The Easy Way Out in Landscape Photography

In a world where there is more and more demand for quality images the challenge of creating enough as one artist becomes increasingly difficult. Posting a new composition on Instagram every day that works isn’t always possible without cutting some sort of corners! What some have turned to in landscape photography is modifying the landscape to fit their needs. This could be done in many different ways.

In this image, there is a person just outside of frame throwing sand into the air to create the backlit glowing effect!

Instead of using patience and waiting for the right composition to present itself there is an option to take the easy way out and make it happen yourself. Obviously, this can help to make sure our images work better to the eye, but it might not always be the best idea. From the extreme of changing the weather to the trivial stick removal, let's take a look at the pitfalls and dangers of modifying landscape scenes. 

Documenting vs Art

Landscape photography as a genre can be approached in many different ways. As far as the purpose of the imagery created it can be broken down into just two categories. The photographer is either trying to represent the scene in a realistic way or allowing themselves creative freedom to manipulate it in a way that fits their vision. This doesn’t mean the body of work always has to be one or the other, but it should be clear to the viewer which approach was taken. 

The reasoning and ‘why’ behind the image is very important. If the objective is to show a dreamy version of reality then go for it, and if you are trying to make the best out of what reality is don’t sell something that isn’t. So long as in the act of creating your photography you aren’t committing something immoral/unethical there isn’t a problem. 

There are many different styles and ways of making your landscape photographs your own. Manipulating the landscape for your own purposes in a significant way might be fine, but there is a fine line that you must walk. Understanding the cause and effect of what you are doing not only will help protect the landscape and preserve it for others, but it will also help to make you a more well-rounded artist through being able to better communicate with the rest of the landscape and art community.

Moving and Modifying

Mount Hood in Snow

When in a landscape it can be fairly easy to get carried away. We start out in photography not understanding how distracting elements hurt our images, and as we learn it is easy to spot them. The natural next step for many is to move the branch, rock, etc. that is in the way. The problem with this line of thought is that quickly becomes destructive to the very landscapes we claim to love and appreciate through our art. When we interact with our scenes they become less of a representation of how beautiful they were naturally and more of an idealistic version of itself we had influence over. 

There is, of course, a difference between moving a twig and falling a tree. However, these distinctions of how impactful our actions have been are not easy to discern much of the time. Our natural environments are very fragile and over time small actions can have a big influence on how they develop. Also, I would never discourage anyone from picking up trash or removing other objects that don’t belong. Please keep in mind the teachings of Leave No Trace which I talked about here.

We should all be better at trying to protect the environments we are documenting. If we aren’t careful, they won’t last much longer and that will be a very sad day. Unfortunately, these days happen all the time as a result of the actions of individuals and not from naturally occurring phenomena. Leading by example and not changing the environment we photograph is the best practice to have.

Tricks and Effects

A real foggy forest image not done with the use of a fog machine!

Preserving the landscapes natural look should be at the top of our minds even when creating something with a more artistic flare. Recently, there was an individual who decided to do a project where they shot an image of fog in a forest. Not inherently bad, the issue was that they wanted to create the fog instead of capturing it naturally. While the resulting image was indeed beautiful and had a great amount of impact there were many that had issues with how it was done. 

See the original PetaPixel article here.

While he obtained permission to do the shoot, there were some things that cause concern. He used a generator and fog machine to create the ‘fog’ during the summer in the middle of a forest. With the forest fires, we have seen recently there is a risk that if the area he was in were to try it could have sparked something major. Luckily, it looked like it didn’t, but he didn’t mention any considerations of this in the video. 

South Falls Silver Falls State Park

Next is the issue of disrupting the environment he was in. The generator is loud and the smoke generated was thick and ominous looking. It could have easily been misinterpreted as fire by a passerby or at the very least caused chaos in the forest for the wildlife there. Not to mention that he and his friend were running around on the thinnest of layers of moss that can be easily damaged through trampling like it has at many waterfalls around the Pacific Northwest. 

These things may not be as destructive as I am making them sound on a single-case basis, but perhaps under different circumstances they could have been. Mentioning then again at the end of the video that he encouraged others to do the same without cautioning to potential pitfalls seems dangerous. I have also seen people in the comments of his post mentioning that they would recommend smoke bombs which are even more dangerous in dry areas and leave damaging residue as well.

If adding something to a scene is necessary to create the impact you desire there should be extra considerations to be made. Don’t stop short at asking for permission. It is good to consider all potential pitfalls before you end up being made an example of. I have seen plenty of instances where the photographer caused a significant amount of damage directly to the environment like the steel wool incidents and the smoke bomb in the Columbia River Gorge. Secondly, I would advise that if you are going to practice these effects it is good to educate your followers as an influencer because even if you take care and understand the dangers they might not when following your lead. 

Manipulating the Light

More specific to night photography and the creative application of light in macro work the adding of and modifying lighting can have a major impact on the environment and viewer. When there is not enough light or too much on a specific area of an image we can use various tools to solve the problem. The question is whether or not we should be doing these things in reality.

In night/astrophotography, it is common to use light panels to add light onto a foreground object or otherwise extremely dark subject. It is something especially necessary for photography because without light there is no image! Photography, after all, means captured light. So, what issues could possibly come from this? Well, let’s dive into a few examples.

Some astrophotographers have been known for using large torches that put out more light than a car to paint entire mesas. The obvious issue here is it could blind people or disrupt the behaviors of wildlife in the area. Some photographers have also been using large lights in national parks near campgrounds which has disturbed the sleep cycle of the most dangerous creatures out there when angry, humans! It can also change patterns of other wildlife in areas used, so be careful with lights after dark and try to keep it as dim as possible with low-level lighting techniques.

Another way that photographers have had a creative application of light is in macro work by shading the subjects and using man-made lights to creative effect. While it is hard to find much fault with this approach it is good to keep in mind how the subjects are portrayed. If the light being used changes the color from reality it is good to note that so that people aren’t looking around for translucent blue mushrooms when they are actually white.

Patience in Practice

Doing anything that changes the landscape is dangerous and can have big moral implications. Photoshop as a tool for modifying images has been around for a long time too, but on the bright side, it doesn’t damage the environment directly. However, doing either can create issues indirectly from others following our lead and/or creating a larger number of individuals going to a location with false expectations. They can both also have a negative impact on us as artists in making us impatient.

We should all be a little bit more patient and willing to return to locations time and time again. Nature has a tendency to change constantly over time making it silly to try forcing it yourself. Those conditions you are trying to simulate will come to fruition if you are willing to make a few trips and understand how the weather works. Lacking patience in landscape photography and creating lies in camera and in post production only cut corners that exist for a reason. 

If everything were so easy that we can just create the fog or add rain the challenge is lost. Part of the fun of being a landscape photographer is getting skunked on light, conditions, and subjects. It makes achieving the perfect image that much more unique and euphoric. In a world of instant gratification and that encourages increased consumption of imagery. There are less and less of us pausing to really take in and enjoy art. Imperfections in a landscape are beautiful and finding ways to use composition to hide/deemphasize them make us better photographers. Making the scene work for you and allowing the small twigs and random rocks work in a scene make for believably wonderful landscapes.