How Much Editing Is Too Much for Your Landscape Photos?

How Much Editing Is Too Much for Your Landscape Photos?

Within the genre of landscape photography, there is often debate about how much editing is too much. When does the photograph go from natural to manipulated? Does it even matter? How much editing is too much for your photos?

The "right" amount of editing is often discussed among landscape photographers. Opinions range from a very natural look, capturing it straight out of the camera, to a more extreme view of blending images, enhancing elements through stretching, hue shifting, or something between those two editing levels.

The Natural Look

A segment of landscape photographers thinks edits should retain a natural look and be close to straight out of the camera. A good photo results from patience and perseverance to be present for dramatic light conditions. Editing is used to save a bad photo.

Some editing is always required or being applied. If you photograph using raw files, they necessitate doing some editing. Raw files lack contrast and are often soft, requiring at least a minimal amount of sharpening. These edits, just to refine a raw file, will bring the photographer's interpretation to the image. There isn't such a thing as straight out of the camera.

If you photograph in JPEG, the camera applies a profile to the image. There are usually several to choose from, some tend towards the flat side, others are more vivid, and others are often tailored for landscape photos. These profiles are applied, but the camera performs the base processing, or edits, needed to refine the raw file. The image is still being processed.

The Extreme

The more extreme side of editing involves more complex techniques to process a photograph. It could be focal length blending, where you blend a wide focal length image with a telephoto focal length to make a terrain feature in the distance seem larger against a strong foreground. Or maybe stretching some mountain peaks to make them more pronounced and interesting. Or maybe swapping in a different sky.

These types of techniques can lead to spectacular-looking images and be quite popular. But, the resulting image doesn’t necessarily represent the natural scene as it was. The peaks of the mountains don’t look like that in real life, or the terrain that looked close in the image is actually much further off in the distance.

The In-Between

Between these two editing styles is the in-between style. This is where the photographer takes the scene and does more than just adjust some contrast and sharpening but uses other tools to edit the image to what they saw and felt when taking the picture.

Targeted adjustments might be made to adjust the contrast, lift some shadows, or pull some highlights back in. Dodging and burning might be used to lighten or darken the image more selectively, perhaps to emphasize where the light fell or darken the edges of the image. Colors might be selected and made a little brighter or more saturated.

Which Is the Right Way?

I have categorized the styles of editing rather broadly, and there are certainly variations within each, but they can be summarized as follows:

  • Minimal editing, subtle adjustments
  • Significant modifications, focal length blending, stretching, cloning
  • Something in the middle, targeted adjustments manipulating existing light

But which one is the right way? It should come as no surprise there is not one right way. Landscape photography is a creative endeavor, and multiple approaches to expressing that creativity come with any creative endeavor. That said, I can share my approach to editing landscape photographs.

My Approach

The part of landscape photography I enjoy most is the process of going out, hiking, and taking pictures. I enjoy the challenge of revisiting locations and trying to capture the perfect conditions. And while I don’t dislike editing, if given the choice of going out and taking more photos or sitting at the computer to edit, I am heading out to take more pictures!

This contributes to why I fall in the middle category of editing - more than the minimum, but not to the level of stretching peaks, focal length blending, or adding elements to the scene. However, I believe there is room for enhancing a photograph to represent what I saw in the field. The camera just can't capture things straight out of the camera that my eyes saw.

My editing reflects that, using tools to enhance the light more similarly to how I saw it and darkening areas of the photograph to help direct the viewer's eye to what drew me to the scene. I also frequently use masks or color selection to subtly enhance or brighten colors of elements in the scene. I edit to my interpretation of the scene I saw.

How about you? What is your preferred level of editing for your landscape photography?

Jeffrey Tadlock's picture

Jeffrey Tadlock is an Ohio-based landscape photographer with frequent travels regionally and within the US to explore various landscapes. Jeffrey enjoys the process and experience of capturing images as much as the final image itself.

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I'm with you. Jeffery. Shooting in RAW, all my images get put through LightRoom but only for some light editing - just to make the scene look like what I remembered. While I do enjoy looking at images that have been highly processed, I'd rather be planning my next photo shoot than editing.

I enjoy the process of getting out and taking pictures so much more than the editing side of the world! It probably explains why I have such a backlog of unedited photos on my laptop!

I enjoyed this article enough to subscribe to Jeffrey's You-Tube channel. I enjoy his attitude and perspective toward photography. Through the years, I've tripped over all the over-processing traps. Going outside and revisiting a site to get better conditions is the right answer for me. Photography and camping are the perfect pair for this!

Thanks Jon - much appreciated! And agreed - camping and photography work very well together, keeps you nice and close to very scenic areas and facilitates those repeat visits!

When editing colour images I stick to a rather simple routine: Slightly enhancing saturation, brightening shadows a bit, dimming highlights, then adding back contrast by tonal correction via histogram, maybe a slight vignette. Depending on the scene I darken/lighten shadows, add a minimal amount of contrast to get it look like my memory of it. Sharpening is set on auto (CaptureOne), but sometimes micro-contrasts/details have to be enhanced a bit. I rarely do more, as it's just for me, family and social media. A pro once told me he'd never sell my pics, as colours and contrasts aren't strong enough. As I don't sell, I don't care. Maybe I should learn to edit better, who knows, but I have fun shooting when traveling or hiking, and that's why I'm doing it.

That sounds like just the right approach to get a raw file back into good shape. Small saturation, highlights, shadows, and contrast adjustments. I think subtle is good!

I am with John. For the last 4 years I have been shooting JPEG only and I use a highly capable freeware to edit my files. when shooting landscapes my camera is set on "Landscape" most of the time. But my PP editing is limited to lights +shadows, 20% sharpness most of the time, some clarity adjustment and colours based on getting the proper white balance.
A few weeks ago I watched an LR tutorial to edit a "minimalist" snow landscape photography. The presenter used at least 4 masks, 2 cloning operations, sky adjustments and some other steps. The end result looked great but to me this was no longer a minimalist photography.

A few small edits to things like highlights and shadows and dialing in the contrast can really make a difference to an image without doing a lot of extensive editing!