Is This Real Landscape Photography?

When does landscape photography become digital art? In this article, I address the longstanding debate in the community about purism versus artistic expression while showing you my own image from start to finish.

Many people have a line that once you manipulate an image to a certain degree, it becomes digital art or many years ago, darkroom art. Some people have such strong opinions about this that you can often find very aggressive comments claiming someone isn't a landscape photographer if they do certain things to their images. This isn't healthy for the community, and while I'm not here to change your opinions or move your line in the sand. My hope is to push for a better community and to stop the gatekeeping that seems to exist within the space.

The Image

What's real?

This is the final edited image that I want you to pixel-peep. What is real? What is manipulated? Can you pick out which parts were done in the edit and which parts existed in nature? These are questions I ask myself looking at other people's work. Sometimes, it can showcase just how magical a moment was, or it can accentuate just how good someone is within an edit. Sit with this image in your mind for a moment. Did you see this and think it was: beautiful, majestic, fake, overdone, Photoshopped, too saturated, balanced, realistic, or unrealistic? What emotions did the image elicit in you before knowing how it was created?

These are the images I used to make this image. How do you feel now? Does seeing where this image started change your opinion about me as a photographer? I've personally experienced meeting people that are captivated by images I've shown them, but as soon as I show them the images that came from my camera, it's as if their opinion of me deflates. I find myself explaining that images straight from the camera are flat and lack all the colors or detail from a scene in real life. I know I'm not alone in this experience, and it can be frustrating as artist. This is made even worse by the constant gatekeeping you might find yourself experiencing when sharing your work online.

If you want a breakdown on the entire edit and my thought process behind every blend and manipulation be sure to check out the video at the top of the article. 

Photography or Digital Art?

The accessibility we have to digitally manipulate and create believable images is greater than ever before. Add on the fact that many of us as artists are motivated to create images that stop people from scrolling on social media for engagement. These two factors are where this topic gets interesting. I’ve heard stories from people who attended workshops and left disappointed because they didn’t walk away with images they thought they would get, not because of conditions or dull landscapes, but simply because they didn’t realize how much manipulation the host did to their images.

As a photographer, I feel it's my moral obligation to remind people of the realities of my work. I do this in multiple ways. I share my entire editing process from start to finish sometimes. I diversify my portfolio to include images with heavier processing like the one within this article while also including simple images with barely any edits. Lastly, I make videos about photography where you can watch me fumble around like a bumbling idiot and not capture anything at all. This is my choice and style as a photographer. 

I can’t tell others what to do or how to approach their own work, but I do think we can do better as a community as a whole. This starts with everyone. People need to stop claiming that if you don’t do it this or that way, then you aren’t a “true” landscape photographer. This is wrong. If you’re a purist and only qualify a specific level of editing as what you deem acceptable, that’s absolutely okay. What isn’t okay is telling someone they are something less because they don’t follow your definitions. It's okay to have different opinions about what qualifies as a different genre of art. It's all in how we present our opinion and discuss issues.

Example: you see an edit you think is too much, maybe the image I went over in this article. You could say something like: “wow, great blend and believable presentation even if it’s more editing than I would do.” Not “this isn’t landscape photography.” Words like these not only make people feel they are doing something wrong. They also create an environment where being honest about editing is prohibited because they know people are going to grab their pitchforks and attack them in the comment section.

On the other side of things, those of us who do choose to manipulate images in more extreme ways should talk about it! Let’s appreciate taking a dull image and turning it into something extraordinary. This is an entire art itself. Create real expectations for other photographers out there so those of us questioning our own work get a little glimpse into the reality that we aren’t just getting perfect conditions every day of the week. 

Space for Everyone

In the last year or two, there has been a shift in the landscape photography space from big, grand images that are seemingly perfect in every way. A lot of photographers, myself included, have found themselves shooting more intimate, simple scenes with refined editing. The tech wave of luminosity masking, high-pixel sensors, and pushing the limits of what we can do with our images came and flooded our feeds with images that take our breath away. But like all art movements, things change and styles evolve. Being inclusive of these styles and choices is what is the most important.

A good example of that is the Natural Landscape Photography Contest that started last year. The majority of contests have little guidelines on photo manipulation. One of the biggest contests of the year, the International Landscape Photographer of the Year, is dominated by dreamlike images that are typically highly processed. It is wonderful to hear that the natural landscape photography contest was wildly successful in its first year, and not only does it give a place for those of you that gravitate towards more natural edits, it also publicly opens the doors to show there’s a place for all types of style and photography.

To me, that’s the big takeaway. We have to stop telling others that their work isn’t good enough because it isn’t done how we would personally approach it. As photographers, we also have to be better about being transparent. Yes, post your incredible work, but include how you got there sometimes. Let's revel in your excellent editing skills just as much as your photography work. 

I could talk about this topic for hours, so I hope you leave this feeling somewhat stimulated with a new outlook and how to improve the community as a whole. I'd love to know what your opinion is in the comments, and feel free to show off some of your own edits as well! As always, thanks for reading. 

Alex Armitage's picture

Alex Armitage has traveled the world to photograph and film some of the most beautiful places it has to offer. No matter the location, perfecting it's presentation to those absent in the moment is always the goal; hopefully to transmute the feeling of being there into a visual medium.

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You hear a lot of photographers saying that their picture was straight from the camera, meaning they regard digital manipulation done in the camera as authentic, and the same done in Photoshop as non-authentic.

Wouldn't that viewpoint make some of the greats inauthentic? After all, they were all manipulated, albeit in the darkroom. But, still, what they presented was not straight out of camera.

Damn you're a grumpy old man

Why is it all comments like those from Anthony are from troll accounts with no photos or info?! I can't imagine having the inclination to make a fake f stoppers account just to troll comments! lol

Judging by your comments, you've been shooting for 50 years; and the fact that you have not received the recognition you feel you deserve, has made you bitter and resentful.

So now you hide behind an anonymous profile on social media, hurling vitriol at everyone else.

But I'll let you in on a secret, you have to be amazingly good to be successful if no one likes you. You haven't been successful because you are a horrible person, who no one likes.

In all probability, you are nothing more than a mediocre photographer - reasonably inferrable from your continuous stream of crowing superiority, manifestly terrible self-esteem, and the fact you have never tried to demonstrate your work is superior to any of your interlocutors.

I'd say I pity you; however, I'm not feeling particularly charitable. You deserve your life of failure and obscurity.

I have very strong opinions about this (and may get yelled at). I really do not consider creating scenes that did not exist as photography. There is a huge difference, in my view, between someone who gets up early multiple times to get the perfect sunrise as compared to swapping a sky (or stalking wild animals versus electronically adding wildlife in the scene) in front of a computer.

Photography should represent (as much as possible) reality, not fantasy. Not to create moments that did not or even could not exist. Manipulated landscapes can become the unfortunate photographic equivalent of a Thomas Kinkaid painting, full of exciting details that are unrealistically fake. Adjustments to correct for deficiencies in the way the camera recorded the scene (white balance adjustment, or bringing up shadows) can be used to maintain authenticity, anything beyond that is off the table for me.

There is too much artificial stuff in the world. Reality is being replaced by the manipulated.

I agree in some respects. I hate the idea of sky swapping! But, I don't have a problem cloning out a piece of trash or something small that marred an otherwise beautiful scene. Also, I just don't think the camera is capable of producing "exactly" what we see since what we see is a culmination of thoughts and emotions. Even the blood in our eyes creates a slight cast which the camera can't reproduce. Straight out of camera results will never come close to the contrast difference in the scene before us. Hence, some dodging and burning. Post processing is (or should be) about bring the end result closer to that emotional vision at time of capture.

But, that would make Adam's work "dishonest". He did a lot of darkroom manipulation. How is that any different?

It isn't any different which is my opinion. Others disagree. It's their opinion and their opinion, my opinion, your opinion are worth EXACTLY the same. Manipulation is manipulation. Degrees of manipulation becomes another topic.

To me, every one of the fstoppers' photo of the day is not real. It's very easy to see that the colors have been enhanced and that was not the color that was there at the time it was taken. (I'm so happy that the super-saturation trend of years ago has faded. [Pun unintended!]) I love light and color and when I take a photo and edit it on the computer, I try to get it to look EXACTLY like it was when I saw it because it was amazing and when I decided to capture that moment. My photos won't win anything here because it's too subtle for people. My photos simply don't have the POP that people think is "great". A faded, worn green to me is be more beautiful than a computer enhanced green that doesn't exist in real life.

So are black & white photos 'real'? How about long exposures? Or even photos with the use of a polarisation filter?

Everyone has artistic license to do what they want. What bothers me is enhanced photos are only accepted as the best. For example, what if no matter how good your photo is, it will never win or be praised because it's not black & white? Only b&w photos are the best, period?

" it will never win or be praised because it's not black & white? Only b&w photos are the best, period?" This line tells a story. Have you had photos in contests or shows that didn't receive awards or praise? If so, did you talk to the judge(s) about why? Judges (humans) have their biases. I've had prints in enough shows and contests to know that a shot that got you an award in one show doesn't mean that it will be awarded in another. I've also been a judge, so I know how it works. There are guidelines, but we know what we like ans what grabs our attention. Your grading of a shot may be completely different from mine. That's the way it is. The trick is, don't fret about it. If you like what you're doing, the rest is background noise.

Sure, I get all of what you're saying. Grabbing a committee's attention I guess is the source of my personal complaint. I'm just bothered that natural subtle beauty is not enough and that it HAS to be enhanced to get noticed. As I said, if you were at any of those locations at the time of the photo, it's obvious that the colors are enhanced.

If you're happy with your results, then your shots are good. Unless you're shooting for pay, other opinions are just that, their opinions. Just about all shots I see (RAW) out of camera need work. But that's my opinion.

Is film photography not real? By design/nature of the film stock, they often manipulate colors from what is "real".

The science of film has always been to recreate accurate colors. What people do with the processing and editing can be artistic. If you read closely about what I'm speaking about is the ubiquitous acceptance of false coloring as the best photography, almost without exception.

A) --- "The science of film has always been to recreate accurate colors."

By your logic, are you saying after 100 years, they still can't get it right?

B) --- "What people do with the processing and editing can be artistic."

Exactly. Then why disparage Fstoppers photos?

C) --- "If you read closely about what I'm speaking about is the ubiquitous acceptance of false coloring as the best photography, almost without exception."

I did read closely what you were speaking about. The better question is did you read closely what you wrote above on B).

D) --- "My photos won't win anything here because it's too subtle for people. My photos simply don't have the POP that people think is "great"."

I'm not trying to be mean, just keepin' it real, IMO, it's not the colors lack of POP that's the issue.

No, I'm not saying that my photos are award winners. I was just using my photos as color samples. I'm also not just harping about fstoppers, I'm just using them as an example because we're all here.

Kodachrome, Velvia, Provia, Ektachrome 64, Ektachrome 400, GAF 500, were all film stocks with radically different ways to interpret colors. Reversal films are more "honest" than negative film as negatives must be printed. Now they are digital plug ins.

No. The science of film never has been to recreate accurate colours. They all have different characteristics to cater for different tastes. Some are closer to reality than others but that's it.

Actually yes and no. The goal was/is color accuracy but having to use several layers of different color emulsions, they understood that they could never get perfect accuracy so all films goals have/had to be compromises.

All film emulsion had a purpose with some closer to natural or neutral all the way to film like VPS, more pleasing for portrait (my personal opinion is different on VPS) and a bunch of crazy emulsions and papers. With color, simple tasks such as dodging and burning from an enlarger are very difficult compared to what can be done in b&w. You get local color shifts.
Now you can extract very neutral colors from chromes like Ektachrome and Fujichrome for separation. The scanning operator has to understand very well colors, color separation and printing press process. But with a very knowledgeable press technician, cosmetic brands would get very acceptable matching colors. They would pay a lot and would have a person on site to make the final decision as they waited for the press to have run quite a few thousand impressions before making a first decision and then subsequent ones. But they did it. This is color match vs pleasing colors. My point is, if you followed the process of buying fresh legit film (definitely NOT grey market), you picked the right one for the job, used color consistent strobes for exposure and had your film processed at a very good lab with consistent bath chemicals including good stabilizer and rinse and so on, yes your colors would be very neutral. If you have something you can separate easily because every step before was done properly and intentionally, yes, you could get something very close to the original colors of an object when you put the print next to it. Velvia, Kodachrome were more art some like Kodachrome very tricky because of how the colors are developed. Nevertheless, most people liked the pop so it was mostly lack of knowledge on how to achieve neutrality. Remember, printing presses use cmyk like most digital printing devices do. Many people don't like that color space because it contains many, many less colors, but at the same time, with experience, you can get greater control and faster results.

No photographic media truly reproduces exactly as the eye sees it. Correction of color calibration either by film choice or post processing is very, very different from adding/removing items or changing the entire structure of the scene.

My responses to Charles were in reference to color cause his complaint was about color. Neither of us were talking about structure.

Christian above asked a similar question. Read my response.

I did read it. That's what D) was for in my response.

Ansel Adams said that the negative was the score and the print was the performance.
I bet today he would say the digital file is the score and the photoshopped version is the performance.

As long as it's fully disclosed in commercial contexts (influencing, endorsing products, selling prints, offering workshops) or it's a strictly private artistic pasture anything goes.

Very cool article and video Alex. Appreciate the honesty and inside look. I'm just an amateur that loves using photography as an excuse to spend time at the beach or out in nature, so I have really only "played" in Photoshop without becoming real proficient at it. For me your photo is much more landscape photography than digital art. Mixing the best elements of the same scene I think is a far cry from some of the ethereal creations we see out there that are far more art than photography.

Not sure that bringing artists from the past in this article is a plus for the author. Fact is, during film and enlargement days, very little was known at first on their techniques and attempts at altering images. That made them special and few probably cared if what they saw was totally real or not. Today it’s just plain often overdone, expected to the point that you have such tools as automated sky replacement and who knows what else in the works from Adobe and others. The charm is kind of gone despite the much higher level of possibilities the tools offer today. I think that by defending their techniques and decisions, composite landscape photographers/artists may actually irritate their peers more than help the situation. I see three levels of landscape photography. The very low level retouch, the heaver to very heavy editing and the 3D rendering. These debates are not going to go away any time soon.

I think that the key takeaway here is being transparent. I don't care whether one manipulates a photo ad nauseam. It is their art. Just be upfront and say if you replaced the sky, if you merged a photo with others, etc. The more experienced I become in photography and editing, the more I realize what we see on social media is often heavily manipulated, especially when it comes to those "dreamy" shots found nowhere in nature.

I like that some countries have started introducing laws that actually enforce this (e.g. france and norway where you have to disclose retouching).

What were the reasons for those laws?

Creating unreasonable expectations of human bodies

Is this for art or advertising? It seems like a big task.
Is disclosure required when "real" people (not model types) are in the image?
Or for example CGI backgrounds or products, or just people?

It is very interesting, how it it disclosed?

Apparently anything commercial, so influencing counts. There is an official watermark they have to use.

This is not a new thing. Back in the day the conflict was between the pictorialists and the F64 Group (try the google)

What is the point of "revealing" and "being transparent" about how a piece of art was created?
With forensic or documentary photography I see the point.
Will the photographer need to disclose that since the photo was taken with a 15mm fisheye or a 600mm lens instead of a 45-60mm lens it is now a manipulated image?
How about long exposures?

Next up: Magicians are required to reveal how the Queen of diamonds ended up in your pocket.

I too thought about the comparison to magic but I think they aren't comparable. Magic's entire premise and purpose is to fool you, where as nature/landscape photography to most people is intended to represent the beauty of nature.

Are there other artistic endeavors that require an explanation of their creative choices like
books, movies, paintings, sculpture?

My personal pet peeve is coastal images where the water in the foreground is brighter than the moody sky in the background. See it a lot. I mean, really? Where is all that light coming from??? Reminds me of the early days of HDR.

As an artist who uses photography for a medium, why does it matter? If we are trying to create art, the end product (and resulting emotional impact) should matter, not how it was achieved. For journalists, documentarians, etc., that's an important question of integrity. So - for artists, impact no matter the medium; for journalists, integrity no matter the medium. Whether my art is called photography or digital art really doesn't matter, it all starts with the camera and ends up (well, mostly in the trash) but occasionally on the wall.

It's all about how you see yourself and photography. If you're a technician then don't touch it. Leave it like it is...
If you're an artist then it a whole different story.
A picture is s work of art and you're the creator. Everything you choose to show is legitimate.

If you're not shooting on film it is digital art.

What about the print? Are prints made from scanned negatives on a large format printer also "digital art" and prints made optically from negatives and chemicals "regular art"?

What's real is what your eye says is real. Doesn't matter whose eye, understanding that not all eyes see exactly the same way, but that's the point. You have to determine what is real by your view. Taking art into play, then the universe is your pallet.