The Power of Post-processing for Landscape Photography

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Embracing the power of creative post-processing can transform your landscape photography from dull and lifeless, to lustrous and vibrant overnight!

We’re acutely aware that the preceding statement reads suspiciously like the voiceover script for a ‘next generation, nano-organic hair care’ commercial, but it’s true – digital post-processing can be a transcendent experience for your landscape images.

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Sunset over the Mount Egmont from Wai-iti Beach, Taranaki Coast, New Zealand (by Sarah). Post-processing doesn’t always have to be complex to be effective. This image has received some basic adjustments to color, contrast and exposure to enhance its visual impact.

Why we need to post-process our landscape images

In the days of film photography we never performed any post-processing on our landscape images. Doing so entailed spending a small fortune on drum scanning and knowing someone with access to a supercomputer. Most landscape photographers were restricted to capturing everything in-camera and living with the results.

That state of affairs meant we needed to make decisions in the field that had permanent repercussions;

  • Which film stock and ISO to use?
  • Which color filters to apply?
  • How to achieve perfect exposure?

It is likely fair to assume that, for most dPS readers, film photography is either a distant memory or something that needs to be looked up on Wikipedia. We digital landscape photographers can gleefully wallow in the knowledge that RAW image capture and robust digital workflow allows us to make most of these decisions from the comfort of an office chair well after the time of capture.

The problem with RAW capture is that it usually produces really, really bland and unappealing images straight from camera. If you want to maximize the visual impact and creative options contained within a RAW file you need to post-process your images. It’s that simple.

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Sunset at Gentle Annie Beach (by Todd) West Coast, South Island New Zealand. This scene has all the ingredients of a successful landscape image, interesting visual elements, motion, and a nice blend of textures throughout the scene. However, the RAW file delivers an image that is bland, cold and lacking in contrast. Some simple post-processing of a single image file in Adobe Lightroom has resulted in an image that is visually inviting and makes the most of the tonal and color data contained within the image file.

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Lake Matheson and the Southern Alps at dawn (by Todd). Three distinctly different results were achieved from this one (bleak looking) RAW file! Long gone are the days where your creativity is restrained by in-camera results.

Two types of post-processing

In our latest dPS eBook Loving Landscapes – a guide to landscape photography workflow and post-production we break down landscape photography post-production into two distinct approaches:

  • Single exposure post-processing
  • Multiple-exposure post-processing

Let’s take a quick look at these two different approaches enhancing landscape photos.

Single exposure post-processing

As you will have figured from the name, this approach creates the finished image by processing a single image file. This is primarily accomplished within Lightroom and is the simplest approach to post-processing – if you read our first eBook, Living Landscapes, you will know that we love simplicity, particularly when it comes to post-processing!

We always attempt to capture a scene in a single file if possible, as it reduces the time spent in front of a computer and introduces less technical barriers to creativity than are found in multiple exposure post-processing.

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Lake Alexandrina (by Sarah). Single exposure landscape photography offers huge creative scope. Combining in-camera single exposure techniques such as long exposure with post-processing (black & white conversion) can create results that are stunning.

Multiple exposure post-processing

Occasionally it is impossible, for technical or creative reasons, to achieve the desired result with a single image file. Cue multiple exposure workflow – where the final image results from processing and merging elements from two or more image files. Multiple exposure landscape photography is a significantly more complex approach – both in the field and during the post-processing workflow. We use a combination of Lightroom and Photoshop to combine multiple images into a single final result.

One of the most common uses of multiple-exposure post-processing for landscape photography is exposure blending – where two or more exposures are combined to overcome high dynamic range in a scene.

4 exposure blending

The dynamic range of this high contrast scene (image above) exceeded the camera’s capabilities. Exposure blending allowed us to create a technically excellent result from two exposures. We detail three different approaches to exposure blending landscape scenes (including the making of this image) in Loving Landscapes.

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Misty sunrise at Castle Hill (By Sarah). HDR is another multiple exposure post-processing approach that resolves technical limitations as well as offering creative options.

In addition to providing solutions to technical challenges, multiple exposure landscape photography allows creative options that are simply impossible to achieve in a single frame. A good example of this is the merging of ‘best elements’ from multiple shots of the same scene taken at different times. This allows us to composite different elements together to create an image that exceeds the results achievable in a single exposure.

6 best elements

Lake Pukaki (by Todd), merging best elements in this scene allowed us to combine the best sun starburst and clouds, with the most dramatic waves and shoreline from the field sequence (of over 20 images). Covering the sun in another frame also allowed us to minimize the appearance of lens flare on the cliff face.

Give it a go!

Post-processing opens up a world of creative opportunities that allow you to better express your vision of the world around you. The technology is there, it is easy to use and the results can be spectacular – why wouldn’t you want to post-process your images?

Post-processing may seem a little overwhelming at first – and it can be – but you don’t require an art school diploma to start making dramatic improvements to your images. Our oft repeated advice is to keep it simple when you are starting out. Take the time to learn about the post-processing tools that affect the fundamental variables of photography: color, exposure and contrast and your images will improve dramatically.

Once you have those mastered, start experimenting with more complex tasks in Lightroom’s wonderfully non-destructive editing environment (there is nothing that can’t be undone in Lightroom) before transitioning to the more complex realm of multiple exposure Photoshop.

We hope that this has been of interest to you and we look forward to your feedback in the comments section.

*Note: photo-puritans can still experience some of the old school ‘thrill’ of making a finished image in-camera by shooting in JPEG-only mode. All of the color, tone and quality decisions can be set by messing around in the bowels of your camera menu. These settings are then baked into the finished JPEG, leaving much less scope for post-processing than with RAW capture. Why anyone would choose to do this deliberately is unclear – apparently, some folks love a challenge.


Check out the newest dPS ebook – Loving Landscapes A guide to landscape photography workflow and post-production – a brand new dPS ebook by the authors of Living Landscapes

Read more from our Post Production category

Todd Sisson along with his wife and partner Sarah Sisson, have been photographing together professionally since 2001. Landscape photography is Todd and Sarah’s first love, and since 2007 this has been the sole focus of their business. They are the authors of the top selling dPS eBook Living Landscapes and have just released its companion Loving Landscapes – a guide to landscape photography workflow and post-production. Their work can be viewed at: sisson.co.nz

  • Tod Davis

    I find this article really condescending towards anyone who either still choses to use film or like the minimise post processing.

  • Thanks for commenting Tod.

    I’m not sure how my enthusiasm for post-processing my RAW files can be construed as condescending. It’s a personal choice – like whether to paint your new house or just leave it primer-coated – you can do what you want with your images.

    I would be missing out on a lot of creative fun by eschewing post-processing. If you choose not to do so that’s entirely your choice – I don’t judge that as good bad or otherwise.

  • AliNoorani

    Amazing article
    Thank you

  • Barb

    I find the in-camera adherents far more condescending and rude about those of us who enjoy post-processing than the other way around, Tod. There is room for both.

  • I started with film, decades ago. My first published shot was a work of around 14 hours in the darkroom and with both slideclamp and stripclamp offset merging. From thereon out I never spent less than three hours in post, I used the characteristics of specific film as a means to change the image, I used the usual dodges and burns, specdrop, everything a darkroom has to offer.

    When digital finally rolled around enough for me to make the switch nothing changed. We all process. Ansel Adams spent weeks on his Moonrise, developing it over and over, using acids and softeners, even experimenting with honey as a gel on project. Processing is not the antichrist, it’s not even bad. Some people don’t process, and that’s cool. Some process, and that’s cool, too.

    Processing happens the very second your mirror flips up. Your choice of film, your creative decisions on lighting and framing, are all part of the processing of light and structure.

  • leereed

    As someone who used film for many years, I don’t see the problem. In many ways, RAW processing gives us many of the same tools we used to use in the darkroom plus a couple extra. That doesn’t mean it’s a replacement for film. There are many days I wish I still owned a good film camera. But, as I say, the new technology allows us many of the same tools with the added bonus of being a lot more forgiving.
    If I have a criticism of this article it is that most of the images look over-processed. Ansel Adams, in speaking of his polarizing filter, used to say, “I turn it until it looks good, then I back off a little bit.” Clearly he understood the power of subtlety, a lesson missed by most HDR aficionados. That being said, I am willing to give you the benefit of the doubt in assuming that the images you have chosen were used because they did a great job of illustrating the before/after differences you wanted to show rather than being something you would present to a paying customer.

  • Suresh Kumar R

    Dear Todd,

    Very nice article and good illustrations. I think post processing isn’t that bad but as you said its a creative edge to everyone who would like add some additional creativity to his/her photos. I am very comfortable in post processing especially landscapes even little hesitant for portraits. Article came out nicely. I was looking at your two books ‘living and loving landscapes’ they are fantastic. Keep up good job….

  • Amaryllis

    Amazing articles and amazing shots, too. I don’t live anywhere near lakes and oceans so I can’t take that kind of shots, but I love post-processing about just as much as I love taking the shot itself. I believe that post-processing is kind of the equivalent of spending time in a dark room in the era of film and you must at least appreciate it a little to really take photographs and not just snapshots. I do respect people who don’t post-process, mind you, but most of the time when I see people shooting straight in JPG I just don’t like the colors of their photos, even with the camera applying a few settings to them. But that’s just me, I know there are people who can take great shots without post-processing, but I couldn’t live without LightRoom and the fun of tweaking every setting to perfection.

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    excellent

  • tarak

    This isn’t cool man. This dude’s written a cool article and you’ve spammed it with yours. ????? ?????????? ???? ????

  • Grace Fon

    Nice article, Todd. Thanks for sharing your knowledge 🙂

  • Kathy Sandlin

    Just wandering what you do to finish after blending? I mean some say delete layer or just flatten it?

  • freeopinions

    And particularly so when they obviously don’t understand that they are not the ones producing the “SOOC” image; rather some Japanese software engineer has made all the technical decisions for them…

  • Anne Greening

    Your mention of the decisions we had to make in the field in the days of film photography, made me giggle. I was given my first camera in 1946 – a second-hand Kodak Box Brownie. The only decision to be made was which way to point the camera. It had only one control – the shutter release – and had no lens at all (merely a pinhole through which the photo was taken). As to film stock; one bought what was available in the shop. I still have photo’s which I took with it.

  • Daniel M

    If you don’t know how to post process, don’t look down on those who can/are willing to learn… have you ever been in a dark room?

  • BGenie

    I’ve been on the fence about learning to process photos myself, or just continuing to let my camera do it. One of the reasons is because I see so many badly over-processed shots out there that it’s nauseating. Also, I like the shots I get from my camera.

    Like Todd Davis and leereed, I also strive for a realistic look… which I find hard to do in-camera (especially with sunsets) so I have been thinking that I have to process the shot to get something close to
    reality.

    This article shows me that I have more options than what my camera can give. Just because I ‘like’ the shot, does not mean I ‘love’ it. Just because my camera captured the scene as it was happening; does not mean the capture is realistic or artistic. So I guess I am no longer on the fence… it’s time for me to learn some PP.

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