How to Use Neutral Tones to Convey Weather, Temperature, and Time of Day in Your Photos

Like the “rule” of thirds, neutral tones are one of those principles that tend to emerge in spite of artistic differences, and by identifying them in a landscape, you can tint them to recreate dynamic weather, temperature swings, and time of day.

Last week, we discussed how neutral tones unlock a landscape’s believability. Neutral tones are unsaturated regions — such as clouds, fog, water, and architecture — that the viewer expects to be grayscale. These tones anchor the rest of the color palette, and so long as your edit doesn’t overly tint the neutral regions, you can enjoy a fair amount of artistic liberty with your post-processing.

But what happens with the exact opposite technique: when you intentionally alter only the neutral tones while leaving other stunning colors untouched?

Like other techniques, modifying neutral tones isn’t arbitrary: you should step back to the landscape’s environment and use the neutral tones to communicate or exaggerate the mood. In particular, with small adjustments to the neutral tones:

  • You can convey the weather: rain, shine, or cloudy. An approaching storm sometimes imparts a greenish tint to the clouds and background, while a sunny spring day tends to produce pure neutral tones in the clouds.
  • You can highlight the temperature: a chilly morning in the shadow of mountain, splotched with radiant sunlight. To communicate temperature contrast, you need to balance warm neutrals with cooler ones.
  • You can suggest the time of day — dawn, midday, or dusk — without affecting the rest of your color palette. At sunrise, most of the landscape is bathed in warm light, and at twilight, the overall white balance is cool with a few strong sources of warmth. At twilight, tinting with magenta is a dynamic substitute for warms and cuts out the typical green tint from night photography.

If your scene doesn’t have a strong source of neutrals, it can be hard to communicate weather, temperature, or time of day without tinting the entire image. By keeping an eye open for a compelling neutral source in your composition, you can root the rest of your edits and bring the environment to life!

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