Landscape Photography Design Part 4: Color Theory

Landscape Photography Design Part 4: Color Theory

There’s a handful of people on the Pacific Island group of Pingelap who can skip this episode. But if you don’t have achromatic vision like them, I suggest giving this bountiful reference a read, because California-based USA Landscape Photographer of the Year 2015 Ted Gore wrote all about color landscape photography.

A Brief History of Human Vision

Before I let Gore tell you how to put it all into practice, I'll help you with a bit of background information about human vision. Primates (not monkeys or apes, but rather our mutual ancestors), began to emerge around the beginning of the Paleogene Period. Because our pre-Paleogene ancestors were primarily living a life underground, it was not only more useful, but more importantly, lifesaving to see better in the dark. Only the ones with great nocturnal vision survived, and that helped the evolution of the rods in our ancestor's retinas. Especially those rods are good at discerning light and dark. They’re the organ in our eyes that we use to distinguish luminosity and movement, whereas cones are responsible for seeing color.

Our eyes are made up of different cells. Some of those evolved to see color, while others gave us the ability to see movement and differences in light and dark.

Although early mammals got larger and moved into the open after leading this burrowing existence, most species developed poor color vision. Most mammals today aren't that good at seeing color at all. But some primates developed the ability to see three colors (trichromatic vision) as a result of high evolutionary pressure. One of the major theories out there is that the ability to perceive red and orange hues allows tree-dwelling primates to discern them from green. For primates, this is important, as they started to detect red and orange fruit visually. But it also lead to better discernment of fresh and nutrient-rich younger foliage, which is greener than older leaves.

Seeing Color Today

While there are more theories out there about how pre-hominids developed better color vision than other mammals, there are also more diverse human eyes as a result of evolution. In one of the first articles that I wrote for Fstoppers, I pointed out that there was one case of tetrachromatic vision (seeing four colors) in humans. Maybe you remember me telling you about "subject cDa29".

There’s another rare instance where human vision mutated. About eight percent of men are color blind in one way or another, but most of them are unable to discern red from green. Others are unable to see differences between blue and yellow hues. But these cases are all related to a deficiency in one of the chemicals (opsins) in our cones that are responsible for perceiving color. Sometimes though, random mutations are strangely “successful” as a result of isolation and survival. One place in particular, deep in the Pacific on a group of small islands called Pingelap, is a place where people have lived in isolation for a long time. They have a particular ancestor in common, somebody who didn't see any color at all. He became the ruler of the island group and had many offspring. His eye condition would become one of the oddest heirlooms to pass to his descendants.

Pingelap is of particular interest to geneticists, as around 10% of the population there is affected by this recessive genetic disorder, while another 30% are carriers but live their lives unaffected. It is reported that one Pingelapese island sea-fisherman with this condition has difficulty seeing in bright sunlight, but at night, can see in much fainter light than people with normal vision can. A theory behind his “superhuman ability” is that in his brain, capacity intended to process cone signals (color) is instead added to his rod signal-processing capacity; the cones are probably processing luminosity rather than color.

Color Harmonies in Landscape Photography by Ted Gore

Now that we have a basic understanding of how differently luminosity (brightness) and movement are registered than color, we can start to see that they are inherently two different types of cells. I rather think of our eyes like breathing through your mouth. You can process food with this opening in your face, while breathing air through the same orifice only seconds later. The eyes are remarkable feats of evolution, and the combination of seeing color and luminosity are one of the reasons why we are drawn to art. To dive into the deep end of how and why color affects our ability to judge the appeal of photography, I’ve found that one of my favorite artists has already written extensively about color theory in landscape photography.

Color Theory

Making a combination of colors look great together is an important component of delivering a message. There is just no way that I could have written an entire article about color theory as well as Ted Gore has. Color theory is the technique of combining specific colors harmoniously. If those chosen look great together, you've nailed the harmony. And while there are many sorts of harmonies like analogous, monochromatic, complementary, and split complementary, I think that Gore does an excellent job at addressing all of them in his article.

A good example of one of Gore's photos, where an analogous color range is spanning from teal, to vibrant blue greens, to a greenish yellow.

If color theory is a part of our thought process while we are creating landscape imagery, we will surely produce visually better images. As a note, he will explain that the chaos of nature will make it very difficult to adhere to these color harmonies. But no worries there. Gore brings a solution to the table that will definitely make your images pop.

Color harmonies are like guitar chords. If one or more fingers are pressing strings in the wrong place, the chord will not sound right.


Color theory is complex material, but as we start to grasp how the colors of nature can work harmoniously, we can begin to implement them into landscape photography. In the next episode, we will delve into the world of subliminal messaging. There's also some color involved, but we look to the world of advertising and see if we can incorporate some ideas in landscape photography to tell a story. You can follow Ted's work on 500px or on Facebook.

Analogous harmony image used with permission of Ted Gore. 

Daniel Laan's picture

Daniel Laan is an outdoor enthusiast, teacher, writer, and landscape photographer. While his dramatic landscape photography has gained international acclaim, his pursuit of the light is primarily a means to get to know himself. Daniel teaches introspective landscape photography around the world through running tours and workshops.

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Nice article Daniel. I agree that 'color theory' and matching of colours is extremely important. Not only in photography, but in design in general. Having a design background I tend to use these 'techniques' automatically when processing landscape images. My latest image is a good example of that:

Enjoyed the article, and love the pics.

Although huge glaring mistake, more than once: organs. You said the rods of the eyes are organs. Then you said the eyes are made up of organs. Flat out wrong. The eyes are organs. The rods (and cones) are cells. Huge difference between cells and organs. They're not even next to each other in the hierarchy of anatomy. A collection of cells is called tissue. A collection of tissues is called an organ. This is an important distinction, because organs are composed of not only the tissue itself (and really, it's called parenchymal tissue, to distinguish it from the other types of tissue), but also of vasculature, nerves, and connective tissue. Rods and cones are most definitely not any of those; they are cells.

Thanks Franklin, I will correct it! Cheers for the input. :)

One other thing I wanted to mention, and I suppose it'll be somewhat like Devil's Advocate, or at least that's my assumption; hopefully not.

Color theory is somewhat like composition in terms of how it's often applied retroactively to give the impression of forethought. Such work has been presented on this site before; photographers overlaying diagonals, shapes, and golden ratios over photographs to show why the composition works. It's the same with color theory in a way, although a slightly different concept. With color theory, wherever you attain your education, the same holds true: you're shown the color wheel, and all the different combinations of color and the name of that combo. If you look at it from a broader perspective, nearly any combination of colors has a particular color wheel title. Pick any two or three colors at random; plot them on a color wheel. You'll be able to categorize that combination by an existing title.