Secrets of landscape photography?

There are good secrets and there are bad secrets.

We taught that to our kids when they were young. Some secrets are best kept untold. With other secrets there is more harm done than good by keeping them quiet.

Some photographers are very secretive about how they process their images. That’s kind of sad really. Maybe they think that they have a leg up on their “competition” by not sharing how they do thing?

I remember a few years ago, when I only just got back into shooting landscapes. I sent an email to a very well known photographer to ask him how he achieved a certain look. He answered my email but skirted my question. He’s probably the best known young American landscape photographer these days. His images are heavily processed and there is no mistaking his images when I see them. I usually don’t need to see his name to know that they are his images.

I wish people would be more open about stuff like that. You see, there is a common misconception that the scene actually looked that way when it was shot. Nine times out of ten it wasn’t even close to how it appeared to the camera.

Today more than ever, photography is about visualization. It’s about seeing the final result before you even release the shutter. Some of my images have very little processing. The majority of them however, do have a fair amount.

Some secrets are meant to be shared. At least that’s what I think. The better the photographers are around me, the better I become.

A few summers ago, I was driving the back roads looking for things to shoot. I never know what it is that I’ll get. I just look and whatever catches my eye, I shoot.

As the sun was setting, I came upon this old homestead on a hill. It’s long since been abandoned and now cattle have the run of the property as pasture land.

Looking to the west as the sun was going down, the sky looked like it would make for an interesting back drop. As you can see from the three images below, the camera couldn’t record the scene in one exposure. If I had used a filter to darken the sky, it would have also darkened the top of the building. That’s a common thing that I see, beautiful, rich skies and whatever pokes above the horizon is almost black and without detail. To me, it’s unnatural looking.

This is the underexposed image. It’s under exposed by two stops. Plenty of detail in the sky but everything else is too dark.

This is is the over exposed image. It was over exposed by two stops to get the detail on the homestead building. As you can also see, the sky is completely blown out. Nothing is there at all.

Above is the “normal” exposure. The camera tries to compensate for the dark building and bright sky. The result as you can see is less than satisfactory. It’s certainly not what I had visualized when I stood in front of the old building.

What to do? Well, I have three exposures of the same scene. -2, 0 and +2 EV. I could have opened up the three images in Photoshop, created layer masks and manually blended them. Sometimes that’s the easiest and most elegant solution. There isn’t one right way to process for every situation you encounter.

I used Photomatix, yes the HDR program that so many uninformed photographers hate to help solve this problem. The best way to avoid the dreaded HDR look is to keep the strength setting very low. I am usually using a setting from 20 to 50. The higher you move the strength slider, the more exaggerated the tones will look. Some scenes are more affected by this than others.

Here is the final result. The important detail from all three RAW exposures is included in the final. It doesn’t stop there though.

I wasn’t happy with the color of the sky or the tones of the clouds so I used the “color matching” feature of Photoshop to introduce the colors that I wanted. To bring out the highlights of the clouds, I used Tony Kuyper’s excellent luminosity masks to select only the highlights and lighten them up a bit to give the clouds more contrast.

Processing took me ten minutes max. The final could have looked a dozen ways different from this depending upon what I had done but this is how I envisioned the scene as I was standing in the pasture.

Don’t be disappointed when your first landscapes don’t even begin to resemble what you’re seeing from your favorite photographers. It’s not usually a special lens or filter that gets you the look you want so much as how you visualize the scene and process it.

The best part of this is that it didn’t cost you anything to read it here. A little practice with your favorite photo editing program can save you hundreds and thousands of dollars in expensive filters and photo workshops and seminars. Keep your money in your wallet and use it for actually taking pictures, not padding someone else’s bank account. Caveat emptor.

Happy shooting,


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~ by Dan Jurak on June 16, 2011.

8 Responses to “Secrets of landscape photography?”

  1. Thanks Dan. I’m finally starting to get some good results with Photomatix. Your tips have helped me with that.

  2. @ Michael, glad that it’s working for you. Photomatix is only one tool to have for working on your photos. I find that I am using it for at least ninety percent of what I do. It much more control than a graduated filter does and you always have the original images to go back and fool with. When you shoot something with a filter, you’re stuck with the result.

  3. I hate when a picture doesn’t turn out the way I envisioned it. Thanks for the tips!

  4. @ laureninwaiting, me too! :) You’re welcome.

  5. I use Lightroom, Photoshop Elements, and I just started using Photomatix. I’m finding that each program has it’s particular advantages. Thanks for the free tips! ;-)

  6. Thank you, Dan. Your generosity is helping me to begin to be able to create images of the woods around me that show what I visualize. It is still a struggle (and still much more than 10 minutes of work), but I feel I am making progress and much of it is thanks to you. I think that photographers that try to keep their secrets are forgetting that their most important secret is un-sharable and their stinginess is perhaps the result of a measure of insecurity: individual artistic instincts cannot possibly be duplicated by another.

  7. @ Cindy, I learned a long time ago that the better those were around me, the better I became. About the ten minutes. I’ve been using Photoshop at work for almost twenty years now. I work a little faster than most but what I do can still be done by almost anyone who is willing to spend a little time learning the program.

    I agree about the insecurity thing. Some of the best artists around are indeed the most insecure. That is probably one of their motivations.

  8. Thanks a lot for sharing this! Good article. I some time hate the people that use excesive PS for stunning landscapes… I really apreciate the one that know how to use light and filters and lens,…but you are right it does not deserve all that money…you should know how you want to look like before you shoot….

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