Shaping light and creating a visual path

I think of visual flow and composition like music, carefully orchestrated with a tremendous crescendo. Visual flow is how the eye connects the compositional elements and flows through an image. Composition is the most important factor but using some of the techniques discussed in my video tutorial you can strengthen that flow.

Shaping light is the premise behind post processing at the root. Whether it’s a vignette, dodging and burning or other methods, we are ‘shaping light’ or directing the viewer exactly where you want them to look within your imagery. Composition alone doesn’t always do the job as well as we might want as it pertains to our vision for an image.

RAW files leave a lot to be desired…

I approach every file as a blank slate, doing my best to illustrate my thoughts and emotions within the image I am working on. Taking creative license to strengthen, enhance or even create more visual flow is important not only in making a more impactful image but to also create something uniquely yours.

In this article and tutorial video I will discuss some of the psychology, concepts and techniques used to strengthen the visual path or ‘flow’ of images and why it’s so important.


“You dont take a photograph, you make it” ~ Ansel Adams

As artists and creators we are always looking to create more dynamic images, constantly pushing the envelope.  We want those images to tell a story or to evoke emotion but if in doing so our image has too many competing elements then there can be tension. Visual tension can obscure the flow of an image, making the composition less obvious and can cause the viewer to spend less time taking in your image as a result.

With growth as a photographer, our compositions grow more complex, and it becomes far easier for visual tension to become an issue. We always want to include more, but if we aren’t consciously thinking about what those additions are bringing to the table, they may not be helping.

It is important that our thinking and our post processing  ability grows too, because we can control the tension…

One vital task is that you begin to think beyond the capture of an image in order to ensure the complexity doesn’t lead to chaos. Pre-visualizing your development of the image in the field can truly help shape your compositions, I know that once I begun to understand the psychology discussed here it forever changed the way I approach my imagery.  Of course, we are all students, and we cannot do what we do not know! My hope is that you will find value in these words and that your work will forever be changing, as mine is!



Think, for a moment, of black and white images and how removing color impacts how we view them. The absence of color allows the eye to focus only on tonality and contrast which is in art in and of itself.  Ansel Adams spent much of his dark room time dodging and burning his images to strengthen visual flow. This concept, the concept of shaping light can transcends tonality to include color, as color theory and temperature transitions can play a large role in visual flow.  Using light, shadow and color with various methods, like dodging and burning, can help sooth an image, remove that chaos and tension to reveal the visual path which will help your viewer truly savor and take in your image allowing them to connect.

Before Ansel…

…and before cameras, the only way we could document the landscape was with brush and canvas, but this wasn’t a handicap. It allowed for the use of colors, which allowed for expression; that thing that elevates a document to a work of art. The history of painting spans millennia, and color has been used in that expression all the while.

In my opinion, no one did this better than Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt – who painted the western US in the mid 19th century. Their use of color and light emphasizes the power they can have in visual flow. They also knew that the light and certain elements within the scene were going to change over the time it took to create their paintings. They had to pre-visualize the finished work in order to arrive there. I try to think like a painter and most of the psychology and thought I apply to the colors and tones in my work stem from that and my own experience with painting.

To better understand exactly where and why this concept could be applied is not straight forward and you first might need to understand the psychology involved in how we perceive light and color. Keep reading!

Mist in Kanab Canyon ~ By Thomas Moran (1892)

Looking Down Yosemite Valley ~ By Albert Bierstadt (1865)

If you enjoy my work then you might also like the work of Enrico Fosatti, Ole Henrik Skjelstad, Ryan Dyar, Miles Morgan and Marc Adamus to name just a few. They are some of the most outstanding artists working today.

Visual Psychology

The human eye or brain subconsciously or covertly is drawn to warmth, saturation, brightness and texture. With this in mind, things we want the attention focused on could be made warmer, more saturated, brighter or more contrasty. Things that we dont want the viewer to focus on could be darkened, desaturated, cooled down, or made less contrasty to remove or smooth texture. So, we have an array of concepts we can apply and an even greater amount of tools to use to get us there both in Lightroom and in Photoshop.

Below is a very good example of the use of this psychology.

Cooler, darker, less contrasty shadows and a warmer, brighter and more saturated subject. Using color and light alone draws the eye straight in, and the obvious leading line of the river helps, followed by the bushes closest to the camera. The bushes lead our eye to the river, and the river leads us to the mountains – aided by color and carefully applied tonality, a visual path.

Imagine your viewer is a you, suited to be moved through the image like a game piece, your artistry in complete control, the stepping stones of composition lead the way.

Although this article and tutorial dont explore the far reaches of Color Theory alone, I will touch briefly on it to help elaborate on previous statements above.

The theory is that certain colors or color combinations can trigger emotional responses, but not all colors play well with each other, even in nature.  You can also say the same for temperature since its perceived as colors. Warmth is signified by bright yellows to reds, whereas Cold is signified by blues, and magentas.

You should feel comfortable with taking creative liberties in order for this to be truly effective when applied to photographs.

When I am manipulating colors, it’s to shift certain outlying colors to fit within a condensed color scheme usually to help minimize how much is ‘going on’ within the image. If I have lots of varying textures and contrast then simplifying the color scheme can reduce visual tension. My favorite is the triadic scheme. I usually focus on using one of the three major colors present to ‘take the lead’ while the other colors might be accents.

You will see in the video tutorial where I’ve shifted the varying greens and yellows to harmonize the color scheme, and shifted the oranges and reds to reduce clutter and distraction. The most dominant colors are Yellow/Green and Blue.



Here is a depiction of colors along the color wheel and some of their emotional responses. This applies a little more to the creation of color like in paintings and less to photography since we try to enhance or utilize the existing colors present in the image and the composition to dictate the mood of the image.


The idea is to do this in a subtle, yet powerful way. This sentence may seem contradictory but its true, and very possible with the right techniques. Of course this is where the artistry of post processing comes in. How we apply these methods or concepts and to what degree is what separates you from others.

When applying this concept, the first factor is deciding where we want the viewer to focus most intensely in the image, like our subject. Next, one must decide the path to get to that point or subject. The second statement is something you have already thought about when you first composed this image, your leading line(s) is what is creating the beginnings of a visual path. Using that existing path, you now have an outline of where to brighten or darken, warm up or cool down or accentuate texture.

The How ~ Video Tutorial

Recently I presented at a great Web based conference, my topic “The Verge of Reality” discussed an overview of a typical post processing workflow being broken down into 3 driving visual factors. Tone, Color and Effects. The techniques I will discuss in this article and again in the video tutorial will illustrate this in both Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop as it applies to shaping light.


Chapter 1: Laying the Groundwork in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR)

• Using gradient tools to begin emphasizing the visual path
• Adjusting the Hue/Saturation and Luminance (HSL) panel to unify colors, the
beginnings of a harmonious color palette

Chapter 2: Bringing the Heat in ACR and Photoshop

• Temperature and Color Transitions with split-toning and double processing
using luminosity masks

Chapter 3: Working in the Contrast

• Using contrast adjustments with selections in Photoshop to apply localized
contrast adjustments, increasing dimensionality

Chapter 4: Dodging and Burning

• Manipulating Contrast to dodge and burn with luminosity selections
• Using blend modes for creating atmosphere
• Adding “Stamp Visible” layers and the Dodge and Burn Tools within PS and
luminosity masks to create more separation, increasing dimensionality
• Using blend modes to dodge with color, dodging details

Chapter 5: Final touches

• Applying NIK filters, Tonal Contrast, and Viveza
• Using ACR, final light shaping using gradients, global tweaks
• Special Effects, enhancing glow with the Orton Effect and luminosity

More Examples of the use of ‘Light Shaping’

Do you want to take your photography and post production knowledge to new heights?

Enjoy one-on-one instruction? Consider a few hours of “Digital Darkroom” time with me, or  private workshop! Or join me on any of my available workshops for an immersive and fun experience! Were branching out and exploring other countries!

Interview With Iceland Photo Tours By Serena Dzenis - December 2019
Photographer of the Month: Joshua Snow Interview with American photographer Joshua Snow By Christian Hoiberg
Matt Payne Photography Blog: Interview With Joshua Snow On F-Stop Collaborate And Listen - April 14, 2017
Interview with Landscape Photographer Joshua Snow By Loaded Landscapes - Mar 30, 2018
Landscape Photographer Reveals Secret to Success with Joshua Snow By FStoppers
Interview With Joshua Snow by Photography Talk
Podcast interview With Joshua Snow By The Photog Adventures - September, 2017
"Beyond the typical Photo" with Joshua Snow - Interview by David Johnston and the Landscape Photography Show


My Name is Joshua Snow, I am a Fine Art landscape and Night Photographer born in the Appalachian Mountains but raised in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate NY. In 2012 I had reached... Read more

Capturing the Essence of Water

Capturing the Essence of Water

Capturing the Essence of Water From rivers to streams, streams to the seas, waves and rapids. Capturing the power, and softness of water is a real challenge. One must ask themselves when approaching the churning surf, or the windy stream beneath a thunderous fall,...

read more

Focus Stacking for Sony using the RMT-P1BT Remote

Focus Stacking for Sony using the Sony RMT-P1BT Bluetooth remote Howdy All! Its been a litle while since I have written anything new! Somehow it feels like it has been a busier year than previous. I have a cool find for you today! Some of you may know that I recently...

read more
Focal Length Blending for Landscape Photography

Focal Length Blending for Landscape Photography

Focal Length Blending for Landscape Photography In this short article I'll explain how and why one might want to blend focal lengths. It's a controversial topic, but one I am asked about more frequently than anything else! Focal length blending for landscape...

read more
Focus Stacking for Landscape Photography Part II

Focus Stacking for Landscape Photography Part II

Focus Stacking for Landscape Photography Part II In Part 2 of "Focus Stacking for Landscape Photography" I have included a short (13 minute) video outlining just one of several ways to blend your focus stack using Photoshops built in Auto-Align and Auto-Blending...

read more
Focus Stacking for Landscape Photography

Focus Stacking for Landscape Photography

Focus Stacking for Landscape Photography and Understanding the Limitations of Hyper-Focal Distance   In this TWO part tutorial I will discuss depth of field, hyper-focal distance, their limitations and the ins and outs of focus stacking as a way of overcoming...

read more