Editing Gently: 3 Tips for Processing Realistic Landscape Photos

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A well-processed photograph should be just like a good haircut. That’s one of my favorite analogies when it comes to explaining my approach to editing my own photographs. Not only does it confuse people and make them think I’m weird but it is also incredibly accurate when it comes to processing realistic landscape photographs.

What I mean is that when an image is well-processed the viewer will know something has been changed while not being overly apparent and in the end, they like what they see. Just like a good haircut.

sand dunes - Editing Gently: 3 Tips for Processing Realistic Landscape Photos

Before we get further into this, I want to go on record and say that in my opinion there is no “correct” way to process any photograph. So the tips you’re about to learn here come from my own creative tastes and style for landscapes which lean towards an “enhanced” realism but solidly anchored in reality nonetheless.

Now, let’s talk about some ways you can give your landscapes a good haircut and push your processing right up to the boundaries of realism without tipping over the edge.

#1 – Directional Light

Photography is all about light and in landscape photography, 99% of the time the only light source in your compositions will be the sun, or in some cases the moon, which is just reflected sunlight (science).

Sunlight comes from that big ball of fire in the sky and that makes it very directional by nature. Meaning, your main light source for your photographs comes from one spot. When you process your landscape images it’s very important to pay attention to the direction from which the natural light is falling in the image.

The reason for this is because there’s nothing more telling that a photo has been blatantly over-processed than sunlight appearing to miraculously illuminate the frame from different directions. This is especially true when the sunlight is close to the horizon in the early morning or late afternoon. Have a look at the photo below.

zion canyon - Editing Gently: 3 Tips for Processing Realistic Landscape Photos

Notice how the light comes in from the right of the frame and illuminates the tops of mountains? Yet the foreground is in shadow and so are the areas where the sun is blocked by the cliffs.

When processing a photo with such stark lighting as this be mindful that you don’t create overly artificial light where it shouldn’t be. Sure, bring up those dark areas but don’t go too far as I have with this example (below).

zion bad edit - Editing Gently: 3 Tips for Processing Realistic Landscape Photos

See how “off” the lighting is now? Sure, it’s not terrible but there is bright illumination in areas that should be in shadow on the right. There is no longer a natural feeling gradient to the light as it falls on the foreground.

Let’s look at a more harmonious example of the same photo that has been processed to work with the direction of the available light.

zion good edit - Editing Gently: 3 Tips for Processing Realistic Landscape Photos

In this example, the entire photo feels much more comfortable without having bright spots, uneven shadows, or that odd appearance in the first version.

Most of the editing you’ll do to selectively adjust the luminance of landscapes will be done with local adjustment tools like the gradient filters and adjustment brush. We’ll get into using local adjustments in a moment but first, let’s talk about another aspect of landscape processing that can truly ruin any great photo if you’re not careful.

#2 – Match Color Tones in Reflections

Walking hand in hand alongside working with directional light is how you manage reflections in your landscapes. More specifically, matching reflections in water is a little detail that can make or break a convincing landscape photo.

So often I see reflections in water which are either too bright or too dark or perhaps more noticeable, reflections which do not match (or reasonably approximate) the color tone of the light which it is literally reflecting. Have a look at this. I’ve warmed the sky in this image somewhat from its original blue hour cool tone.

yosemite sky - Editing Gently: 3 Tips for Processing Realistic Landscape Photos

Notice how the light reflecting from the river also carries a hint of the orange color from the sky? Not too much but just enough to add some realism. This is because I intentionally warmed the color of the water a wee bit in order to be more harmonious with the warmed sky. If I had not, we would have something of a tonal mutant on our hands…

yosemite cool water - Editing Gently: 3 Tips for Processing Realistic Landscape Photos

Notice how the color tones in the water don’t match the sky and overall scene here?

When it comes to working with your reflections the name of the game is remembering that the light reflecting in the water comes from the sky…usually. So it should also carry some of the same attributes of that light in terms of luminance and color.

Of course, the type of water plays a role in skewing this a bit but just use good judgment and keep in mind that the reflection should almost always carry a hint of whatever color the ambient light brings to the scene.

#3 – Make Realistic Local Adjustments

I’ve talked about how much I love using local adjustments in other dPS articles. I’m admittedly a radial filter junky and the majority of my photos carry some use of either the gradient or radial filter and adjustment brush edits, often times all three. When it comes to making edits using any of these tools it’s important to know how NOT to use them.

My old friend the gradient filter comes into play quite a bit when processing realistic landscape photos to even out bright skies and for illuminating dark foregrounds. What’s more, used with the radial filter and local adjustment brush, it can work wonders.

good adjustments filters yosemite - Editing Gently: 3 Tips for Processing Realistic Landscape Photos

Good adjustments using the filters in Lightroom.

Or it can look absolutely horrifying when used poorly.

Yosemite - Editing Gently: 3 Tips for Processing Realistic Landscape Photos

Bad use of a graduated filter in editing.

The same is true for its circular counterpart, the radial filter. This little gem works beautifully for applying custom vignettes and brightening (or darkening) areas or for adding in a host of other great adjustments to your photos. However, much like the gradient filter, it can be easily blundered.

saguaro cactus bad edit - Editing Gently: 3 Tips for Processing Realistic Landscape Photos

Bad edit with a radial filter in Lightroom.

The local adjustment brush also carries the same caveats. Few things make a picture look worse than the application of a “finger-paint” local adjustment brush. Actually, it gives finger-painting a bad name.

death valley - Editing Gently: 3 Tips for Processing Realistic Landscape Photos

The key to making effective and realistic local adjustments in any photograph comes down to remembering a few important guidelines:

  • Less is usually more. Local adjustments are just that, local. So when applying them remember that they will become more and more apparent when you use them to make drastic edits.
  • Feathering is your friend. Whether it’s the radial or gradient filters or event the adjustment brush, most times you will want to apply your adjustments gradually with very soft borders which blend well with the surrounding pixels. Set your feathering all the way to 100 and then if you need a harder edge for more defined work back it off from there.
  • Don’t be afraid to stack adjustments. When done judiciously, many local adjustments can be applied one over the other. For example, you might use three graduated filters each with a varying color temperature to give the sky a creamy color tone or multiple radial filters to layer out an exposure adjustment.

Final Thoughts

Landscape photography is a long-loved standby in the photography world. It is also one of the most ethereal and easily mismanaged types of photography when post-processing is done unconvincingly.

There are so many aspects of processing realistic landscape photos and most go beyond simply moving a few adjustment sliders around. In fact, I think of my landscapes as more of an exercise in digital painting than as simply editing a picture.

Whatever your persuasion may be in terms of how much you choose to make edit, having a solid basis in reality is a great jumping off point for making a dynamite landscape.

zion - Editing Gently: 3 Tips for Processing Realistic Landscape Photos

Remember, pay close attention to the direction of the light in your frame and make sure that the rest of your edits stay somewhat true to the natural lighting already present.

The same goes for reflections. Make sure the light reflecting from surfaces like water looks like it came from the ambient light source even if that light source has been changed by you. And lastly, don’t mess up the endgame but applying freakishly obvious local adjustments.

Always remember, there are no rules for processing a landscape photograph but there are ways you can make sure your photos stay true not only to your visualized outcome but also to the natural splendor from whence they were born. Yes, I used “whence” in a sentence.

Happy editing!

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Adam Welch is a full-time photomaker, author, adventurer, educator, and self-professed bacon addict. You can usually find him on some distant trail making photographs or at his computer writing about all the elegant madness that is photography. Follow his blog over at aphotographist.com or pick up his new book Lightroom Mastery: A Complete Guide to Working in Lightroom Classic CC

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