“Landscape photography is the supreme test of the photographer and often the supreme disappointment.” - Ansel Adams
I first read this quote several years ago but my interpretation has changed multiple times over the years. What Ansel Adams said was true. Landscape photography is one of the most popular genres in photography but also the most challenging one to master.
A good landscape photograph requires research, planning and technical skills for execution. Even when you have done all your homework, there is still a good chance of going home empty-handed because of the unpredictability of mother nature. You may have to revisit the same location many times to finally get what you want.
The challenges of creating landscape photographs go beyond in-camera skills. There is no doubt you need to be proficient in operating your camera but that alone is not enough. You also need to have a certain level of skills in post-processing to tease out the data stored in Raw files.
In post-production, one of the challenges is keeping the image looking as natural as possible. With digital post-processing, it’s easy and sometimes unknowingly go overboard with adjustments which can potentially turn a beautiful landscape image into a disaster. I have had my share of such experience which I always learn from and try not to repeat them again.
In this post, I’m going to share with you 9 tips I have learned through the years on how to keep landscape images looking as natural as possible in post-processing. Some of it may seem trivial but subtlety is often the key that makes a difference.
1. Attention To Lights and Shadows
This is the first step in my post-processing workflow before I start tampering with any adjustments. Take a closer look at your image and see where the light is coming from and how the scene is generally illuminated. When there is light, there is also shadows. So, don’t forget to see where the shadows are and how it is formed.
All the above takes into account the intensity of the light and the time of day where the image was taken. It gives you an idea on how far you can potentially go with the adjustments while keeping the image staying natural.
For example, light during the blue and golden hour is relatively soft. It wouldn’t make much sense to increase contrast globally because the light would look harsh and therefore unnatural for the scene.
2. Darker Foreground In Backlit Scenes
When we are in control of the tones and colors of our image, it’s very tempting to brighten up everything so we can see them. I think this is part of the human nature where we like all to be visible, nothing is hidden from us and nothing we don’t know about...we don’t like uncertainty.
But sometimes shadows are meant to be shadows. A backlit scene such as when shooting into the source of light is a good example. Whether you have a subject infront of the light or you’re shooting directly into the sun, a significant part of the image is going to be darker.
This is perfectly fine and naturaly.
From a technical perspective, a dark foreground contrasting a bright background builds up a dramatic effect. If you brighten up the shadows, you effectively remove its interestingness and turn it to become washed out as it loses its contrast.
3. Easy With Highlights and Shadows Adjustments
Doesn’t matter if the image captures a high contrast scene or well within the dynamic range, it’s good practice to go easy with the Highlights or Whites and the Shadows or Blacks adjustments. That is if you want your image to look and stay natural.
Opening up the shadows and reducing the highlights too much at the same time compresses the tonal range. This reduces contrast and renders the image flat. It can also makes it look as if you have applied a fake HDR effect.
One of the factors of grungy HDR is the loss of contrast between the highlights and shadows. Try not to replicate that effect if you aim to create natural looking images.
4. Selective Sharpening
Sharpening is good but selective sharpening is even better!
Not everything in the image needs to be tack sharp. My general rule is not to sharpen any inanimate object that moves. This include the clouds, water, sometimes even people if they are blurred out because of motion.
Apply global sharpening makes an image look unnatural. This is the same as global tonal and color adjustments. It just doesn’t look good on photographs anymore.
I won’t dive in too much about selective sharpening because that is a huge topic on its own. Essentially, there are many ways to do it. If you’re a Lightroom user, after applying sharpening, hold down Alt and drag Masking to the right to mask out areas like the sky or the water. Alternatively, if you edit in Photoshop or software that support layer masking, add a layer mask to mask out areas you don’t want sharpening.
5. Distant Objects Are Blurry and Hazy
Can you remember when was the last time you looked into the far distance? Maybe there mountains, trees or a bunch of skyscrapers? Did you remember how clearly you could see them?
My guess is you probably couldn’t see very clearly as if it were right in front of you!
Objects in distance will always appear a bit blurry and hazy. This is because there is a lot of air between you and the subjects. Air is full of particles like water vapor, dust, gases, etc. When light passes through them, it gets reflected off causing the distant subjects to look blurry, hazy and desaturated.
When you’re post-processing a landscape image with depth, remember the natural occurrence of haze in the background. You can leave it as it is or gently add some contrast or dehaze but don't go overboard to make it as good as the foreground.
6. Boost Vibrance Instead of Saturation
Saturation applies globally to the image whereas vibrance is more selective.
When you increase saturation, you’re enhancing all the colors. It’s easy to go too far causing clipping in the RGB color channels.
Learn more: How to visually interpret histograms.
But when you increase vibrance, you’re enhancing the muted colors only. This means colors that are already saturated are not affected. The adjustments are more gradual and subtle.
Learn more: The practical guide to color theory for photographers.
7. Watch Out For Halo
Halo is a rim of light typically runs along the edge of any objects in an image. It commonly occurs when there is too much contrast along the edges which can be caused by excessive Clarity adjustments or sharpening.
Another reason for halo is tone-mapping using HDR software. Enhancing an image too much in HDR software can lead to highlights and shadows imbalance and ultimately halo formation.
How to avoid halo? Avoid excessive sharpening and Clarity adjustment. Most importantly, avoid using HDR software particularly tone-mapping a single image.
8. Avoid Exaggerating Color Temperature
The before and after of excessive color temperature adjustment
Color temperature is what makes an image looks warmer or cooler. In warm color temperature, the image should look orange and/or yellow. In cool color temperature, it should look blue and/or green.
It’s typically warmer during sunset and sunrise when the sun is above the horizon. But right after the sun has gone out of sight below the horizon (or before it has risen above the horizon), everything looks cool.
During post-processing, it’s very tempting to crank up (or down) the color temperature by turning what is already warm warmer and cool cooler. The result may be eye catching but you’re unconsciously drifting your image away from reality.
My personal suggestion is adjust to enhance instead of exaggerate the color effect.
9. Always Apply Targeted Tonal Adjustment
Global adjustment used to be the only way we post-process a digital image until selective adjustment came around. The first time I tried selective adjustment was in Viveza and it totally blew me away. Now a days you find selective adjustment in almost any image editing software.
When you apply tonal adjustment globally, not only the area you want gets affected but also everything else in the image. More often than you think, this pushes shadows into clipping or blowing out highlights in the clouds.
This can create the look similar to the fake HDR effect.
For more tutorials on image editing technique, please check out the editing technique resource page!