Landscape Photography Post-Processing: Do the Ends Justify the Means?

Landscape Photography Post-Processing: Do the Ends Justify the Means?

Do you ever think that some approaches to creating landscape photographs go too far? At what point do we stop and say it's too much?

Landscape photography has really changed so much in the past decade or so. Personally, it is much bigger and much more expansive nowadays than when I first came to know the genre. With all the advancements in technology both in the cameras, lenses, and other tools we use, along with advancements in post-processing software and the machines that we use, the different approaches to achieving a landscape photography masterpiece really have diversified. For sure, if you’ve been shooting landscapes for at least three years or have been learning non-stop even if you started a few months ago, you would know that the genre is not as simple as you thought it was back when you had your first spark of enthusiasm for photographing nature and its wonders.

An image originally taken at sunset edited to match the night sky

When I first started shooting landscapes, much like any other beginner in any other genre, I pushed my learning as far as I could and shot as much as I could but always kept myself mindful of some pre-imposed limits, much like how you would always pay attention to a cliff when you’re out hiking. It may be safe to assume that most beginners in photography are somehow made to believe and abide by varying degrees of purism. In the simplest sense, most of us start photography thinking that post-processing, editing, manipulating, making composites, or the ever-so-vague “Photoshopping” are against the rules of the craft, which I hope by now you’ve realized is self-contradicting.

Global Adjustments

The first stage is actually the clueless state of thinking that the JPEGs that come out of your memory card are pure and untouched. Most people overcome this quite easily when they come across a more advanced photographer who would tell them that shooting in raw is far better for their photographs. From that point, they explore the wonders of raw processing once they find the appropriate software that will actually read their raw files.

Lightroom's raw processing workflow matches the bounds of what would be accepted as global adjustments (with a few exceptions)

Global editing is, by far, the most widely accepted method for many photographers. While there was surely a time when even this was frowned upon by many, global editing has become widely accepted in the year 2020, and it may or may not be due to the wide acceptance of Instagram filters. The term simply pertains to making adjustments on the entirety of the image, such as adjusting exposure, contrast, sharpness, and color saturation. For many photo contests around the world, this is where they draw the line for qualifying photos.

Healing and Content-Aware Fill

Using the heal or "Spot Removal" tool to clean up a photo

After some time, you realize that it’s almost impossible to attain the perfect landscape photograph that you envision due to limitations of the scene. It may be because there’s a lot of clutter on the ground or a lot of people in the area that ultimately become clutter to your frame. Then you learn of the quick fix of the healing tool in your trusty Adobe Lightroom software. It does help a lot in making your photograph even more professional-looking.

Focal Adjustments

After some time, of course, you get to know one of the biggest hindrances known to landscape photographers. That irritating limitation of your expensive camera that prevents you from getting the wondrous location and the majestic sunset all in one frame, that highly overused term, “dynamic range.”

Using the graduated filter to recover details in the shadows

Cameras, on average, have about 12 to 13 stops of dynamic range, which is significantly distant from the dynamic range of human perception, which is said to be at 20 stops of light, which is why that sunset was not as beautiful or detailed in your camera as it was when you saw it in person. There is, of course, the workaround of graduated neutral density filters or exposure bracketing, but there will still be some instances where they won’t be enough. And in this situation, you may have started to accept the graduated filter, radial filter, and brush tools on your editing platform.

Personally, when I first used three tools, I only used them to boost exposure and bring out more details in the shadows. Most commonly, I used the graduated filter literally like a glass GND filter to bring out more details in the skies. Eventually, though, when you experiment more, these tools can help you fine-tune your output by working on problematic or dull areas in your frame. Using those tools with white balance adjustments, dehaze, and contrast in combination with range masks can help you inject a bit more mood and dynamism into your landscape photograph.

Exposure Blending, Focus Stacking, Sky Replacement, and Beyond

Once you have gotten past all the earlier mentioned road bumps, you realize that there’s so much more that you can do to improve your photographs. These methods are absolutely not alien to professional commercial photographers, advertising photographers, and graphic artists, but to someone who started with landscape photography without any background in it, the idea of creating an image instead of just taking it may take a bit more time to sink in. For the world in general, it took a while for these methods to be a norm because of that purist gene that we all seem to have. There was a time when the world frowned upon the thought of seeing a composite landscape image, but with a quick browse of Instagram, you would know that that time has certainly passed.

Exposure blending can be very helpful in overcoming dynamic range limitations. By simply taking two or more exposures to get the details that you want, you can, later on, achieve that perfectly balanced exposure even of the most dynamically lit situation. “Time Blending,” which you would very well know if you’re a fan of Elia Locardi’s Photographing the World tutorials, is done by taking different exposures of the same frame at different times of the day to bring out the best and most dynamic lighting for a particular part of the scene. All the photos are taken at the same location and same angle, just at separate times of the day with particular attention to lighting conditions.

A photo of rice terraces in the Ifugao Region, Philippines that I originally took six years ago under gloomy skies. I replaced with a sunset scene from a few days ago and added sun rays with Luminar Flex.

Sky replacement and making composites allow you to put two or more elements together from separate locations and time. This comes in handy when you photograph a spectacular location with different weather conditions than what you envisioned it to have. Doing this may require a bit of mastery of editing but is beginning to become easier and simpler, especially with the advancement of Skylum’s Luminar, which allows sky replacement to be done in much fewer steps than in Adobe Photoshop.

Where Do We Draw the Line?

At this point, we can’t even predict what comes next for landscape photography. But we do know is that for most of us, breaking through self-imposed limitations allowed our workflow to be more flexible and our photographs to be more expressive. It’s definitely important to keep in mind that the art of landscape photography knows no actual bounds. We photograph the world out of a desire to create images instead of just taking them. We travel thousands of miles to illustrate the world’s beauty and not just merely record it. Instead of thinking of your camera as the one that creates your images, think of it and the photos that it takes as mere strokes of a master painter's brush. Landscape photography can be as free as you want it to be and as expressive as you allow it to.

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Previous comments
Sigbjørn Revheim's picture

I think there is an influx in unnatural sky replacements lately. Dull pictures get an awsome sky, the result is unnatural looking photos which also becomes unbalanced because the sky becomes the center of attention.
For me edits are OK if the scene is looking natural.

jim hughes's picture

I'll take things out - power lines, for example - but I'd never put anything in. A bit of DR compression - highlights and shadows - is fine because that's how we perceive. But sky replacements make me gag. The light never really matches, and something in your brain knows it at a glance.

Peter Hernandez's picture

Maybe you need to publish the "rules" so we can determine what we're not supposed to do. We certainly don't want to get in trouble or anything.

Tom Reichner's picture

To me, the "rules" are simple. If you use editing software to manipulate a photo into something that does not look like real life, then just make sure that you say so when you post the photo somewhere. Make sure that you are clearly stating that it is a combination of photography and computer-generated art.

There shouldn't be any rules about what people can create - we should all be able to make whatever images we want, using any means we want to. But it is not ethical to present something in a way that leads others to think it is something it is not.

Just be open and honest and transparent and forthcoming about how the image was created, and we'll all be good with whatever you do.

Nicco Valenzuela's picture

I totally agree with you

Peter Hernandez's picture

That sounds fine, if you're a photojournalist or your audience has certain expectations. But if your a digital artist or making photo art, I nor anyone needs to provide a written explanation about anything. It's something one makes. I certainly hope you don't believe everything you see. If so, that would be very gullible.

Tom Reichner's picture

If I am viewing images on a photography forum, then it would be logical to expect those images to be photographic images, and not digital art. If someone uses a photography forum as a place to post photo art instead of pure photography, then they should note that what they are posting is not true photography.

And yes, Bub, you do need to provide written explanations about what you create.