautiful valley comparable to Yosemite Valley before the Tuolumne River was dammed to create a reliable water supply for San Francisco. I used black here to emphasize the sad history of this place in the image below.
Whites: White is generally considered a positive color, associated with innocence, light, cleanliness and spirituality. In landscape photography, think snow, rushing white water, puffy white clouds and white-capped ocean waves. By choosing to frame this flock of Whooper Swans against the white background, I was able to isolate the birds and emphasize the purity of the scene in the landscape photo above.
Grays: Gray may be a neutral, dingy color, but it can have powerful effect when used for mystical, moody effect. Light grays are associated with the feminine while darker grays are considered masculine. Because gray is made up of both black and white, it carries some of the attributes of both — the strength of black and the purity of white.
These snags, although separated by shades of gray, seemed to me like two figures dancing in the fog, their boney fingers reaching toward one another.
Pink: Pink is a delicate color, full of feminine charm. Unlike red, which can excite the senses, pink has a calming affect. It symbolizes love and romance, caring, tenderness, and acceptance. In nature, pink is not an uncommon color, with shades varying from sunsets, to watermelon, and flamingo-pink to coral. Soft, pink puffy clouds have a feminine feel, which is contrasted by the hard-edged, spiked tufas jutting out of the pink water of Mono Lake in the landscape photo below.
Brown: Brown is a humble color. The color of earth, wood and stone, its simplicity evokes a sense of wholesomeness, stability, dignity, and humility. Brown certainly has a place in landscape photographs, and although it may be considered “dull” by some, it shouldn’t be overlooked for its dependable qualities.
I wanted to convey the simple, understated elegance of the lines and texture of this small scene. The uncomplicated color palette — in particular, the presence of the color brown — lends a kind of quiet sophistication to the landscape photo above.
Cool vs. Warm Colors
Cool colors, such as blue and green, generally have a calming effect on us, while warm colors, like yellow and red, are more exciting, but can be agitating if over used. Cool colors also perceptively recede in space while warm colors advance. Understanding how we perceive warm and cool colors can help you create the illusion of distance in your landscape photos.
Using both warm and cool colors in your image can create exciting color contrasts. Think blue shadows with warm, sunlit highlights. Using colors from the opposite side of the color wheel — complimentary colors — is the most contrast you can achieve within the confines of the color wheel. Purple and yellow. Blue and orange. Green and red.
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.
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? 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 as seen in the Canon Beach photo below.
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.
Despite universal reactions to specific colors, we still each bring our own life experiences that cause us to interpret color and color combinations from our own unique perspectives. What biases do you bring to your interpretation of color?
Even though at any given moment, nature decides what color pallet you have to work with, as a landscape photographer you still have a lot of control over what you want to convey emotionally. By bringing an awareness of the emotive properties of color to your photography, you can begin to integrate this knowledge into your workflow, leading to more meaningful and impactful images.