Is This Real Landscape Photography?

When does landscape photography become digital art? In this article, I address the long-standing debate in the community about purism versus artistic expression while showing you my own image from start to finish.

A lot of people have a line that once you manipulate an image to some degree it becomes digital art or many years ago darkroom art. Some people have such strong opinions on this that you can often find very aggressive comments claiming that someone is not a landscape photographer if they do certain things to their images. It’s not healthy for the community, and while I’m not here to change your opinions or move your line in the sand. My hope is to push for a better community and stop the access control that seems to exist in the space.

The image

This is the last edited image I want you to look at pixel-perfect. What is real? What is manipulated? Can you determine which parts were made in the montage and which parts existed in nature? These are questions I ask myself when looking at the work of others. Sometimes it can show how magical a moment was, or it can accentuate how good someone is in a montage. Sit with this image in your mind for a while. Have you seen this and thought it was: beautiful, majestic, fake, exaggerated, photoshopped, over saturated, balanced, realistic or unrealistic? What emotions did the image evoke in you before you knew how it was created?

These are the images I used to make this image. How do you feel now? Does seeing where this image started change your opinion of me as a photographer? I have personally had the experience of meeting people captivated by the images I show them, but as soon as I show them the images that come out of my camera, it’s as if their opinion of me deflates. I find myself explaining that images straight from the camera are flat and lack any color or detail of a scene in real life. I know I’m not alone in this experience, and it can be frustrating as an artist. This is further compounded by the constant scrutiny you might encounter when sharing your work online.

If you want a breakdown of the entire edit and my thought process behind every mix and manipulation, be sure to watch the video at the top of the article.

Photography or digital art?

The accessibility we have to digitally manipulate and create believable images is greater than ever. Add to that the fact that many of us as artists are driven to create images that keep people scrolling on social media to engage. These two factors are where this topic gets interesting. I’ve heard stories of people who have attended workshops and come away disappointed because they didn’t come away with images they thought they were getting, not because of the lackluster conditions or landscapes, but simply because that they hadn’t realized how much the host had manipulated their images.

As a photographer, I feel it is my moral duty to remind people of the realities of my work. I do this in several ways. I sometimes share my entire editing process from start to finish. I am diversifying my portfolio to include images with heavier processing like the one in this article while including simple images with barely any edits. Lastly, I make photography videos where you can see me fumbling around like a clumsy idiot and not capturing anything at all. It’s my choice and my style of photographer.

I can’t tell others what to do or how to approach their own work, but I think we can do better as a community as a whole. It starts with everyone. People need to stop pretending that if you don’t do it this way or that, you’re not a “real” landscape photographer. It’s wrong. If you’re a purist and only qualify a specific level of editing as what you find acceptable, that’s fine. What’s wrong is telling someone they’re something less because they don’t fit your definitions. It is normal to have different opinions about what is considered a different kind of art. It all depends on how we present our opinion and discuss issues.

Example: you see a change that you think is too much, maybe the image I saw in this article. You might say something like, “wow, great mix and believable presentation even if it’s more editing than I would.” Not “this is not landscape photography”. Words like these don’t just make people feel like they’re doing something wrong. They also create an environment where being honest about editing is forbidden because they know people will grab their forks and attack them in the comments section.

On the other hand, those of us who choose to manipulate images in more extreme ways should talk about it! Let’s enjoy taking a dull image and turning it into something extraordinary. It’s an art in itself. Create real expectations for other photographers so those of us who question our own work get a little taste of the reality that we don’t just get perfect conditions every day of the week.

Space for everyone

Over the last couple of years there has been a shift in the landscape photography space away from big, big images that are seemingly perfect in every way. Many photographers, myself included, have found themselves shooting more intimate and simple scenes with refined editing. The technological wave of brightness masking, high pixel sensors and pushing the limits of what we can do with our images has come to flood our jaw-dropping image streams. But like all artistic movements, things change and styles evolve. Being inclusive of these styles and choices is what’s most important.

A good example of this is the natural landscape photography contest that started last year. The majority of contests have few guidelines on photo manipulation. One of the biggest competitions of the year, the International Landscape Photographer of the Year, is dominated by dreamlike images that are usually highly processed. It’s wonderful to hear that the natural landscape photography contest has been a huge success in its first year, and not only does it give space to those of you who gravitate towards more natural shots, but it also publicly opens the doors to show that there is a place for all styles and photographs.

For me, this is the big takeaway. We need to stop telling others that their work isn’t good enough because it’s not done the way we personally would approach it. As photographers, we also need to be more transparent. Yes, post your amazing work, but include how you sometimes got there. Let’s enjoy your excellent editing skills just as much as your photography work.

I could talk about this topic for hours, so hopefully you’ll leave this feeling somewhat energized with a new perspective and how to improve the community as a whole. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, and feel free to show off some of your own edits as well! As always, thanks for reading.

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