You’ve heard it countless times: “Get it right in camera. If you compose and expose properly, your photo won’t need editing.”
That’s hogwash! Yes, a properly executed photo might not need much editing, and it’s best to avoid “rescue mission” editing sessions that try to salvage a bad image. But to think there should be no editing in landscape photography (or in any kind of photography, for that matter)? Such an approach will simply leave you with an image that is half baked.
In other words, editing matters, regardless of your photography skill.
Below, I share 10 tips for editing landscape photos, including basic advice for adjusting tones and colors, as well as more advanced tricks and techniques such as sky swapping.
Ready to take your landscape images to the next level? Let’s get started.
1. Always shoot in RAW
If you’re not shooting your images in RAW format, you can probably stop reading right here.
I once believed shooting in RAW was overrated, that it was for elitist snob photographers with high-end cameras, powerful computers, complex software, and loads of storage space. Then Adobe Lightroom came along and RAW processing became so much easier. I tried shooting and editing in RAW, and I saw what a difference it made. There were things I could do with a RAW image that simply weren’t possible with a JPEG.
So my first landscape editing tip is to always shoot your photos in RAW. Nuff said.
2. Go with the (work)flow
One of the first things they taught was the benefit of a standard workflow. I edit primarily with Adobe Lightroom Classic, so most of my references here will be geared toward that program – but if you use a different editor, the basic concepts should still apply.
Every image will differ and require additional tuning, but here are the initial steps I take with each landscape image in Lightroom:
First, make lens corrections. Always check both Remove Chromatic Aberration and Enable Profile Corrections. I have these set up in an import preset so that the adjustments are automatically applied as images are brought into Lightroom.
Then, in the Basic pulldown menu:
- Activate the shadow and highlight clipping indicators on the histogram (simply hit J on the keyboard).
- Click Auto, which often produces a good result right away. If you like what you get, Steps 3-7 may not be needed.
- Decrease the Highlights slider. Make sure to watch the histogram as you go. Make sure all highlight clipping is removed.
- Increase the Shadows slider. Again, watch the histogram and remove all shadow clipping.
- Set the White Point and the Black Point for maximum detail (in other words, ensure the tonal range reaches just to the edges of the histogram, but not over!). To do this, simply hold down the Shift key and double-click the Whites and Blacks sliders.
- Go to the Exposure slider and adjust it to taste. Continue to watch the histogram; aim to prevent any additional clipping.
- Adjust the Contrast slider to taste.
- Click each of the white balance presets (As Shot, Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Shade, Tungsten, Fluorescent, and Flash) and see if there’s an adjustment you like. You can also try the Eyedropper tool and sample a neutral gray portion of your image. If you need even finer control, go ahead and adjust the Temp and Tint sliders. Don’t get too hung up on getting a perfect white balance, however; it’s often about personal preference and achieving the look and mood you seek.
Think of these steps as a starting point to use with every photo for basic RAW processing. Unedited RAW photos will typically be flat and unappealing, and these initial steps will prepare them for further fine tuning.
3. Do a taste test
A good cook, especially when trying out a new recipe, will often taste the dish as they prepare it. They use this to determine what the dish is lacking and how they might enhance it. You can use the same approach when editing landscape photography.
After you’ve performed the basic adjustments, take a taste – that is, a look – and determine what your photo needs. Are areas too light? Too dark? Do they need more or less emphasis? Are there distractions that might be cloned out? Might a different crop help remove distractions or draw attention to your subject? Could the image use texture or clarity enhancements?
Also, remember that you can create Virtual Copies in Lightroom. Get started with an image edit – then, if you have a second idea, make a Virtual Copy and edit the versions separately. Later, you can decide which you prefer.
4. Selectively adjust the sky
So far, I’ve talked about workflow editing that could apply to any digital image. Let’s turn to adjustments more specific to landscape photography.
Landscape photos often have land in the foreground and sky at the top. Often, the sky will be much brighter than the land below, sometimes drastically so. Before the rise of certain editing tools, landscape photographers would carry a graduated neutral density filter; much like a tinted windshield on a car, GND filters were dark at the top and clear at the bottom. It was a way to even out the overall brightness of the scene so you could make an image where both the sky and the land were well exposed.
This approach worked, but it also had some drawbacks. The GND effect was fixed, so you couldn’t create a different look when editing. Plus, the line of gradation was straight across, and if objects toward the top of the frame (e.g., trees, mountains, or buildings) extended up into the darkened portion of the filter, they too would be darkened.
Enter the graduated filter tool in software. As long as you don’t blow out the highlights in your original exposure, you can use a graduated filter tool to separately darken the sky and lighten the land when editing. Then you can decide the placement and intensity of the effect while sitting in front of your computer rather than in the field.
Early on, digital graduated filters had the same limitations as the physical filter: the effect was applied in a straight line across the image and impacted objects that extended into the top of the frame. Since then, however, new options have come along that improve the gradient’s flexibility.
For instance, you can now constrain where the effect is applied by targeting a luminance or color range. Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop have these options, and other editing programs often have similar features. Sophisticated programs even permit highly targeted luminosity masking so you can carefully select where adjustments are applied.
In fact, the latest additions to Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), and Photoshop are simply mindblowing. Need to tune the sky without affecting other portions of your landscape shot? Just use the Select Sky mask in Lightroom (or ACR), and be amazed as the program masks only the sky, working around trees and other objects that might extend into the sky area. Then make your adjustments while affecting just the sky.
On the other hand, if you want to brighten up the land without affecting the sky, simply use the Select Sky mask, invert the selection (the apostrophe key ‘ is a shortcut), and – voila! – just the land will be selected for adjustment.
Also, if there’s an object in your shot that you want to adjust independently, just use the Select Subject masking option. These new AI functions will take a little practice to master, but they are well worth the effort.
5. Doing sky replacement (and other cheats)
Non-photographers might love a bluebird day without a cloud in the sky. Not us! Clouds add interest, so a cloudless day isn’t nearly as good in a landscape photo – at least, it didn’t use to be. These days, you can simply add your own sky, either from a selection of canned sky images or from a sky you’ve saved in your own personal collection.
Skylum’s Luminar was one of the first programs to popularize a simple sky replacement function, but it wasn’t long before Adobe added this to Photoshop (and did a better job, in my opinion). It’s pretty amazing stuff, and it essentially involves picking a sky, hitting OK, and watching as your image is transformed. I won’t get into the details but will briefly touch on the ethics of sky replacement.
As landscape photographers, one of the marks of skill and dedication is finding the right scene at the right time, waiting for the right light and weather, and crafting a photograph. If, instead, you build an image from parts, perhaps add a sky, birds, and hot air balloons floating over the scene, things that you didn’t even shoot yourself and that certainly weren’t present when you made the initial in-camera shot, are you really a landscape photographer? Isn’t that how Frankenstein was built: from parts?
I believe that, while it can be fun to do these kinds of images, once you become known for creating fakes, even convincing ones, you’ve crossed the line from landscape photographer to digital image creator. So long as you alert your viewer that it’s how your image was made, that might be okay. But don’t expect to earn respect from other landscape photographers if you try to pass off a counterfeit composite as the real deal and certainly don’t enter such a creation in any kind of competition. You don’t want to get branded with the “photography faker” label.
6. Dodge and burn to complexify the light
From the earliest days of image making, photographers have lightened and darkened areas of the frame to add or subtract attention. We still use the terms dodging and burning, which come from techniques for creating prints from negatives under an enlarger. Ansel Adams was a master of this and kept detailed notes.
Today, in the “digital darkroom,” we still use dodging and burning (i.e., lightening and darkening) to direct the viewer to portions of the image we want to emphasize. I mentioned that I learned Lightroom by watching Serge Ramelli tutorials, and he uses the term “complexifying the light” when discussing dodging and burning. I won’t get into the details here, but I’ve written another article on dodging and burning in Lightroom; I consider this a very important technique in landscape photography editing that will take your images to the next level.
7. How does it feel?
A good landscape photograph might show the viewer how the scene looked when you made the shot. A great landscape photo will transport the viewer into the scene, evoke emotion, create impact, and make the viewer feel what it might have been like to be there.
Some of that will happen if you can make a shot in dramatic light, catch just the right moment, and create a great composition. But the rest will happen as you edit the image. Maybe you want to make the shot warmer or cooler through white balance adjustments, or you want to sharpen or soften the details with Clarity, Dehaze, or Sharpen tools. You can also make other color adjustments and perhaps use color grading to create a mood (similar to how TV shows and movies use color grading to give a particular feel to their footage).
In certain genres of photography – especially photojournalism – the editor should never try to represent images as anything other than impartial observation. But there are no such rules in landscape photography. It’s your image; use whatever tools and techniques you want to interpret the scene and make the viewer feel what you want them to feel.
8. Try black and white
In the early days of photography, you had no choice; all landscape shots were made in black and white. Then color photography came along. If you could make landscape shots in color, why would you ever want to go back to the restrictions of monochrome? How often have you seen a black and white landscape painting?
Many landscape photographers still feel this way and rarely (if ever) make monochrome images. I personally think you’re missing out if you don’t explore monochrome landscape photography. A monochrome image takes away the extraneous stuff of color and emphasizes the “bones” of a good image: shape, form, tone, texture, light, and shadow.
For a deeper dive into why you might want to consider making your landscape images black and white, look at our article, “5 Reasons You Should Try Black and White Photography.” I’m thoroughly convinced that some landscape photographs are much better without the complexity of color.
9. Sharpen and prepare for output
The last step in editing is preparing your image for display, either for on-screen viewing or for printing. Sharpening will put the final polish on your shot. I’d advise you to learn how to do this properly, and determine how you want to sharpen depending on your intended output.
Just a quick word about sharpening: Don’t expect it to fix an out-of-focus or blurred shot. There is no fix for those issues (though Photoshop claims to have some digital solutions).
I would instead encourage you to always make your landscape photos from a tripod unless you have a very good reason not to. If you decide to go handheld, be sure you have a sufficient shutter speed to prevent any motion blur. Editing landscape photography should always be about enhancing a good image, not fixing a bad one.
10. Pixel blindness and second opinions
It’s not unusual for dedicated landscape photo editors to spend hours fine-tuning a photo to get everything just right. Sure, some shots might just take a few clicks (and there are photographers who hate editing in general), and there are also programs that tout how quickly you can edit images with their presets or special AI-enhanced tools – but there are also people who microwave instant meals and are satisfied, yet I wouldn’t call them gourmet chefs.
I still believe that all good things take time and that craftspeople don’t take shortcuts. That said, if you spend an extended amount of time editing a photo, you may develop what some call pixel blindness. Don’t worry – this is not a permanent physical condition – but after a while, you may become desensitized to what you’ve done to the photo and wind up taking it too far (creating an overcooked result).
The best way to avoid this problem is to take a break and step away from the computer screen. Give your eyes and brain a rest. Later, when you come back, you can view your shot with new eyes. Often, you may say, “Whoa! I’ve taken that way too far!”
The beauty of non-destructive editing is that you can always back off sliders and bring the image down a few notches. It’s all too easy to oversaturate a sunset, apply too much clarity and get halos around edges, or go a little nuts with HDR. Coming back to a shot after a break may reveal these things.
Also, learn to use the Before\After view in Lightroom as you work. Another good option is to take Lightroom Snapshots along the way. You can then step back to a previous stage of your edit if you don’t like what you’ve done.
Finally, when you think you’re done with your image, get a second opinion. Bring in someone else – someone who hasn’t seen the unedited shot – and show them what you’ve created. Ask their opinion. Does your edited landscape image look correct? Natural? Is it oversaturated? What is the first thing they notice? How does the image make them feel?
You may want the opinion of a non-photographer who only views the image for what it is, as well as a review of your technique by a skilled photographer and editor whose opinion you respect. Regardless, never offer your own comment or explanation when handing over the photo. Good photographs need to speak for themselves. Just listen.
Then consider their comments and decide if you need to go back and rework something. Be receptive to feedback. Sure, the photo is your baby, and no one likes being told their baby isn’t as beautiful as they think. But you’re biased, so it’s good to get the unvarnished truth sometimes, even when it hurts.
Editing landscape photography: final words
There is no right way to edit landscape images, but these tips may help guide you in your journey. What I love most about photography, whether shooting or editing, is that there is no end to the learning.
“Which of my photographs is my favorite? The one I’m going to take tomorrow.”Imogen Cunningham
So make great landscape photos and take them to the next level with editing!
Now over to you:
Which of these editing tips is your favorite? Which do you plan to use on your landscape photos? Share your thoughts in the comments below!