10 ingredients of great landscape photos part 6 - post processing
Updated: Jul 20
Welcome to the third installment of my new series where I introduce you to my guide to 'The ten ingredients of great landscape photos'. I hope that over this series I will be able to bring you some insight on how you can learn from my experiences and take some practical steps to improve your landscape photography.
Did you miss the previous editions of this series? If so, you can find them here:
The chart below summarises what I believe to be the ten main ingredients that go into making a great landscape photo. In this edition, we look at the importance of post processing to creating great landscape photos.
But isn't post processing 'cheating'?
I hear this comment quite frequently, and it always makes me chuckle. I even had one gentleman who got in touch about training, but when he found out I post-processed my images, and didn’t use them ‘straight from the camera’ he said he would look elsewhere for training. So, before we get into how to post-process images, let’s look at the reasons why the comment about post-processing being cheating makes me chuckle…
Reason 1: Your camera does not see the world the same way as your eyes.
If you are indoors on a sunny day and look out of a window, your eyes will clearly see all of the detail in the bright sky outside, but will also see all of the detail in the shadows inside of the room. If you point your camera at the same scene, it will struggle to capture the bright sky outside and the dark shadows inside at the same time. The reason for this is that your eyes are amazing and can deal with around 20 ‘stops’ of light (where each stop of light is a halving or a doubling of light). However, even the best camera can only ‘see’ around 15 stops of light. So, in simple terms, your camera does not ‘see’ the world the same as you, and therefore an image straight out of the camera would not look the same as what you see with your eyes.
Therefore, in order to deal with high contrast situations such as looking out of a window, or viewing a sunrise or sunset (where parts of the scene are very bright and some are very dark), what I will do is to take multiple exposures (also called ‘brackets’) which ensure that I capture all of the detail in the bright areas, and all of the detail in the darker areas. I will then post process these and combine them to produce an image which has a High Dynamic Range (HDR). In this case, all that I am doing through post processing is attempting to reproduce what you are already seeing with your eyes!
Reason 2: Images straight out of your camera are already post-processed!
If you take a photo on any camera or phone and it’s set to produce jpeg images (see my discussion about the merits of RAW versus Jpeg format) then this means that your photos are already being post-processed by your camera or phone! After capturing the image, your camera or phone will apply some basic corrections to make them immediately usable. These corrections depend on the camera, and sometimes the settings you have chosen, but they generally include a range of changes to boost colours and contrast in order to make images more visually pleasing. As the software differs between cameras, an identical shot taken with different cameras will all look different.
In addition to basic corrections, in high contrast scenes, many camera phones will actually capture multiple exposures (brackets) and combine them to produce an HDR image and simply show you the final result. So, saying that taking a photo straight from the camera is unprocessed, is actually factually incorrect! In my case, I shoot RAW format images which are basically the raw data straight out of the camera sensor. However, this does not mean that it looks exactly like what you saw with your eye, and is often lacking contrast. I then post process the Raw file to achieve the look and feel that I want, and then output a jpeg file for display purposes, rather than leaving it to the camera or phone software.
Reason 3: Landscape photography is an art form, not photo journalism
My final reason to dispute that post processing is ‘cheating’ is that landscape photography isn’t photojournalism, but is instead an art form which is used by many photographers as a creative outlet. In photojournalism, it is generally expected that images show the real world, exactly as we see it with our eyes. With landscape photography, the photographer is trying to tell a story about a place and a moment in time. If that means they want to post-process their image in a certain way, then that’s up to them. I tend to call my post processing style ‘nature + 10%’ in that I take the best of what nature has to offer and boost it a small amount (for example boosting sunrise colours by a little). If you scroll through Instagram, you will find some photographers who use much more extreme post processing, to the extent that photos can look completely unreal; personally, I don’t like this, but it’s prerogative to do it that way, and if I don’t like it I can just scroll on by!
For post processing, Raw is better than Jpeg
If you are planning to start post processing your photos, then I strongly encourage you to set your camera to shoot RAW format images rather than Jpegs. The reason for this is that processing RAW files gives you a lot more scope to improve them than is the case with Jpegs. In essence this is because in creating the smaller file size Jpeg your camera has already thrown away lots of data, and this makes post-processing more difficult (such as retrieving detail in shadow areas). See this blog post for a full discussion on RAW versus Jpeg.
Software options for post processing
As a professional photographer, I use Adobe’s excellent Lightroom software for most of my post processing, and sometimes Adobe Photoshop, which come as a package costing £10 per month. As I use them almost every day, this is good value for money, however for many beginner photographers, this may not be the case. Although I can’t claim to have personally tried most of the alternative software packages out there, a few options along with likely costs are listed below. Most are available for Windows and MacOS, and most have versions for mobile as well as desktop.
Skylum Luminar £8 per month
ON1 Photo Raw £80 one off fee
DXO Photolab £199 one off fee
Apple Photos FREE (on Mac)
Microsoft Photos App FREE (on Windows)
Post-processing is a key ingredient for great landscape photos
Hopefully I’ve convinced you that post-processing isn’t ‘cheating’ and is in fact a key ingredient for producing great photos. The practicalities of how to use Lightroom are too much for this brief blog, so instead I will show you in pictures just how much difference post-processing can make. Below are two photos; the first is the RAW (straight out of the camera) photo. You will note that as mentioned earlier, this RAW photo doesn’t look much like what you would have expected to see with your eyes (e.g. there is no real detail visible in the sky). The second photo is the finished article after editing in Adobe Lightroom, which incidentally looks much closer to what I actually saw with my eyes!
Want a learn more about my ten ingredients?
I now use this model of landscape photography to shape my Devon photography training courses, and my courses consistently get fabulous reviews on Google. So if you're a beginner photographer who is local to East Devon and want to learn the art of landscape photography, check out my range of local photography courses. Alternatively why not make a weekend break of it and attend one of my residential photography workshops - either my beginners landscape photography masterclass for those starting out in photography, or my intermediate photography masterclass for those who already understand the basics and want more practical help progressing their landscape photography.