Should You Manipulate Your Landscape Images?

Should You Manipulate Your Landscape Images?

Photo editing software has granted us powers that were beyond our imaginations a little over a decade ago. No matter how much try to "fix it in post" though, bad light is bad light — let me elaborate.

I'd like to preface this with saying that I don't have any issue heavy manipulation of an image, nor with compositing, as long as the creator is up front about it. Why do I think they should be honest about how they came to their final image? Bear with me — I'll get to that in a bit.

How Much Editing is Too Much?

This can be quite a touchy subject and peoples' opinions vary wildly, but let me try to make it simple — it depends on the intended audience. Is it for an advert? If that's the case then — depending on the brief and resources of the client — they might be using an agency to hire a retoucher. Said retoucher could be told to throw the handle after the hatchet and turn the sky black and the mountains tartan. Or, are you documenting an area for a newspaper? Then, most likely, very little editing beyond contrast adjustments is called for. Now that I've outlined the extremes, I'd like to get to the areas that most of us can relate to.

Despite the above paragraph, all of this can apply as much to amateurs as it does to professionals. So if you're an amateur or hobbyist, stay with me for a while — I think you'll find this valuable. 

I think I pushed this as far as I was willing to go. That light was spectacular. Settings: 70mm, 20sec, f/10, ISO 100

Photographic Style

I think it's safe to say that most of us are continuously trying out different ways of photographing landscapes. Once we discover a new technique or style of editing we enjoy, we stick with it for a while until we:

a) Settle into a groove that potentially turns into a distinctive style.

b) Get bored and move on to the next sub-genre or style that grabs our attention.

c) Maybe we realize that we just need to get better (Note: we should always be looking to improve.)

d) All of the above.

If you answered "d", then you haven't been paying attention because that wasn't a question. But yeah, it's usually a combination of all those, unless you're in a unique position like e.g. being famous for photographing black and white, minimalist landscapes. Personally, I feel like I don't have a distinctive style. Maybe I need to evolve — I don't really know. The only real way for anyone or progress or evolve is to shoot more often while studying other artists' work. 

You can push and pull a photo so far in Photoshop these days that the final image looks nothing like what you actually captured. Sure, you could just stay inside and improve your post-processing skills to become a photo retoucher. That certainly is a realistic career path and a fine way to spend your time. However, the reason that most landscape photographers gravitate towards this genre is because of an appreciation for nature and enjoyment of the outdoors.

Nurture Your Nature

Now you know that you don't fancy sitting in front of a screen most of the time in order to create what you want, maybe it's time to look at what you have an aptitude for, or just explore some possibilities. Again this is where studying photographers and artists that you appreciate can help the most. You'll soon notice that all the best photographers have two crucial things in common: they understand what good light is and they know how to make the most of it. Coming in at a close third is subject matter.

Go to any big-name landscape photographer's portfolio and you won't see a clear sky in sight apart from maybe some astro shots. And for good reason. Clouds, and the weather they signify, are key components of mood. Once you understand that, and the effects of the angle of the sun, then you're half way there. You can't force nature to become interesting in Photoshop — at least not in a realistic way. You need to understand it and work with it.

Examples of Nature at Work and Image Manipulation

This spotlight drifted across the beach, only to illuminate the Irish Coast Guard building for less than ten seconds. Without that small break in the clouds, the shot would be dull and boring. Settings: 45mm, 1/100sec, f/8, ISO 100

For about an hour before and after this shot, the light on beach below was either dull and flat or it wasn't falling on any points of interest. There is no way to recreate this moment using Lightroom or Photoshop. No matter what post-processing method I could try, the image without this spotlight will look uninteresting. 

Now, some Photoshop magician could add the milky way to the background and create a fake high tide with a long exposure for the water, but that's a different skill and end-goal altogether. Nothing wrong with that, it's just not my thing, but I do think that it's important to be up-front about it because this is a real place. The Milky Way does not appear over this village from this angle, so in my opinion, it would be a dishonest representation of the subject. I don't even consider my self a purist — the above image has spent plenty of time in Photoshop — but as landscape photographers I believe that it's incumbent upon us to be ambassadors, not just for the environments we photograph, but for nature in general. Whether we intend to or not, we have the ability to affect public opinion and to shape the knowledge of the viewer. Being anything but honest in our approach would be a disservice to everyone, including ourselves.  

To prove that I'm not a purist:

In the above comparison, I loved the light on the fulmar as it glided past the cliff-face. This was about the only shot I could get in focus though, and I really wanted to do something with it. The composition of the before image is way off balance so, using Photoshop, I moved the bird to the center of the frame.

When I posted the image to social media I was sure to include how I had manipulated it in my description. Nobody would have noticed, and yet, I would have known. Even though I had been up-front about it, I still kind of felt like I was cheating. Incidentally, it must be noted that most wildlife photography competitions would prohibit this kind of manipulation, so be sure to go over the rules before submitting anything. 

At the end of the day though, I like the image, and that's what's most important to me. But I'll continue to strive for the perfect composition because it's challenging and exciting. There's nothing quite like nailing a shot in-camera.

You do You

Art is art, and I don't want to take away from all the different creators that are inspired be nature — whether it's the purist who refuses to shoot black and white unless they suffer from achromatopsia color-blindness, or the digital artist who turns rivers into tiny, swirling cottages or something. We all have our own ways of looking at the world and all can be celebrated for the beautiful manics that we are.


What's your view of photo manipulation? Have I gone too far with my editing in some of my own examples here? Let's have a discussion below.

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Steven Gotz's picture

My task, as I see it, is to show in my photographs the image that I saw when I was admiring the view. The end result, with any luck at all, is that people would want to visit the exact same spot.

That said, the camera cannot capture everything my eyes can. And perhaps more important, the camera cannot capture the emotions I was feeling. Therefore, it is incumbent on me to present the image that best represents what I saw in my minds eye, not just my physical eyes.

I prefer to shoot my own skies to use when the ones I see in my photos are insufficient to the task. That said, I suppose that I am not above using some that were taken by others when I have not yet had the opportunity to get anything similar in my portfolio. I just have not found the need quite yet and hope to never get to that point. I shoot skies whenever I see anything interesting just to plan ahead.

What I do not want to do is change the image to the point where if someone is standing in the same spot at the same time of day in the same season, they will not at least recognize that it is the same spot. Clouds or no clouds, everything else remains completely recognizable.

Unless, I intend to composite or change things around for the fun of it, or to take artistic license. I just don't do that much, but I like to leave my options open.

Ed C's picture

Whew I was worried the site was going to go a full month without posting something about ethics of editing.

Matt Coppage's picture

Do what fits your artistic style and makes you happy. I try to keep my final images as close to what my eyes saw and brain processed, though I see no problem in removing people, birds, imperfections, etc. to make it happen. After all, my brain didn't process the imperfections in the sand when I was there. It looks better and less distracting with the random footprint, twig, etc. removed. The masters made edits in the dark room, just as we make edits in Lightroom and Photoshop.

With that said, I don't care for images that are obviously overprocessed, have skies replaced, or manipulated to the point where it would be impossible to go to the same location and see it in a similar way. To the average viewer, it seems realistic, but those of us who have some experience can see through it. I find it tacky.

But... you do you...

David Mullen's picture

I agree! A lot of this comes down to taste, which is personal. But I prefer landscapes that don't feel overly "constructed" with post-processing. I've seen some amazing landscape photos cheapened with fake lens flares or fake sunlight streaming through clouds.

Egidio Leitao's picture

Great article, Mike. I wish all Instagram users would post two shots for every photo they feature: the first would be the RAW file and the second the final edit. I believe we get into this discussion of what "emotion" we had and what our "eyes saw" when we made the photo with the final result after post processing. I think we confuse what we photograph with what we would like all conditions (light, weather, etc.) to have been. I have been guilty of replacing a sky twice, and I know that after seeing those results and the public reaction, I will likely go that way again. I do explain in my post that what people see is a composite. There is also another angle I often hear when I see people explaining their post processing edits. I see a lot of "the RAW file is flat" and I only "made adjustments to what my eyes saw." Really? With recent advances in AI software, I think that the issue of ethics in photography will only get blurrier.

Scott Kiekbusch's picture

The majority of the featured landscape shots on this site look like mystical HDR fairy wonderlands 🤮so I'm assuming that the answer is absolutely, 100% YES, manipulation is encouraged

Michael Rapp's picture

You might want to include "Moonrise over Hernandez" - straight print vs Adam's interpretation.
Also, it all comes down to intent: documentary vs. impressionalism, for instance. And since all in art is fair game, use whatever means you have to satisfy your intent. (but not for sake of showing off your arsenal of gear or Photoshop skills).
My 2 cents, your mileage may vary. It being art, after all... 😁

Jon Kellett's picture

You're never going to please everybody, so shouldn't pay too much attention to the negativity that is so rampant amongst photographers.

Interesting article, but it was written by a photographer for photographers. This brings me to a question: Who is your audience and what is their preference/taste?

Photographers seem to be (mostly) grouped into two dogmatic camps a) no additions/removals and b) whatever fulfills your vision. We as photographers tend to stick to our viewpoints and experiences, not spending enough time thinking about our audience or exploring other viewpoints. Why should a photographer who sees themselves as an artist restrict themselves to one binary viewpoint? If you're an artist, why not use whatever tools are needed to portray your vision?

Why should you feel the need to advise what edits were done? If the context is conceptual, advising of edits is superfluous and a distraction. If the context is of a non-documentary image and the edits are immaterial to the veracity of the image *as a whole*, then drawing ones attention to the edits is also a distraction that introduces doubt. The second context still has no intrinsic call to note what edits were made (it's not a documentary), rather the call is implicit to how we approach our work - A sense of honesty and responsibility, but I do wonder why there has to be that divide, that carry over from the first context being distasteful to so many photographers.

I chose those two contexts to create a binary division, but so doing was entirely arbitrary - As is the whole discussion on what "edits" are and are not acceptable. It comes down to who is your audience and what do they want, when it comes to determining what is and is not acceptable.

On a more personal note, I've never engaged in substantial shopping of an image but that was more due to a lack of vision and photoshop skill rather than a dogmatic viewpoint and I see as much value in a conceptual or collage workpiece as I do a "basic edits only" piece. My own dogmatism is that you need to have captured each component yourself for it to be a photo rather than an illustration - An arbitrary viewpoint that satisfies my own sensibilities.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Hmmm...."Should You Manipulate Your Landscape Images"? I wonder where this question is leading? If someone does - what does it mean or say...about the image and/or person? Before even asking this question maybe the author should ask himself this...'how long did it take Ansel Adams to edit (manipulate) Moonrise Over Hernandez'? Or any other of his works, or any other of the great Master's works. After he answers that question, then ask yourself this - 'do I really need to ask this question'? Come on now....what the hell is up with this kind of a question? As for me....on digital I manipulate bare minimum and try to do most everything in-camera. For film....I do not manipulate anything. When comes the time when I do - I will make it known for the photo(s). Now....what does that say about me and any of my prints? In comparison with, say, Ansel Adams or Robert Ketchum, etc. Who manipulate a hell of a lot more than me? Oh...I see. That's why they are Masters. Any and everyone out there has the potential of becoming a Master. Regardless of whether you 'manipulate' or not.