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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37 Comments

David Pavlich's picture

I'm pretty sure most of us have our own idea of what it just right. Certainly, what I think is terrific might make others choke. As with any art, each of us define it in different ways.

My limits are things like replacing the sky or adding objects like the Moon or birds or Ferrari Daytonas. :-) However, I don't condemn those that do add/replace. I use ND filters. Some like the look, others don't. It is the way of things. ;-)

Nicco Valenzuela's picture

My point exactly. I believe that as long as youre able express yourself with your photos and that your preferences aren't hindered by an external factor then you are free.

Paul Clark's picture

This is the life long debate isn't it? Probably as many differing opinions about this as there are photographers. My opinion is that photography is art. You start with a photograph and what you end up with is photographic artwork. An artful interpretation of what the artist (photographer wants to convey or how they want you to feel) The only place I would say that manipulation is not valid is journalistic and editorial work. Those things should be true to life in the way the images are portrayed.

Marc Bee's picture

I think anything goes as long as you are honest with yourself and your viewers about what you've created. Is it photography? Is it a conceptual photo-illustration? is it fine art? If the majority of your audience agrees with how you characterize your work, there's probably nothing to worry about.

Nicco Valenzuela's picture

You're right! Especially on being honest with yourself :)

Tom Reichner's picture

To be honest, I find a lot of the landscape photos here on F-stoppers to be far too "cooked" with post-processing. When a scene no longer looks like it did in real life but looks like a painting or graphic art instead of a photograph, then that, in my opinion, is going beyond photography and becomes a blend of photography and graphic art.

Sadly, these unrealistic "artworks" are often the photos that receive the highest praise and the highest scores here on F-stoppers. This makes me wonder if this is really a pure photography site, or if it is geared more toward those who use other mediums and mix them in with photography.

I guess it comes down to whether we want to produce photographs, or photo art. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with photo art, but I don't think it belongs on a photography website, where it is mixed in with "real" photographs.

Stephen Peck's picture

I agree with you Tom "Sadly, these unrealistic "artworks" are often the photos that receive the highest praise and the highest scores here on F-stoppers."

Matt Williams's picture

Agreed entirely. But I don't blame these people because those are the photos that sell. People want to hang those.

I personally try to achieve the most natural color and tonality I can - which is significantly more difficult than it may seem to some. But the results are rarely appreciated in the same way. I'll certainly do long exposures for motion blur - like say a river or waterfall - or focus stack, or composite, but pumping saturation and pulling everything toward the middle (shadows way up, highlights down - I guess this is what is strangely referred to as "HDR") isn't for me.

David Pavlich's picture

I sell prints and I'm here to tell you that the buying public does, indeed, like a 'highly polished' landscape and will outsell the 'purist' landscapes by a wide margin. It's not making one or the other correct, it's just saying what the average person likes hanging in their homes and offices.

One thing for sure, very few of my prints have been purchased by experienced photographers and the few that have have been of wildlife, not landscapes.

Ed C's picture

Art gets to be what the artist wants it to be. With that said the whole Instagram fueled trend to just take the easy road and crank up saturation far beyond reality and far beyond what could ever be printed well is too much to me. Fstoppers promotes an awful lot of over-saturated Sci-Fi like edits IMO.

Rhonald Rose's picture

For me its reasonable boosting of colors, cropping and that's it. But, everyones got their taste.

Mark Doiron's picture

What separates photography from painting? It's that the creator can more accurately capture the emotions of the moment in photography. Yes, heavy editing on a computer sitting at your office sipping a glass of wine you may be able to create more commercially successful, perfect pictures. But the .jpg shooter is challenging himself as an artist, too. That's the great thing about shooting digital vs film: Instant feedback of your emotions at the moment you feel them.

A couple other random, but related thoughts:

1. Very few photographers wish to spend more time editing their photos. Most lament the lack of time to shoot photos. So, reduce the editing and become better at expressing your emotions when you press that shutter release.

2. Computer photography software is becoming so good that within a few years the user will take an image and tell (yes, verbally) the computer, "Make this look like an Ansel Adams shot." And, voila, a perfect shot from a mediocre original. I can't wait to hear you defenders of over-cooked photos protesting, "But that's not really photography!", while these new photographers respond, "But even Ansel Adams' dodged and burned."

Jørn Tv's picture

Great article. I think the bigger discussion isn't what should be considered too much editing or not, but how it is presented. I don't know how many super moon photos I have seen on Instagram where the compositing is so obviously fake, yet the comments reflect that people think it's real - and that travelling to those places will give the same experience. I even once saw someone stating "composite" in the description, yet someone commented "I can't believe this is real!". Most people don't know what a composite is apparently, and that should in my opinion put more responsibility on people publishing edited photos to state any misconceptions about what is being shown. If you are selling a heavily edited photo as art, go ahead. If you edit a photo beyond what is real and use it to advertise a travel destination, not good...

Nicco Valenzuela's picture

You're absolutely right. It's not entirely the fault of the photographer but probably because most people are programmed to think that what they see in photographs depict reality unless told otherwise. But yeah, because of that maybe photographers should take it upon themselve to put disclaimers of some sort just assuming that their viewers don't know what a composite is.

Ian Lagac's picture

On point. This debate (editing boundaries in landscape photos) exists because purists (both photographers and viewers/consumers) feel misled by landscape photos that may seem to pass off the image of a place/scene as "real" without any disclaimer that they have been heavily edited. As photographers, and as in all art, we don't have much control over how our images will be interpreted (and maybe that's the beauty of it) so it would be helpful to take it upon us to put a disclaimer or something and guide untrained eyes into the reality that the place/seen may look slightly different in real life.

Tamon Yanagimoto's picture

I really enjoyed this article. My editing in LR stops at focal point adjustments and I do almost all of my processing work on my IPad Pro. While I like to learn about all of the advanced techniques I am fine not to use them.

Jeff Sampson's picture

I still revere the " perfect original photo " that the photographer spent the time & effort to take at the exact right second - no matter how many days or trips to get. I have nothing but disdain for the lazy button pusher that decided " close enough I'll fix it on the computer"! Every photo altered should have a disclaimer displayed in the corner as part of the button pusher's logo.

Salvador Avila's picture

Maybe i am an old fashion one; but in my personal opinion, this kind of images are not photographs, this art , because it is , its more on the area of computer skils, photography are the write of the light, create the light ratios, stay in the right moment in the right place, wait with extreme cold or heat until the moment match the perfect conditions of the light , set the camera , and shoot, otherwise , you may never be in the place that shows in your image.

Jakub Valovič's picture

Couldn't agree more - I like to call it 'digital visual art'. Sadly, these are what general public buy, so...

George Phillis's picture

I have been a professional most of my life,and am accomplished in three different fields, however being a photographer is not one of them. I am an amateur photographer.I have traveled the world and enjoyed taking photos of landscapes, people, structures and geological features for at least two decades. I have spent hours trying to get that perfect shot in a certain setting/situation. I've never attempted to sell any photos although I've had people ask to buy some of them. I have learned about "tweaking" in just the last few years. I have to say I feel as if I'm "cheating" when I "tweak" a photo. When I "tweak" a photo it then becomes a photo I have "fixed". I've learned how to make a photo look perfect, or at minimum something different but it's only because I've used a program to do it. Yes, it does require skill and artistic ability to get that "just right" look, however I guess I'm a purist. I take much more pride when someone looks at one of my photos and likes it rather than the one I've "tweaked." I understand those who do it to sell their photos because that's what the public is buying. However as some on this thread have suggested, there should be a label or section somewhere for the "electronically enhanced" photo. I have great admiration for the photographer, who through their skills in photography produce a beautiful photo. That's photography. Of course it requires a good eye and a good photo to start with when massaging a photo into "perfection"....that is art....in my opinion.

Salvador Avila's picture

I totally Agree,... it must be a section or a warning , that show that the image you see it is "fixed" or has been added other elements ,...once i saw an image perfectly exposed of a sunset with cabin in the field , my wife said its really beautiful , I said , yes but it was not captured in the earth , i explain her , this image was made in a planet where there are 2 suns , i can see the sun that sets in the horizon and i can see the shadows of the tree created by the second sun , both in a extreme position one from the other.

Ed Sanford's picture

None of this is new. Folks need to go back and study photographic history. Newsflash! Photography did not start with digital. In the 1940s and 1950s, many talented photographers manipulated landscapes with manual techniques. The great photographer, Aubrey Bodine, of the Baltimore Sun used masks and cut negatives to place moons and other objects where they could not have been. He staged what were otherwise street scenes with workers and actors to achieve "his vision" of what things should be. There were other artists that airbrushed photographs or re-touched negatives. It's all easier today with digital. Challenges to photographic evidence in courts occurred before digital technology came into being because there was recognition that there could be manipulation. So, where do you draw the line? Well, if a paint artist painted a landscape and placed the sun in a position where it would never be, there would be no questions. So, it depends upon the intent of the photograph. Maybe there can be no lines or boundaries drawn in art... In photojournalism, I think the answer may be different.

Salvador Avila's picture

well,... of course everything has an improvement , music, its not the same, drawing its not the same , my kids draw in a Wacon CIntiq , but i push them to learn to draw in a paper and pencils ; painting its not the same, now, only a few know The Theory of Colour that the oil and water coluor painters must to know for setting up the colour palette, manipulating the electronic files is an art , nobody says no. I am a teacher in a local art school, my class is portrait, nobody wants to learn that the position of the speed light in your camera is H6V3, they dont care ,... so if they do not have a light , they say , i can add the light in photoshop and can make the colour temperature in postproduction. the new generation are the ones who will do the things with the less possible effort. I set all the lights up with the exactly amount of power, if i have to use 3 , 4 , or 5 monolights to lit a headshoot, i do , i choose the colour temperature of each one, and i shoot like there was not photoshop ! I went to a workshop with very famous young photographer , and i saw the the light set up , he never use a light-meter , when i ask , he said he use the "eyemeter" from the 8 hour of the workshop he spend 2 hours explaining the lighting and shooting, everybody shoot , and take 6 hours in post production , after the "class" i see the files in my home , the light is poor , no lighting ratios , high ISO in order to get a DOF , and all the young photographer follow his instructions. so i came to one conclusion now its better to know photoshop that work in the capture of the image in the camera. some of the young generation they do not use manual settings while shooting.
the same happens with the books ( writting) , with the food you eat in the fines restaurants , even the wine, the new generation of wines are made for you to drink it in no more than a year, the bottles doesnt have Cork,
I am a old fashion , I know ! and I shoot like that !

Ed Sanford's picture

Your points are correct. Nevertheless, that was not the question that I was answering. The question was one about pushing boundaries. You are speaking about learning the craft. I couldn’t agree more with you. Yes, we should learn the craft in the same manner as the great masters. Once we learn how to use all of the tools, we have a right to express creativity. However, as you say, we must learn all of the tools. Peace to you.

Nicco Valenzuela's picture

You make so much sense, Ed. We have a right to express creatively. I don't know why some people like imposing limits on other people's work simply because it isn't as tedious or complicated as how people used to do it. And yes, i believe no one ever questioned a landscape painter with inaccurate placement of elements. We photograph the landscape to express and interpret and not merely to record.

Lorri Adams's picture

I took a fascinating free course a few years ago - https://www.coursera.org/learn/film-images - The Camera Never Lies. Photo manipulation has been going on since day dot, and will no doubt continue. This course was absolutely amazing, Emmett Sullivan a great tutor.

Celso Mollo's picture

I personally can not afford to go to the same place 20 times just to get the right conditions like many other landscape photographers, therefore I do replace the sky if I feel that it is appropriate or if I want to create some type of image that fits and express my feelings about it.
Art is subjective and I am not a photojournalist so I am ok with creating images. That said most of my images have no sky replacement or anything added to it but I would do it if I feel like it.
I draw the line when people make their images worse by doing it.

Nicco Valenzuela's picture

I feel exactly the same way.

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