Inside the Mind of a (Former) Purist Landscape Photographer

Inside the Mind of a (Former) Purist Landscape Photographer

How far should you actually go in post-processing a landscape photograph?

Now, more than ever, there are so many ways to aesthetically improve a landscape photo. Many landscape photographers say that the process of producing a near-perfect landscape photograph is often under-estimated and under-appreciated. With the challenges presented by the location, the weather condition, and the limitations of the gear that you use, producing a masterfully done landscape photograph indeed is much harder than it looks.

A couple of days ago, Elia Locardi announced the release of his “Epic Sunsets sky pack”, a library of beautiful photographs of skies that can be utilized royalty-free by any photographer for them to use on their own images through sky replacement. The process of which is one of the things that Skylum’s post processing software, Luminar 4, is best known for. This announcement, however, wasn’t received very well by some of Locardi’s followers for an obvious and well-debated reason.

Does Replacing the Sky Make You Less of a Photographer?

A lot of opinions were thrown around in Locardi’s Instagram post and don’t get me wrong, as I have labeled them as opinion, I believe that they are all (well, most) valid. To many landscape photographers, the purist idea of keeping their images true to a single exposure, or at least accurate to what was present during the time of the exposure can be considered sacred. To others, any method is valid in order to produce the output that they envision. The backbone of this never-ending debate is obviously due to a difference in opinion and inability to acknowledge and respect that difference. So, let’s explore the two sides of the coin.

Should Landscape Photography Be Accurate?

I personally have heard many people ask such a question and most purists seem to be imposing and adhering to something similar. For them, the craft of landscape photography mostly lies on the act of capturing a scene and depends mostly on “getting it right in-camera”. The goal of getting things right upon the moment of exposure mainly stems from the general aversion towards editing or post-processing. This frame of mind may be coming from a pre-programmed notion that editing is some sort of cheating and that having to edit your photos makes you a mediocre photographer.

I think it may be true for most photographers that we all somehow went through a phase when heavy editing and even combining two photos into one image felt so taboo. For a hobbyist landscape photographer, especially one who is very passionate about going to different locations, being there at the right time to, being able to have everything in it’s perfect place, and capturing that scene of perfection, the idea of making heavy and abrupt adjustments to a photo might seem over-the-top and against their own personal art-ethics.

Personally, I must admit that for a good fraction of my journey as a landscape photographer, I made constant effort to veer away from heavy post-processing. For quite some time, I wouldn’t even entertain the thought of learning how to create composites or even a simple sky replacement. But then again, that might just be lazy old me making excuses.

When Reality Hinders Vision

It was when I started doing professional work as an architecture and real estate photographer that I opened my mind to learning heavier editing and compositing. In the above-mentioned Instagram post, many photographers who disliked the thought of sky replacements argued that doing such editing isn’t photography anymore but is instead digital art. I admit, I would have to agree that such is digital art simply because I believe that photography is part of a much more expansive scope of digital art.

Looking back, I think that the younger version of myself wouldn’t have thought that doing heavy editing and manipulation would be instrumental to my success as a photographer. By “success”, I mean both being able to render my vision into an image that others can perceive, and also being able to produce the kind of images that my clients pay me to create.

This was created through a composite of two images, taken a few minutes apart but facing different directions to put subtle sky elements where an empty blue sky was.

Photography is a non-stop learning process. The technology behind image-making is ever-evolving both on the side of the camera and on the side of the post-processing platforms. There comes a time in the journey of a photographer wherein more than technical know-how, they must focus on expanding their vision and learning to overcome a multitude of challenges that they only encounter through time and experience. In the recent years I made the decision to let go of the self-imposed limitations I put on my art and instead learn every way possible to get past the limitations of producing an image. These limitations may be due to unfavorable environmental conditions, unforeseen obstacles, overlooked details, or technical hindrances in the gear that I use.

This image was created through a time lapse series that had to be combined later on to put together each of the sky elements

Because of the things that I decided to learn in order to produce the images that my work requires me to, specifically the things that I had to learn to do to be able to create images expected of me by my clients, I realized that being a capable architectural photographer also enabled me to become a more expressive landscape photographer. Any landscape photographer would agree that they photograph a place and a scene not to record or document what it looks like, but actually to express themselves and share the images that they envision. More than to be able to show a certain place at a certain time, a landscape photographer aims to stimulate the senses and evoke emotion through the images that they take. Probably because of a lot of shooting experiences, or a lot of inspiration, my vision as a landscape photographer sometimes can not be satisfied by what’s taken with a single exposure and being open to a wider variety of methods allows me to be more successful in turning my vision into a photograph.

Personal Preference

A composite image with the foreground taken at dusk and the sky taken at midnight

It all boils down to what you prefer for your own art. And yes, I do mean to call your photography art because it is and your ability to create that art should not be hindered by anyone else. The reality is that no matter how many people argue with you online, it is only your personal belief and preference that matters. What’s important is that you also believe that to be true for anyone else and respect it. Personally, I almost never keep myself from doing what is necessary to create the image that I envision, however I would see to it that all of the images and elements I use on my composites and sky-replaced images were taken by and rightfully owned by me. But if the need arises in one of my projects to use stock sky images such as the ones accessible on Luminar 4, I would consider it for the sake of my work. In the end, the most essential part of this equation would be transparency. There is nothing wrong with post processing, nothing wrong with composites and sky replacement, nothing wrong with stock images, for as long as there's no deception and lying involved.

Nicco Valenzuela's picture

Nicco Valenzuela is a photographer from Quezon City, Philippines. Nicco shoots skyscrapers and cityscapes professionally as an architectural photographer and Landscape and travel photographs as a hobby.

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I've always thought a lot of the debate comes from both sides having to shoot under the same umbrella term. I lean more towards the non-purists camp, but if I were a purist working hard on creating an image worthy of landscape competitions with strict regulations on what can and cannot be done to an image, I'd be irritated too. You've waited for between hours and months for the right coalescing of light and conditions for your composition and someone comes along and just replaces the sky and heavily edits the light. I don't have a vested interest in either camp, but both shooting under "landscape" (and non-purists likely not wanting to be called digital artists) muddies the water. Anyway, great article, Nicco.

You're right. And I do believe that all the labelling makes things complicated. Nowadays, I even hesitate to call myself a landscape photographer simply because I've been so focused with architecture work. These labels only hinder us and aren't vital to our craft. If we didn't have these labels and just went along shooting and producing the images we love, everyone would focus on what's important. Thanks Robert! :)

I totally agree. I think there's a reason though why the idea of compartmentalizing these terms has not taken hold with the non-purists. They want to be seen as photographers by their peers and the public because the public's trust in photography being representative of an actual moment is critical to the shock factor in a photographic image.

Whenever, I see or hear this debate, I think that people really need to go back and study the history of photography. First of all, when a picture is snapped it represents a second or less of recorded time. Everything in the environment is always changing especially the light because it is in constant motion (without opening up another boring discussion, the climate changes as well). Reality itself is arguably debatable. I have been on photo shoots with several photographers less than 6 feet apart shooting the same scene yet coming out with completely different images. As master photographer Alister Benn has challenged on these pages, what if 5 people went out and described a scene by writing an interpretation, would we be having a discussion about which description is real? Manipulation has been around for as long as the craft itself has existed. Photographers retouched negatives and prints to achieve a certain result like moving wrinkles from grandma's face. Is that real? Then there were pictorialist photographers like Aubrey Bodine of the Baltimore Sun who, in the 1940s and 1950s, produced photographs by cutting negatives into pieces and then creating masks to combine them into one image in the darkroom (see: Digital photography of course made this easier with software tools. I think that a landscape photographer has wide latitude in terms of expression. The real test is whether the image is an expression of vision that adds to the body of work in the field by employing creative composition. That is ultimately for the beholder to determine.

on point!

Just because there is a sliding scale, doesn't mean there is a simple truth there, too. Yes, there is always artistic vision at play and there is no absolute "reference" reality that we can point to. But there still is a different between: Going to a spot and taking a picture vs. taking the picture, making the night a day, planting elephants in the middle and photoshopping a meteor crushing on the planet in the background.

Speaking as a viewer: I am only interested in landscape photographs that intended to capture the scene as it were. Yes, that can mean many things and there are indeed gray areas, I would have to think about case-by-case. But I guess in essence it means that all the elements in the photograph were actually present at the time. The sky, the foreground, the background. Basically it comes down to this: When I see a landscape photograph I like to think that this moment existed. I would like to have been there and experienced that moment as well. If that hadn't been possible because the sky etc. wasn't like that at this moment, I feel lied to. And I don't like it.

Like I said, the beholder in the final analysis gets to decide. Think about this. When a painter shows a scene of a given area, we would never question the elements. They often show light rays emanating from a direction where they could not have come. The painter may even show elephants where they could not have been. We wouldn’t question it. However, if a picture is captured on a little mechanical box, the rules change. As a viewer, you have full license to accept or reject the artist’s vision. Because the viewer is the ultimate arbiter, there is no need to restrict the imagination of the artist.

Again, just speaking as a viewer (everybody can of course do whatever they want):

I agree with what you said about painters but for me there is a difference between a painting and photograph. With a painting it is usually obvious what it is - it doesn't proclaim to be something, that it is not. But when I see for instance a photograph of the Savanna, I as a viewer assume that all the animals, plants etc. were actually there.

For me that is the allure and value of photography: To show us how the world really is and can be. When I see an epic photo of a Lion hunting a Buffalo, I expect this scene to have really happened. If somebody told me afterwards that the animals were 100% digital fabrications it would completely devalue the photo. It would be kitsch. No, even worse, because it wouldn't be true.

It's like going to a restaurant, ordering an amazing dish and then finding out that half the food is made out of plastic.

Having said that, of course photography and digital art could be blended and used in what I would consider to be an honest way. For instance a science fiction writer could use heavily edited photographs to portray an alien landscape or something.

Well, your base assumption is that a camera is only a recording device. Its purpose is to only record a scene in terms of reality. Also, I own many paintings, and it is not always obvious what it is. The painter takes artistic license to imagine things that could not have been. You use digital fabrication. If you saw my earlier post, I showed that photographers made "fabrications" long before digital. Aubrey Bodine, a wonderful photographer in the mid twentieth Century would photograph moons and then cut the negative and mask them into scenes in a direction that any geographer could show the moon could not have been. So, manipulation is not new and did not start with digital technology. Did you know that courts of law would not allow photographs as evidence without showing chain of custody? In other words an attorney would have to document each process from click of shutter, to development of the negative, to the making of the final print. This was done to ensure that nothing was manipulated. Why? Photographers retouched and changed things even in the early 1900s. Great discussion. I think we've reached the point of departure unless you care to have the final word... Cheers to you!

Just wanted to say that I believe your first sentence, the base assumption being that a camera is only a recording device is 100% true. The camera records what is in front of it when the shutter clicks - anything that happens afterwards to the image captured (even by the cameras own software) changes that recording if you like. I don't have feelings one way or the other on editing, compositing, post processing, whatever creates the image the photographer/artist wants is fine by me but I did like that first sentence even though I know you mean it more as a question than statement :)

Locardi trashed his well-earned reputation as a great landscape and cityscape photographer when he accepted the dollars from Skylum.

I’ve just had a scan through and can only see him blocking one person who literally said I’m just here to troll

Yeah, it’s true. I wanted to create an open forum but that guy even admitted he was their to troll, which kind of goes against the unsaid rules of trolling. 😂

And I do love the comments saying that I’ve trashed my “well-earned” career by working with Skylum. I mean, come on, how dare you continue to be paid for your craft! It’s so despicable that you earn a living!

Even if you go that route with the comments, I never tell anyone that they MUST replace skies. And I’ve also never been less than transparent with my own work that has always embraced a high level of post processing and blending anyway. But this, lol, providing a product that isn’t mandatory for anyone to use, I mean, clearly I’ve gone too far! 😆

Keep up the great work Elia, whilst im not interested in sky replacement (just my personal opinion) i do take a lot of notice of your other content and have learnt a lot of editing skills from watching your videos and reading your articles. And as you say its up to people to decide themselves what they want to do, for such a positive pastime there is a ridiculous amount of negativity in photography, largely centred around internet comments and camera equipment/brands, makes me wonder if these people are following the right hobby.

I appreciate that! And though I've never thought about it that way, I totally agree. Maybe photography isn't the right hobby for these people. I feel like true artists and photographers would rather lift each other up and celebrate the diversity that exists in each genre. If you only get angry about it, maybe it's not the right thing for you after all. I guess the positive in all of this is that the negative comments seem to only be about 1% of the total.

If you look at sky replacement specifically too, the other techniques around how masking and dodge/burn works to compliment it can be taken on board and utilised outside of just that technique, so whilst im not a fan of the sky replacement i appreciate the stuff that can be learnt from it. Like you say the negativity just doesnt fall in line with what Art/Creativity is all about.

Yeah, true. I think in order to improve our own work, we should be studying everything - even things we don't necessarily agree with or create ourselves. In knowledge, there is power and for me, it boils down to a passionate love for the arts, and how all the arts chance with technology and time.

Elia, it would be fun to chat with you on my podcast about this topic. I mean, the comments about "selling out" seem valid to a lot of people that don't earn a full-time living in the photographic community and it could be an opportunity to try to dispel that.

If you sacrifice the intention to capture reality, there won't be any future for photography at all. Just like Google street photo captures every street, soon every landscape will be captured in great detail. You don't have to travel anymore, you just visit a location online, take the data and tell the A.I.: "Okay, let's crop here, adjust perspective, make it look like it's raining with an epic rainbow and place a few hot virtual girls right over there."


Photographers abandoning reality are even worse than those giving away their work for free.

I’m not into these sky replacements etc... there are so many effects that can be achieved by using the sky that is presented in front of you, not every single shot has to have a stunning colourful sunset, ultra dramatic clouds or Milky Way.

It is however up to the individual what they do.

That's true. Not everything has to be spectacular and extravagant when it comes to the sky. Simplicity and minimalism also speaks volumes.

I don't shoot any landscape and I have no interest in it. I consider landscape as a "natural" form of photography where the photographer chase the situation rather than create it. I think the manipulated landscapes are more of a commercial and advertising form of photography. I don't mind maximizing RAW extractions from one frame, but I start wondering if those manipulators truly think their images don't look artificial no matter the quality of the work. Probably they don't care and I get that but most composites don't attract me. By having to doubt those who refer themselves as landscape photographers, well I can see why authentic work that's done to great extend and careful planning can lose value to the eye of the general public.
If I was selling fish and decided to sell cows I would change my business name from fishery to cattle farming. For some reason, it looks like Locardi has moved on, admits the technical changes but want some kind of continuity from his past. My view.

I like that analogy.

For me, it comes down to a decision as to whether one is an artist or a documenter. As I see it, an artist gives himself a license to "interpret" a scene, while a documenter captures a scene as it is. As for me, I prefer to capture a scene as it really is, without "artistic interpretation". To simplify, it's "wishful thinking" vs empirical evidentiary. I have no problem with noise reduction and minor clean-up. Similarly, I have no problem with correcting horizons to be level and perspective corrections. In my world, it's all about credibility - does the scene depicted accurately represent the situation or not? Could anyone walking by see the same colors that are shown in the photo? Do what you feel good about, but be ready to defend your choices. YMMV...

Artist or documenter -- sounds like a straightforward divide. But it isn't. Every photograph taken is the result of many choices, each of which affects the photograph in a different way. When you choose a focal length, aperture, and shutter speed, you change how the final image will look even without any editing. When you choose black and white or color rendition and when you choose what the frame includes or excludes, you limit and thereby alter what another person might see in the same place and time. When you use any camera, you are representing reality unrealistically because of physics and biology. The camera lens and sensor do not function the same as human eyes. A camera doesn't have the same sensitivity, color space, dynamic range and more as eyes. But that's OK. Photography isn't and never was about replicating reality.

Or maybe theres really no need to defend your choices. Unless photography is done in journalistic nature or a photo is submitted for a contest or job that has clear cut rules about it, photography should be a free exercise for the artist. However, when one lies about thier methods when asked, that's a totally differebt thing.

This debate is a lot like the one on “doping” in sports. You could simply substitute all terms from “heavy editing” to “purist” with the corresponding sports terms.

The reasons I don't like too much post processing are that people look at the "spectacular" false colors, then go out into nature and go, "eh, so what?" It gives people the mindset that nature is boring and that the "ordinary" is not worth observing. The art of subtlety is dying fast. Bam! Bang! Wow! is the only thing that seems to matter any more and I think that's sad and tragic.

Large projects with teams involved are the only ones that I don't have an issue with because the weather does not always cooperate and the real conditions may not fit the narrative. It costs money, time, and with conflicting schedules, the shoot may not happen again. That plus the client has a deadline.

Landscapes on the other hand are about capturing and enjoying a moment. If my eyes did not see it, I will not print it. It's cheating plain and simple; it makes it so the real photos have a hard time competing against the fakes. It is like steroids in sports, just because it happens doesn't mean it should.

Does it have to be seen as a competition though? If you see photography the way painters see their craft, interpretation and perception vary greatly but no painter would call the other a cheater.

But a painting is not a photo. Obviously everybody can do whatever the hell they want but to me it's like this: When I see a painting it usually (unless it is meant to be "photorealistic") comes entirely from the personal reality of the painter. It makes clear, what it is. Even if there are real people or events depicted, the way of creation itself makes it clear, that it is entirely subjective if you will.

But a photo is fundamentally different. The process of taking a photo does capture light that is there and putting it out as data. You can take any modern camera and if the settings and scene are the same, they will produce basically identical outputs (save for small variances in exposure, dynamic range and colors). That's a fact.

Now just as the viewer of the painting knows that everything is from the hand of the painter, the viewer of the photograph rightfully assumes, that it was created by a camera. I don't say this do diminish the artistic value of photography but just to illustrate that there is a difference. The artistic part comes from a different place in photography.

So when I as a viewer see a photograph my assumption is, that what is see is what a camera normally could capture. It's not black and white and there is a sliding scale. But when I see a photo with a lion put in, where there was none (or a sky, or moon or tree or whatever) and then afterwards I am told: "Well, there wasn't really a lion", I do feel lied to. Part of the allure of photography is precisely that it can show us how the world can be. I like to imagine "this beautiful or ugly person really exists". Or "I could visit that place and see that with my own eyes". Again, yes there are fringe cases (like I can't see the milky way with my eyes but I still think it's okay to do astrophotography). But there is a simple truth in photos, that I am more interested in that any "photo digital art".

The word "purist" is a putdown - it's basically dismissing a point of view. How about "realist"?

You have a point

I also prefer to see unedited photos and on my tiny instagram account I only upload jpegs straight from camera(s). if anyone interested: @uneditedphoto,

Sky replacements are cheating lol. If you just need a shot for an ad or something go ahead and make it fancy, but landscape should be about the actual landscape, not what you think it should be. It's so much more gratifying to capture that magical picture in camera than in photoshop.

I agree with the 2nd part, getting out more increases the chances of capturing that magic moment and thats what makes it special. It also avoids over saturation of amazing shots by meaning photographers have to work harder to get that portfolio shot.

Not quite sure it would avoid over saturation. Some people over saturate out of preference and it doesnt matter if it's a single exposure or a composite.

I didn’t mean over saturation of colour, I meant an over saturation of these outrageous looking shots on social sites... as in there are far too many of them, whereas if amazing shots were only able to be taken when it was actually an amazing scene there would be less of them and they would hold more value.

Oh my bad. Yeah you're right. However I think a bigger challenge would be not getting over saturated by half naked people on instagram always taking over the travel/nature tab. Lol

Hahahaha too true.

If the project will push me to do sky replacement. Why not? If my vision is better enhanced by altering part of the image, I will do it.
Now, if your work requires you to show “reality”, common sense dictates you should avoid it. Simple!

Landscape Photographer or Visual Artist, it doesnt matter. People are just obsessed with labels.

Landscape photography use to mean you had to leave your house to capture a image.Now you don’t have to venture outside.I prefer the outdoors.

Also how can you say you took the photo when the Sky belongs to someone else.LOL

Well if it was taken by someone else, you shouldnt say its yours. You have to disclose that especially if it's for work.

I do not agree with a single word.

Remember this?

And now you want us to believe that replacing a sky in a photo is still photography?

I keep on singing stupid summer hits (made with syntetizers and recorded voices) all summer long but I don't consider them art and I forget the song already in September.

Wait a minute here, you gotta be fair since this isn't a 1-1 comparison. McCurry was passing off manipulated work as factual documentation. If he would've labeled it as "altered," there would be no controversy. Similarly, when an architectural photographer drops a sky in the background of his real estate photos, does that mean that he's no longer a photographer?

Whoever takes a picture and replaces a sky, is not playing photography any longer. Call it illustration, call it digital art, but it's not photography any longer.

I have no problems in admiring a pic of a building with a fake sky on an architectural magazine as long as (1) the subject is the building and not the photographic skills and (2) it's explicitly stated. But don't even try to sell me an expensive fine art print of landscape with a fake sky.

Hear, hear!!!

I don't understand if you agree or disagree :-)

Too much time and energy has been spent on labels. But I guess that's just how the world works. Personally, I would use any tool to achieve the desired end result. Be it a paid gig or personal work.

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