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Expert Tips for Colorful Landscape Photography

Tips for colorful landscape photos

Color evokes emotion – so if you can become a master of color, then your colorful landscape photography will affect viewers on a deep level.

You may understand exposure, control your camera like a wizard, have the best equipment, get to the most exotic locations, and excel with editing. But if you don’t purposely imbue your images with intentional emotion, they will never “speak” to your viewer (or if your photos do speak, they might say the wrong thing).

That’s where color comes in handy. Let’s learn the language of color and how to use it – through seven colorful landscape photography tips (that’ll take your images to the next level!).

Colorful Landscape Photography - How does it feel?
A big reason we love sunset photos is the colors and the way they make us feel. Understanding the psychology of color is beneficial to color landscape photography; it will help you better communicate with your viewer.

1. Learn the psychology of color

The human brain is hardwired to respond to different colors. Psychologists have studied this, advertisers use it masterfully, and to be a good photographer, you need to understand how different colors will make your viewer feel.

colorful landscape photography examples
Each of these images works with one primary color. Note how the color of each makes you feel. Learn how to communcate with color in your photos.

Here are the feelings that colors produce:

  • Red: Exciting, important, passionate, angry, call to action
  • Purple: Beauty, exotic, royal, luxurious, sensual
  • Blue: Calming, serene, trustworthy, cold
  • Green: Peaceful, tranquil, natural, alive, growth
  • Orange – Fun, warm, energizing
  • Yellow – Happy, sunny, bright
  • Brown – Earthy, grounding, strength, dependability
  • Black – Mysterious, elegant, bold, powerful, edgy
  • White – Clean, healthy, pure, sterile, cold

2. Color relationships and the color wheel

In colorful landscape photography, we usually can’t choose our subject’s color. That said, if we understand the different color relationships, we can produce better photos.

You’re likely familiar with the color wheel (displayed below). Take a look at it as we discuss key color relationships:

the color wheel
  • Complementary colors – These colors sit opposite each other on the color wheel. They can work nicely in a photo; for example, blue (often a sky color) and orange/brown (often an earth color). Thus, a sky/land photo can be pleasing because the colors are complementary. Look at some of the examples below!
colorful landscape photography wheat fields
The blue sky and the golden wheat are complementary colors; they’re opposites on the color wheel.
colorful seascape
Here, you see blue water/sky and the complementary golds in the clouds/reflections.
sunrise reflection
Here, golden hour has just begun. The rising sun catches the peaks of the Idaho Sawtooth Range, giving a nice complementary orange to the blue scene.
compositions with complementary colors
Good compositions are further enhanced by the use of complementary colors.
  • Analogous colors – These are what we might call “color families.” For example, blue, blue-green, green, and yellow-green are adjacent to each other on the color wheel and therefore analogous. We can often make pleasing, colorful landscape photos with scenes comprised of analogous colors.
river with green and blue
The lush greens and blues in the Columbia Gorge in Oregon are analogous colors, adjacent on the color wheel. Note how the colors create a calming effect.
  • Color triads – These are three colors equally spaced out on the color wheel. For example, green, violet, and orange. If you look carefully, you will find color triads in nature, and they can help create impactful photos.
colorful landscape photography sunrise
The rolling hills of eastern Washington’s Palouse Country are magical enough on their own. Add a spectacular sunrise with the triad colors of orange, green, and purple, and how can you go wrong?
sunrise hills
Another shot from the same morning as the one above.

3. Pay careful attention to the time of day

You won’t be involved in landscape photography for long before you’ll hear the terms “golden hour” and “blue hour.” Golden hour is the time of the day when the sun is rising or setting. The color of the light is very warm and golden.

Arches National Park colorful landscape photography
The color of the rocks in Arches National Park is further enhanced by golden hour light.
colorful landscape photography trees in a field
These shots were taken about 10 minutes apart. The first shows the warm morning colors of golden hour. As the sun got higher, the light cooled and became bluer. Of course, I also used different white balance settings later in editing. That’s a big reason to shoot in RAW – you can adjust the white balance later without problems.
Yellowstone geyser
These shots of Great Fountain Geyser in Yellowstone National Park were taken the same evening. The first was earlier when the daylight was still bluish. Later into the golden hour, the sky color warmed up. Again, adjusting the white balance enhanced the look I was going for.

Well before sunrise or later in the evening after sunset we have the blue hour. The sky is not dark and black. Instead, it’s very cool and blue in tone. Blue hour can produce interesting light and color with a whole different mood.

blue hour scenes
Leave right after the sun goes down and you’ll miss the blue hour, the time just before dark when the light gets very blue in color. The shot at the bottom right shows two different light sources, the blue hour sky and the warm incandescent lights of Swan Falls Dam. The complementary colors play nicely together.

I’ve seen new and inexperienced landscape photographers come to shoot a sunset and make shots right up until the sun dipped below the horizon. Then they’d pack up and leave. That’s a mistake! The best sky color often comes well after the sun is already down. And if you wait even longer, the blue hour comes and continues until it gets truly dark.

Do enough colorful landscape photography during the sunrise/sunset/blue hour times and you run the risk of becoming a “light snob,” only wanting to make photos when the light and colors are “pretty.” (Shooting during midday? You must be joking!)

However, you won’t always have the luxury of getting to places during great light. Plus, even if you do, conditions won’t always cooperate. Many photographers can make nice photos of a spectacular sunset, but it’s the great photographers who can create impactful images at any time of day in any kind of light (and in any kind of weather).

4. Think about the season

Colorful landscape photography knows no season. There are great images to be made year round. But when planning a photo outing, you may want to consider how to take advantage of the colors of the season.

In the spring, colorful flowers and fresh green fields make for great subjects. Summer brings bright golden days, the sun and sand colors of the beach, bright colors and sunny scenes. Autumn is often a photographer’s dream with fall colors that delight the eye. Winter might be the least colorful season, but brilliant whites and deep cold blues are still impactful.

Colorful landscape photography in the summer
Colorful landscape photography knows no season. These are summer shots, such as “Sailing the Sea and Sky” (left), a midday shot playing to the cool blue colors. The sunset reflection (right) was taken during the golden hours; the warm colors are more pronounced thanks to a smoky sky (the result of nearby forest fires).

In any season, you can use color to communicate with your viewer. How do you want the photo to make them feel? Use color to carry that message: the cool blue tones of a winter’s day, the bright and happy yellow color of a field of flowers, the peaceful greens of a forest, or the fiery reds and oranges of a summer sunset.

When composing, shooting, and editing, give conscious thought to the colors you’re trying to bring out and what they say to your viewer.

cold, snowy barn
Does this shot make you feel cold? That was the idea! I edited to emphasize the blue tones.
Yellowstone trees
This was a bitter-cold, sub-zero day in Yellowstone National Park. The blue sky and stream contrast nicely with the brilliant white snow. The word I want this photo to communicate is “crisp.”

For the best colorful landscape photography, make sure to consider what’s in season. When do the camas flowers bloom? When are the aspens at peak yellow color? When are the fields in the Palouse Country deep green or golden? What is the best time to get a moonless dark night and have the Milky Way high in the sky?

camas fields in Idaho
Late May is when the camas fields usually bloom in Centennial Marsh near Fairfield, Idaho. They only peak for a week or so – and many years the display is not nearly as nice as this.

Knowing when to be at a location for the best colorful landscape photography takes good research and a large measure of luck. It all came together this evening several years ago. It’s never been quite as good since, but each year I still go back.
fall in New England
For great colorful landscape photography, it’s tough to go wrong with autumn in New England. Even then, finding the best locations and hitting them during peak color takes some research.

If you hope to get the very best colorful landscape photos, you need to do your homework, develop good information sources, and be ready to go when things are just right.

The old saying holds true: “Luck happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

5. Shoot when the weather is bad

If you’re a “fair-weather photographer,” someone who only gets out when the skies are clear and the weather is comfortable, then you’re missing some of the best colorful landscape photography.

Here’s another saying for you: “When the weather gets bad, the photos get good.” It may not be pleasant, but I’ll take a cold, stormy day with dramatic clouds, interesting light, and striking color over a clear, cloudless, warm bluebird day (if my goal is impactful landscape photography).

snowy bridge
When the weather gets bad, the photos get good. It was cold and snowing hard when I made this shot of the Rainbow Bridge over the North Fork of the Payette River in central Idaho.

The same goes for rainy, foggy, or snowy days. Don’t think that good color always means contrasty, heavily saturated scenes. Watch for the more muted color and low contrast provided by inclement weather conditions.

Bright, saturated colors might be more impactful, but soft pastels and muted colors create mood and carry a completely different feel and message.

stormy Columbia River Gorge
Stormy, cloudy, and rainy; that’s how I’d describe this day at Vista House overlooking the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon. Fair-weather photographers won’t get the same moody shot on a beautiful sunny day. The blue and purple colors enhance the mood.

Once again, ask yourself, “How do I want to make the viewer feel?” Capture photos that speak your message and use color as your “words.”

6. Carefully edit colors for the best results

There are many good articles about how to edit color. That is not my intent here. Instead, I’ll offer some general things to keep in mind when editing colors in your photos.

selectively edited images
Learn to selectively edit color. The blue areas in the shade and the warmer colors in the sunny clearing (left) were purposely enhanced here. And I gave the red flowers in the foreground some extra pop (right). Use color to draw attention to objects and communicate with your viewer.
  • Shoot in RAW. You greatly limit your options if you only shoot and save JPEG images. The most obvious reason to shoot RAW is the flexibility to adjust the white balance later in editing rather than trying to get it right when shooting. Warming or cooling an image by adjusting the color temperature slider becomes much more difficult if you’re trying to overcome the wrong white balance baked into a JPEG.
colorful landscape photography lake
There was more editing and working with color here than meets the eye, but that’s the idea. Your colors in landscape photography can be vibrant, but they should not look unnatural or scream for attention. If they do, you went too far.
  • Understand the difference between global and local adjustment tools. Sometimes, you might want to adjust the color of the entire image – so global adjustment sliders and controls work fine. Other times, you might want to make the sky bluer without affecting the land below or bring up the saturation of just the red flowers in a landscape; such edits will require the use of local adjustment tools. If your objective is to communicate with color, knowing how to carefully and precisely control specific colors in your image is an important skill to master.
  • Don’t overprocess. How much is too much? That’s a judgment call, but let me express a personal bias. Just as you can over-salt a meal, you can also oversaturate a color photo. Glowing “postcard color” is not a good look if you want to be taken seriously as a landscape photographer. Neither is a grungy HDR. I believe in using color to creatively speak a message, but I don’t want it to shout.
red barn in the snow
Where does your eye go in this shot? Red is a powerful color, and in an almost monochrome scene, the red barn immediately draws attention. (It also complements the cold blue.)

7. Make it monochrome

Sometimes, color is not the best way to give your image the most impact or communicate your message. Here are some reasons you might want to go monochrome instead:

  • The image is more about the “bones” of a good image: shape, form, tone, and texture. The color is an unnecessary distraction.
  • The image is almost monochrome anyway and the color isn’t adding anything.
  • Black and white might better capture the old, nostalgic, or period feel of the image.
  • In some genres of photography such as photojournalism or street photography, black and white offers a gritty reality.
bristlecone pines
These gnarly bristlecone pines in eastern California’s Sierra Nevada mountains are thousands of years old. I knew before I even clicked the shutter that this would be a black and white image. Color would be a distraction, hindering rather than helping the story.
  • You want to create a lot of drama. You can often push a monochrome edit far, whereas the same amount of processing on a color image might look garish or just plain bad.
  • You are unable to get good colors, so you save your image with a black and white conversion. It’s the last reason to favor monochrome, but it happens. That said, the choice to go color or black and white should be intentional rather than a rescue mission. Good photographers know their intent for a shot before they make it. But realistically, the fix for a bad color image might be a conversion to monochrome. While editing, you might think, “I wonder how this will look in black and white?” Also, this circles back to something I said earlier: Always shoot in RAW. Your images will be in color – but should you later decide black and white is preferable, it’s an easy conversion.
black and white versus color comparison
Color or black and white? It often depends on what you want to communicate.

Colorful landscape photography: final words

Colorful landscape photography

Imagine your photograph is printed and hanging on the wall of a gallery. You are not there, only the image and the viewer.

Now, what do you want the viewer to see, think, feel, hear, smell, and experience when looking at your photo? You are not there to interpret, explain, justify, or defend. Your photo must speak for itself.

Once you determine what you want the image to say, apply all the “visual words” at your disposal, many of which use the language of color. Do it well, and you’ll be a master of colorful landscape photography.

colorful landscape photography silhouetted trees
How does this image feel? What does it say? What’s one word that describes it? Use the power of color to speak to your viewer, and you’ll be on your way to mastering colorful landscape photography.
How can I use color theory in photography?

Understand the relationships between colors, such as complementary colors, analogous colors, and color triads. That way, you can create pleasing color photos.

How can I create better color landscape photos?

When you make a color landscape photo, consider what you want it to communicate to your viewer. Then work with the colors in that image when composing, capturing, and editing – so that the colors of the image “speak” to your viewer. Understand how different colors carry different feelings. Use the feelings to create more impactful images.

Should my landscape photos be color or black and white?

The answer is that it depends. If the idea is to concentrate on the basics, such as the shapes, forms, tones, and textures of an image, sometimes color becomes a distraction. Other times, a color photograph can communicate things a black-and-white image cannot. Photographers and artists have long debated the merits of each approach. Here is a quote worth considering: “To see in color is a delight for the eye but to see in black and white is a delight for the soul.” – Andri Cauldwell

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Rick Ohnsman
Rick Ohnsman

Photography isn’t just a hobby, it’s an adventure! Photography is about sharing my personal vision. From the ’70s, with a film SLR and a garage darkroom, college work with 4×5 view cameras, Kodachrome slides and into the digital age, I’ve pursued photography for over 45 years. An enthusiastic member of the Boise Camera Club, I share this common passion and enjoy teaching new members. See my work here – on 500px and on instagram.

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