Color Theory as Applied to Landscape Photography

From Academia to "Gut Feel"

Unlike painters, most photographs have little if any training in color theory. This is a pity, since unless one understands the physiological as well as psychological basis of formal color theory it's hard to understand why some photographs work and some don't, except on a "gut feel" basis.

A thorough search of the web has also come up short. Since most landscape, nature and wildlife photographers work in color it is important we understand the underpinnings of our art. This is not a simple topic. It intertwines the physics of light, the physiology of vision and our psychological perceptions.

The Color Spectrum

Discussions about color always begin with a color wheel (above) and a discussion of the Primary Colors. Depending on the application and environment Primary Colors fall into three families:

RGB(Red / Blue / Green)CMY(Cyan / Magenta / Yellow)YRB(Yellow / Red / Blue).

RGB is used by most electronic and transmissive-light technologies such as TV and film, and CMY (actually CMYK including Black) is used with reflected light technologies such as printing inks. The primaries traditionally taught in art school for painters, and for this reason the ones we'll be discussing here, are YRB (Yellow / Red / Blue). There's no point in arguing over which primary system is best — they each have their place in a specific discipline.

First and Second Order Colors

Any color of the spectrum can be made by mixing the Yellow, Red, and Blue primaries. This is why they are called First-Order colors. These are pure colors and are not created though mixing any other colors. If you look at the Color Spectrum you'll notice that while there are an infinity of additional colors, convention has it that there are in fact 9 additional Second-Order colors, for a total of 12 in the two groups combined. All other colors are considered Third-Order and won't be discussed here much.

These 12 colors, starting at the top of the color wheel with Blue and moving clockwise are; Blue-Violet, Violet, Red-Violet, Red, Red-Orange, Orange, Yellow-Orange, Yellow, Yellow-Green, Green and Blue-Green.

First Order Colors

Yellow — A First-Order Color

Aspens #1, Route 168, October 1999
Photographed with a Rollei 6008 Integral and 300mm Schneider APO Tele-Xenar on Provia 100F

While the Yellow of the Aspens in this photograph is a bit toward the Yellow-Orange end of the spectrum it will serve to illustrate this primary color. Yellow is the brightest color. It screams for our attention and this is why warning signs are frequently painted this color. Yellow and Yellow-Orange also are the dominant colors of Autumn and as such have a strong appeal to our emotions. Psychologically Yellow is a color denoting happiness.

Red — A First-Order Color

Snow Fence
Snow Fence —Toronto, 1994
Taken with a Nikon F4 and 60mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor

Red is intense and is a universal warning color and is therefore hard to ignore. A little Red goes a long way.

Blue — A First-Order Color

Mirrored Lake
Mirrored Lake —CA, 1996
Taken with a Mamiya 645 and 55mm f/2.8 lens on Provia 100.

The sky is Blue, and water is usually Blue, as it derives its color by reflecting the sky. Blue is the color which defines our planet. In fact from space Earth is seen as a Blue planet.

Blue is a retiring color and conveys a feeling of restfulness and passivity.

Second Order Colors

Orange — A Second-Order Color

Warm Turnout, October, 2000

Photographed with a Rollei 6008 Integral and 300mm Schneider APO Tele-Xenar on Provia 100F

Orange is a second-order color formed from the mixing of the Red and Yellow primaries. While the first-order primaries have limited range before one is outside their scope, a secondary such as Orange has a broader range of possible tonalities.

In this photograph, taken along the Blue Ridge Parkway just before sunset on a day in late Autumn, we have everything from the dark Red tree in the foreground to the Yellow one center-right, accentuating the Oranges which add so much warmth to this image. The bare trees scattered throughout the frame are essentially medium-Gray. Gray is the most neutral of all colors and through the effect of simultaneous-contrast (see below) appears complementary to any other color in the frame. In this case it tends to subdue the Oranges, which would otherwise appear over-the-top. Nevertheless, the colors are an accurate rendition of late-afternoon light illuminating this scene's fall foliage and ground-cover.

Green — A Second-Order Color

Evergreen Hillside, Quebec, 2000.

Photographed with a Canon EOS3 and 100~400mm f/5.6L IS lens on Provia F100 film.

Green is a second-order color formed from the mixing of Yellow and Blue. As with Orange it is capable of a wide range of tonalities or shades. Of course Green is the predominant color of vegetation and as such is dominant in many landscape photographs.

Violet — A Second-Order Color

Blue Ridge Sunrise, October, 2000.

Photographed with a Rollei 6008 Integral and 300mm Schneider Tele-Xenon lens on Provia 100F

Violet is a Second Order color formed by the mixing of Blue and Red. It is not a color which is readily found in nature, though of course the flower of that name is a notable exception. Violet is a color traditionally associated with nobility and it conveys a feeling of elegance and warmth.

Working with Color

Now for a look at our perceptions of the relationships between various colors. The following section discusses the concepts of Complementary Colors, Simultaneous Contrast, Complementary Ratios, and Harmonizing Colors.

Complementary Colors & Simultaneous Contrast

Two Bunch Carp — Desert Hot Springs, CA 1995

Taken with a Nikon F4 and 60mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor

Complementary colors are any two colors which lie opposite each other on the color wheel. Two such opposite colors can be regarded as being in balance when they appear together. In the picture above the Orange carp provides the pleasing complement needed to the Blue water. In fact, when complementary colors appear together they increase their intensity through a process called Simultaneous Contrast.

Photographed with a Canon EOS D30 and 100~400mm f/5.6L lens @ 400mm

Red / Green is one of the most common color contrasts. In this photograph, taken in the Pacific lowlands of Costa Rica, pale pinky/red of the out of focus bush in the center of the frame makes itself and the varying shades of green around it more intense by its presence. Cover it with your thumb to see how the intensity of the greens diminishes. Note as well that a small amount of a complementary color (here red) is needed to enhance its complement.

Complementary Ratios

There's a test that you can do for yourself in Photoshop or almost any graphics program. Create squares of complementary colors and compare their relative intensities. While Red and Green are roughly equal in their effect on each other, Orange and Blue need about a 3:1 ratio for the same balance. With Yellow and Violet it's about 5:1. (Your mileage may vary).

Harmonizing Colors

Russian Olive

Photographed with a Canon EOS D30 and 70~200 f/2.8L lens at ISO 100. RAW Mode.

Harmonizing colors are ones which can be found on the color circle by visualizing the three points of an isosceles triangle that sits in the middle of the circle. This places two of the three colors just one color zone apart with the third at the long end of the triangle opposite.

People with a good color sense instinctively choose colors which are harmonious when decorating their home. Photographers, unless they are working in a studio, rarely have the ability to select their palette. But it is helpful to understand when you do encounter a color combination that is harmonious, such as the one in the photograph above, why this is so.

In this photograph the key color is the Blue-Green of the Russian Olive leaves. The harmonizing colors are the Orange and Red found in the rock face. The thing to note about Harmonizing Colors is that if mixed together they would produce Gray.


The intensity of a light source also affects our color perception. At low light levels, blue and green objects appear brighter than red ones when compared to their relative brightness in stronger light. This effect is known as the Purkine Shift. When the light becomes brighter, there is another in hues, called the Bezold-Brucke effect. This causes most colors to appear less red or green and more blue or yellow as the intensity of the light source increases.

Half Dome and Tree (Rollei), 1999

Half Dome and Tree - (XPan), 1999


If you've gotten this far, congratulations! Color theory is a complex subject. It contains objective laws of psycho-optics as well as subjective value judgments. This page is just a quick overview of a large and complex topic. Each of these small sections is at least a chapter in text books on the subject so we've only been able to cover selected highlights. Color theory is usually taught to student painters in the first-year of art school. It makes sense for them to learn it because painters create their color environments, while photographers for the most part find them. Nevertheless, photographers are well served understanding the basics so that they can appreciate why some color images "work" and others don't. Taste after all does have its roots in objective reality.