How to Manipulate Colors of Your Landscape Photos

We have heard it a thousand times… “Those colors must be Photoshopped.” Just recently, we received yet another similar comment on one of our landscape photos: The color in your landscape photos look “over-cooked” in Photoshop. I’m willing to bet that most of you have heard the same thing. We’re used to the question, so it doesn’t bother us much – but it’s a worthwhile point for discussion.

Now, before we get into this, we don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking artistic liberties with the colors of your landscape photos in Photoshop or Lightroom. This is art and the landscape photographer makes the rules. But, it seems that sometimes people fail to realize that nature itself can “over-cook” the colors… in a good way, of course. The key is to realize that brilliant colors occur under certain condition. When you learn to take advantage of those conditions, you won’t need help from Photoshop or Lightroom. Let nature do it for you!

Take a look at two images below. I used a circular polarizer for both images and processed them with the same RAW parameters. I even used the same version of Adobe Lightroom. The colors are quite different, right? So, what’s going on here?  If all of the parameters are equal, why do the two images look so different? In this case, it comes down to two major factors – seasons and light conditions.

  • Mid summer at color of Landscape Photo of Metlako Falls, Oregon (OR), USA

    Image 1: Mid summer under full shade at Metlako Falls, Oregon (OR), USA

  • Filtered light in spring at Metlako Falls in between rain showers, Oregon (OR), USA

    Image 2: Filtered light in spring at Metlako Falls in between rain showers, Oregon (OR), USA

Shooting in Different Seasons

The first landscape photo above (Image 1) was taken in mid-summer. On that day, the skies were bright blue. Strong directional light from the upper right overexposed the greens on the left and the shady right side ended up underexposed. The dry weather also meant that the moss had died out for the season, so the rocks are brown. Deep green, summer foliage surrounds the waterfall.

The second landscape photo (Image 2) was taken in the spring. I took the shot between rain showers, when everything was wet. Overcast skies meant filtered, non-directional light so the whole scene is bathed in very soft light. The diffused light makes everything seem to glow just slightly. At this time of year, the waterfall is at it’s peak and the moss and spring foliage have a fresh golden color. A bit of morning mist adds a moody effect.

Other Factors that Affect Color

Colors in the nature are impacted by a variety of factors such time of day, time of year, seasons, light, and weather as well as your camera skills and equipment. Here are a few more landscape photos where we have used one or more of these factors to manipulate colors without over-cooking them in Photoshop.

  • Landscape Photos Example from Spring

    Spring color in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio

  • Landscape Photos examples from winter in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio

    Winter colors in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio

Seasons and weather are not the only way to manipulate colors in your landscape photos. Colors in landscape photos are also affected by your camera settings. Here is an example of how a single camera setting or shutter speed impacts the colors you capture.

  • Landscape photo with Shutter Speed of 0.5s from Hawaii

    Shutter speed: 0.5s produced vibrant colors, Big Island, Hawaii

  • Landscape photo with Shutter Speed of 2.5s from Hawaii

    Shutter speed: 2.5s produced muted volors, Big Island, Hawaii

Here is another example where I have used time of day, composition, circular polarizer, and direct sunlight to come away with brilliant colors  in Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida.

Landscape Photo with Vibrant Colors at Midday

Vibrant colors at midday, Dry Tortugas, Florida

As you can see, the art of taking photos in vibrant colors first starts in the field. And knowing what factors impact the color in the field can help you come away with brilliantly-colored photos.

This is exactly the type of information in our Vibrant Colors landscape photography tutorials. Our Vibrant Colors eBook gives you a first-hand look at how to capture great travel and landscape photos in any conditions. Vibrant Colors is part of our Vibrant Color Bundle and is available for sale on Visual Wilderness.

Check out the following tutorials on Visual Wilderness:

About Author Jay Patel

I could startoff like this – “Seeds of Jay Patel’s appreciation for beautiful places were planted early in his childhood….” but it would get boring really fast. I will just sum it up and say that I am a Landscape and Wilderness Photographer who loves to capture dramatic light. My photographs have been published in various magazines, calendars and advertising materials throughout the world.
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