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Photographing the Red Rocks Country
Maxing Out Colors to Light Up the Landscape
By David L. Brown

The subject of color has long been argued. We see in pictographs the Anasazi left behind on canyon walls that they were attracted by the bright red hues of hematite, a natural form of iron oxide. In more recent history, the painter Van Gogh was criticized for his use of “unrealistic” bright colors, and yet today his pictures sell for tens of millions of dollars.

Whether we admit it or not, the human eye is attracted to bright, vivid colors.

For photographers, the evolution of color film demonstrated this. The first color films, notably Kodachrome,™ generally featured fairly dull, unsaturated colors, what were considered to be natural. In fact, for years Eastman Kodak would ask photographers what they wanted in their film, and the answer was always that they wanted “true” color.

That answer belied their real heart’s desire for vivid color, and this secret was revealed by Fuji, the Japanese company that made Fujichrome™ films. They did a survey of their own, and because a friend of mine was a participant I know the story behind it. They paid him and other professionals half of their daily fee to spend a couple of hours in one-on-one in-depth interviews with Fuji market researchers.

The first question asked was the one Kodak had used for years, and the answers were the same: The pros wanted “true” color, or at least they thought they did. But then the interviews took a different turn as sets of three prints of the same subject were presented. In each set, one was “true” color, a second featured somewhat brighter hues and the third was printed in vivid color. When asked which they preferred, in almost every case the pros pointed at the vivid prints.

Thus was the vivid color film Velvia™ born and photography has never been the same. In today’s digital photographic world, with myriad software options to manipulate the way pictures appear, the trend has continued to more and more vivid colors. It seems that when it comes to pictures, the public has a thirst for the unnatural.

In my own work, I have held back. In fact, in digitally processing my own pictures of the red rocks, I have often dialed back the color saturation because the colors seemed just too vivid to be real. But I am beginning to see the light, because there is no question but that the bright, vivid colors are more attractive to many eyes.

In the examples shown here, I have added dramatic, vivid color to two pictures, showing you the before-and-after. You can be the judge, but you will probably have to admit there is something about the vivid colors that is attractive to the eye.

The first example is a picture I made this August from Dead Horse Point State Park. It was just before sunset and a cloud was spilling virga (rain that does not reach the ground). The rain was lit by late afternoon sun and when a rainbow appeared I made the picture in Fig. 1. The result was interesting but hardly exciting. The canyons are dull and the rainbow doesn’t particularly stand out.

A few days ago, I decided to see what I could do to brighten up this image, using a Photoshop plug-in called Aurora HDR.™ The result in Fig. 2 shows a completely different scene, with brilliant, vivid color not only in the sky but also in the canyons. I have titled the image “Golden Rain,” and it is eye candy at its best.

Incidentally, the “HDR” in the software name stands for High Dynamic Range, and is an effect originally obtained by combining several exposures of the same subject, including under- and over-exposures to extend the range of tones. Aurora HDR gives a similar effect by processing single exposures and providing a number of tools with which to adjust color and other qualities of the image.

Here is another example, a shot I made a few years ago at Balanced Rock in Arches National Park. The scene was again shot just before sunset and, as shown in Fig. 3, the warm light of the fading day was interesting. Pretty nice shot, but again there was no real excitement.

Look at what happened today when I re-processed the image in Aurora HDR (Fig. 4). Wow! This just jumps off the screen and demands your love.

I will leave it up to you to decide which you prefer: “True” color or the excitement of over-the-top vivid color. For myself, I think I am becoming a convert. As our Spanish speaking friends might say: Viva el color!

Figure 1 Fig. 1 – A minimally processed version of a photo made from Dead Horse Point, showing falling rain and a rainbow lit by the setting sun.
Figure 2 Fig. 2 – The same image shown in Fig. 1, after processing to bring out vivid colors not only in the rain and rainbow, but also in the canyons.Fig. 3 – Here is another example of a “straight” shot made near sunset in Arches National Park. It is pleasing, but hardly exciting. Ho-hum.
Figure 3 Fig. 3 – Here is another example of a “straight” shot made near sunset in Arches National Park. It is pleasing, but hardly exciting. Ho-hum.
Figure 4 Fig. 4– The same picture as in Fig. 3, after processing to bring out vivid colors, including in the sky where a “digital polarizer” was applied. Wow!


David L. Brown is a photographer, journalist and novelist who lives in Moab, where he leads photo tours and workshops. He can be reached at 435-210-8158 and his web site is at

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