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Editing Landscape Photographs

Updated on June 4, 2014

Sunset on the Great Plains

Sunset on the Great Plains
Sunset on the Great Plains | Source

Taking a Good Landscape Photograph

If you want to have a great landscape photograph from your vacation to Yosemite to show your family, you first have to take a good photograph. If you are new to photography and have a point-and-shoot camera, or a basic Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR), look for the "Landscape" setting. This usually has a picture or graphic that looks like a mountain on Nikon and Canon cameras.

This Landscape preset will set up your camera to give you the best landscape image. If you set it up manually, use the lowest ISO possible - if it is a sunny day, then ISO 100 or 200 will work. Use a higher f/stop as this will give you a deeper depth of field. If you have a tripod, this will help you have a steady image - nothing is more frustrating than to come home and open you image on a computer and realize you have a blur from shaking the camera. I carry a portable tripod that is about 6" tall and fits in my backpack. If you don't have a tripod, use a rock, tree, or something that won't move and will keep your camera safe. Try for a shutter-speed that is at least 1/100 of a second, if you are on a tripod you can go a little slower. I have written about all of these terms - f/stop, ISO and Depth of Field on my personal blog at Two Days in Dublin

If you are unsure about how to set up your camera and it is an important shot to you, then use the "Landscape" mode. There is no shame in using these presets. The important thing is to capture the image!

The original photo - unedited
The original photo - unedited | Source

Where do I start?

I use Adobe Lightroom for most of my editing. It is a great program, easy to learn and is capable of doing most of your necessary editing. See my Hub Page on Adobe Lightroom if you would like to learn more about the program.

The problem with sunrise or sunset photos is that the terrain in the bottom of the picture is usually too dark and the sky is too bright - or "blown out". Here is my original photo. The sky isn't totally blown out and the terrain is visible but it is isn't a very interesting picture. I was trying to capture a wheat field in the foreground, the power transmission lines and then the setting sun lighting up the clouds in the background.

Lightroom with Graduated Filter
Lightroom with Graduated Filter | Source

Getting The Sky Back in Balance

I use a Graduated Filter to start this process. In Lightroom it is in the to right corner - the solid rectangle. I click on the photo right at the horizon line and then drag downward a little. You will see three lines appear across the photo and a box will appear on the right tool bar that will let you adjust only the area you have masked off using the graduated filter. If the horizon line isn't quite level, you can grab the middle line and adjust the tilt of the mask. Remember, with Lightroom, your editing is non-destructive, play with this, you won't hurt the original image!

Then I adjusted Exposure, Contrast, Highlights to get the look I remembered from the scene. In this image I also adjust the Temperature of the mask a bit, to go a little more yellow than blue. There are two ways to approach editing. You can edit to only how you remember the scene, or you can push it a little to make the scene more interesting. It is up to you to decide. Just remember, the eye is an amazing thing and people will look at a photograph and tell if you pushed the editing too far!

Final Edits
Final Edits | Source

Getting the Foreground Back in Balance

In most sunrise or sunset photos, the challenge is getting the terrain in the foreground, or that part closest to the camera, to be bright enough to see clearly. This is where the technology of your camera really becomes evident. The more modern and higher quality the sensor, the more data you will have to work with. These example images where taken using a Nikon D700 professional level camera, so I have a lot of information to work with. If you used an older point-and-shoot, you can still use the same techniques, but, you will start to get a grainy image in the areas that were very dark to begin with.

The technique is to use your Exposure and move it to the right gently. This will increase the overall exposure, or brightness of the image. If you are editing a twilight picture, you don't want to push it much at all or you will make the scene look like it is in broad daylight. Then I use the Shadows slider to start to bring the foreground to life.

Original Photo
Original Photo | Source
Final Image
Final Image | Source
Over exposed foreground
Over exposed foreground | Source

Let's edit one more photo. This was a sunrise in Kansas over a field of corn stubble from last falls harvest. As you can see the original image is too bright in the sky and too dark in the area of the field.

The techniques are the ones we just learned. First I applied a Graduated Filter to the sky, adjusted the exposure, Highlights, Shadows and the Temperature - just a minor adjustment to the Temperature as the White Balance of the camera was very accurate.

The final edits to the full image were a slight Exposure adjustment, a Slight Shadows adjustment and that was it. The foreground in this image wasn't very interesting or worth pushing the shadows too far. If I pushed it too far than it looks like I used a flash, and that isn't the look I wanted.

Final Thoughts

Editing landscape photographs isn't an overly complex process, but it does require good technique and knowledge of your software. I like Adobe Lightroom and use it almost exclusively. Adobe Photoshop is also an excellent program, but it is more difficult to learn and I only use it for a few specific tasks.

To learn more about editing landscape photographs I would recommend a ebook by Todd and Sarah Sisson, "Loving Landscapes". I learned a lot of great tips and techniques from this book, and I have been taking landscape photographs for years. For a review of the book and ordering instructions, see my blog post - Loving Landscapes Book Review

If you are using Lightroom 5, remember, that your edits are non-destructive. Explore, play with the sliders and see what happens. You can always go back to your original photo!

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