How Neutral Tones Unlock a Landscape’s Believability

Most landscape photographers will agree that post-production is essential to the art, but while the debate of how far you should go is left to individual preferences, the question is how far you can go while maintaining the image’s believability.

A raw image straight out of the camera isn’t necessarily believable because of the flat appearance, yet a stunning sunrise that remains true to the setting may appear fake to your audience. So what is the key to crafting an edit that maintains believability? One technique is to identify strong sources of neutral tones — like clouds, water, fog, and snow — in the landscape to anchor the rest of the image.

During post-production purgatory, these neutral tones will serve as a visual root: if you over-saturate the image or push the white balance too far, the neutral tones will fall apart. On the other hand, by leaving neutral tones untouched, you can enjoy almost unlimited creative liberty.

That might sound dishonest, but this liberty is most powerful when you are trying to produce an edit that is faithful to the setting. After all, camera sensors are not the final word on integrity: dawn and dusk shoots tend to produce dramatic colors and lighting that can take days of post-production to accurately reproduce.

On your next shoot, keep an eye open for a good neutral source to include as a subject in your composition. As you shoot more fantastic landscapes, the neutral tones will provide a visual anchor that helps true-to-life colors burst with realism.

Jonathan Lee Martin's picture

Jonathan Lee Martin is a fine art landscape photographer, educator and globetrotting digital nomad. He’s traveling the world for a year to discover unique landscapes and help fellow landscape photographers lighten their load to go further.

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Thanks, I enjoyed that.

That's a very handy tip and good video explaining it.

Glad it was helpful, Simon!

It would have been really great to see the raw files before the tweaks to see exactly what the scenes looked like before the edits. It's easy to say "keep these areas neutral" but without an understanding of how far the other colors have come, it doesn't resonate as well as it could have.

Fair. I finally picked up a machine that should be able to record while I fiddle in Lightroom without freezing, so expect to see some before + after on the follow-up!

Ah no worries, didn't realize this video was yours ha! You can always post a few of the before and afters in the article...could be cool to see how desaturated the raw files were and where you were able to take them. Love the content and it's a very interesting topic to discuss in the landscape world.

Hah, you're fine! True, that'd be a good place to start. We'll see how my new digital nomad friendly 13-incher does on the next vlog (I've been working on a base model 12-inch MacBook for the last year. Amazing portability, but downright awful Lightroom/Premiere experience).

Nice information, I prefer straight-forward tutorials such as this, compared to a bunch of drawn out intros and plugs for other bloggers and websites before the info gets started. Two bits of feedback, show the viewers how you are applying your edits. For example, in the waterfall image, there is nice detail on your thought process, but are you applying dodge & burn with a brush, using a gradient, etc? Also, agreed with the previous comment, it would be great to see the unedited image to show what you keep referencing. Either way, great work, keep it up and thank you!

Thanks for the feedback Darren! And absolutely — this Monday's vlog will be a little more interactive with some before/after action. Stay tuned.

Awesome, looking forward to watching it.

I haven't watched the video yet, but I just wanted to comment on how stunning that right hand photo is! The left one's not too shabby either but I really love how your eye and attention gets pulled around the photo the longer you look at it. First along the river, then the sun-lit trees, then to the moody skies and saving the best til last with the hills and mountains hiding in plain sight.

Thanks Tom! Super encouraging. I'm headed back to Scotland shortly, hopefully to get more shots like that!