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 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
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.