Is This Real Landscape Photography?

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

Many people have a line that once you manipulate an image to a certain degree, it becomes digital art or many years ago, darkroom art. Some people have such strong opinions about this that you can often find very aggressive comments claiming someone isn’t a landscape photographer if they do certain things to their images. This isn’t 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 to stop the gatekeeping that seems to exist within the space.

The Image

This is the final edited image that I want you to pixel-peep. What is real? What is manipulated? Can you pick out which parts were done in the edit and which parts existed in nature? These are questions I ask myself looking at other people’s work. Sometimes, it can showcase just how magical a moment was, or it can accentuate just how good someone is within an edit. Sit with this image in your mind for a moment. Did you see this and think it was: beautiful, majestic, fake, overdone, Photoshopped, too saturated, balanced, realistic, or unrealistic? What emotions did the image elicit in you before knowing 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 about me as a photographer? I’ve personally experienced meeting people that are captivated by images I’ve shown them, but as soon as I show them the images that came from 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 all the colors or detail from a scene in real life. I know I’m not alone in this experience, and it can be frustrating as artist. This is made even worse by the constant gatekeeping you might find yourself experiencing when sharing your work online.

If you want a breakdown on the entire edit and my thought process behind every blend and manipulation be sure to check out 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 before. Add on the fact that many of us as artists are motivated to create images that stop people from scrolling on social media for engagement. These two factors are where this topic gets interesting. I’ve heard stories from people who attended workshops and left disappointed because they didn’t walk away with images they thought they would get, not because of conditions or dull landscapes, but simply because they didn’t realize how much manipulation the host did to their images.

As a photographer, I feel it’s my moral obligations to remind people of the realities of my work. I do this in multiple ways. I share my entire editing process from start to finish sometimes. I diversify my portfolio to include images with heavier processing like the one within this article while also including simple images with barely any edits. Lastly, I make videos about photography where you can watch me fumble around like a bumbling idiot and not capture anything at all. This is my choice and style as a photographer.

I can’t tell others what to do or how to approach their own work, but I do think we can do better as a community as a whole. This starts with everyone. People need to stop claiming that if you don’t do it this or that way, then you aren’t a “true” landscape photographer. This is wrong. If you’re a purist and only qualify a specific level of editing as what you deem, that’s absolutely okay. What isn’t okay is telling someone they are something less because they don’t follow your definitions. It’s okay to have different opinions about what qualifies as a different genre of art. It’s all in how we present our opinion and discuss issues.

Example: you see an edit you think is too much, maybe the image I went over in this article. You could say something like: “wow, great blend and believable presentation even if it’s more editing than I would do.” Not “this isn’t landscape photography.” Words like these not only make people feel they are doing something wrong. They also create an environment where being honest about editing is prohibited because they know people are going to grab their pitchforks and attack them in the comment section.

On the other side of things, those of us who do choose to manipulate images in more extreme ways should talk about it! Let’s appreciate taking a dull image and turning it into something extraordinary. This is an entire art itself. Create real expectations for other photographers out there so those of us questioning our own work get a little glimpse into the reality that we aren’t just getting perfect conditions every day of the week.

Space for Everyone

In the last year or two, there has been a shift in the landscape photography space from big, grand images that are seemingly perfect in every way. A lot of photographers, myself included, have found themselves shooting more intimate, simple scenes with refined editing. The tech wave of luminosity masking, high-pixel sensors, and pushing the limits of what we can do with our images came and flooded our feeds with images that take our breath away. But like all art movements, things change and styles evolve. Being inclusive of these styles and choices is what is the most important.

A good example of that is the Natural Landscape Photography Contest that started last year. The majority of contests have little guidelines on photo manipulation. One of the biggest contests of the year, the International Landscape Photographer of the Year, is dominated by dreamlike images that are typically highly processed. It is wonderful to hear that the natural landscape photography contest was wildly successful in its first year, and not only does it give a place for those of you that gravitate towards more natural edits, it also publicly opens the doors to show there’s a place for all types of style and photography.

To me, that’s the big takeaway. We have to stop telling others that their work isn’t good enough because it isn’t done how we would personally approach it. As photographers, we also have to be better about being transparent. Yes, post your incredible work, but include how you got there sometimes. Let’s revel in your excellent editing skills just as much as your photography work.

I could talk about this topic for hours, so I hope you leave this feeling somewhat stimulated with a new outlook and how to improve the community as a whole. I’d love to know what your opinion is 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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