Landscape Photography: Reality VS Photographs

Whether you are a working professional, an amateur who's trying to better your skills, or you just love looking at landscape photographs, it's important to understand the differences between a 3 dimensional world and a 2D frame. It's a very simple subject but often forgotten about. I'm going to break it up into different categories for better explanation; Composition, Distortion and Color. We'll also talk about a few tricks in the field and post processing to hopefully overcome the issue.

Composition and Basics
Let's talk about the basics. What's composition when it comes to landscape photography? It's a visual structure. It's the arrangement of visual elements within a defined space that tells your story as an artist. There's a big difference between how you see the world and the way your camera's sensor captures it. This is something that people always forget before saying things like "Wow, what a great shot, but how much editing did you do?" or "That's cheating"... You see, your eyes are constantly stitching a panorama as you look at a scene and you see the world in a 3 dimensional form. Your camera is simply capturing it onto the sensor and the viewer looks at it on a cropped frame and now it has transformed into 2D. It's simple: A photograph will never, and I mean NEVER look the same as what you see with your eyes in person. All we can do as photographers is add as much depth as possible to make it look and feel closer to reality. DEPTH! that's really what you need to create in port in order for your images to pop. And this depth is created by dodging, burning, composition and color shifting which is going to create transitions between light to dark, cold to warm, sharp to soft, big to small, etc. Choosing the right composition is everything. Moving the camera ever so slightly to get a different angle of view can make or break a shot. You must learn how lenses see the world and open your mind! But don't forget, if your composition is not pleasing to the viewer, no amount of post processing can fix that. There's no way you can transform a terrible composition or lighting into a good one. That's why I always spend more than 90% of my time preparing in the field scouting for a location and finding my composition. The actual shoot takes very little time. A good way of learning composition is to study painters. Great painters are the ones who know how important composition is. It's obviously easier for them because they are in total control of the frame, when us as landscape photographers can only use what's in front of us. We can only move the camera until we're happy with what we have. That's why travelling to locations that are photogenic is essential. I can spend a full day hiking and exploring a location looking for a pleasing composition with leading lines, shapes, patterns and colors that work together before even thinking about pressing the shutter button.

Lens Distortion
Every lens and I mean even that expensive Zeiss in your bag have some amount of distortion. While lens manufacturers can control barrel distortion to a degree, it's impossible to control perspective distortion. It's pure physics. I personally use my ultra wide angle lens almost all the time. While a longer telephoto lens can give you very unique compositions, I will never go anywhere in the world without my ultra-wide lens. It's what I use to give my foreground elements a wow factor. Although it has its challenges: Everything near the edges of the frame gets stretched and anything closer to the lens seems massive. Meanwhile, anything in the distance looks small and objects at the center of the frame get the "pincushion" effect. While making your foreground subjects bigger is an advantage, crushing your mountains is a massive problem because unless that mountain is right up close to my lens, it will look tiny in the photo. Most people zoom in a little to fix this, but once you go tighter, you lose foreground! So the way I deal with it is I shoot two different exposures with different focal lengths, and blend the two together in Photoshop and I will write a more in-depth article about this in the future. "BUT WAIT A MINUTE, THAT'S CHEATING"... Nope... Don't let anyone ever tell you that this is cheating. This is your work, your art, and you have the creative freedom to showcase it beautifully. You're simply using your skills to fix distortion. The mountain is naturally tall and it needs to be portrayed that way! If that is considered cheating, then simply taking a photograph and recording a RAW file is cheating as well!
Where do you draw the line in Landscape Photography? I have a simple rule: As long as it showcases the landscape and no aliens are photobombing it, I'd say go for it! Just don't put the Milky Way over a City and call it a Landscape photo! But, People should know that composites have existed even in the film days. Taking different shots at different moments and blending them together is not a genius new technique that only digital photographers are using these days. Some might claim they came up with it, but that's not the case. It has been there since photography started. Don't believe everyone and everything very easily, is the best advice I can give you. Today, there's immense amount of knowledge available at our fingertips which means a lot of it is unfortunately crap. Even a 5 year old has access to a computer and internet these days and they're writing. It takes patience and experience to tell the difference between good and bad material.


Color Harmony
This one alone is an extremely deep subject. I'm only going to scratch the surface of it. When you witness a sunset with wonderful colors and scenery in person, everything looks great because you're experiencing it with all your senses. In a photograph, it's a different story. When you look at a rectangular frame with a photograph in it, your eyes and brain without knowing are looking for interesting elements to keep your mind busy at it. A good composition makes a huge difference right off the bat, but what about color harmony? Well it's part of it. color harmony and separation makes a whole lot of difference! While some notes on a piano sound good and harmonious together, other random notes could sound irritating. Color is the same way. Color harmony rarely exists in nature and when the scene is transformed into a photograph, there has to be some color shift for it all to come together. The competing colors in your scene have to work together, and not against the composition. Bad color harmony alone can destroy a wonderful shot. One thing to remember is that a single color on its own is going to vary in two different ways; Saturation and Brightness.

Let's talk about a few different color "rules" and harmonies. The following colors in each of these rules are in perfect harmony with each other. The goal is to find your base color, and then match the other colors in your scene according to one of these rules. You also have to determine how many colors there are. So 1. Find the different colors in your landscape, 2. Figure out what harmony you're working with and 3. Change the hue of the competing colors to match according to the corresponding harmony. Here's how I do it: I open "Adobe Color Themes" by going to "Window/Extensions/Adobe Color Theme" in Photoshop. Then I choose the color picker tool and change my "sample size" from point sample to "31 by 31 Average". That allows me to pick a color that's averaged compared to a single pixel which makes a more accurate selection of the area I'm targeting. Once I have chosen the base color of my theme, I click on the "Set selected color from active color" button on ACT. Now, I go through the different harmonies from the drop down menu in Adobe Color Themes and pick the appropriate one according to my image, analyze and see what are my other competing colors in the scene and match the hue to what ACT tells me. Now I'm not going to go through all different ways of changing your hue, that is for a more in-depth article. Don't forget to visit that's another wonderful tool beside Adobe's Kuler. These browser based tools allow you to create your color harmony. Kuler even lets you upload your pictures to it.

Analogous Harmony Analogous scenes use colors that are adjacent on the color wheel.

Analogous Harmony
Analogous scenes use colors that are adjacent on the color wheel.

Example shot: This Aurora shot I've taken in the Yukon is the perfect example of the analogous harmony. The Blue and the Green are adjacent on the wheel. Blue is used in the light and also in the shadows.

Example shot: This Aurora shot I've taken in the Yukon is the perfect example of the analogous harmony. The Blue and the Green are adjacent on the wheel. Blue is used in the light and also in the shadows.

Complimentary colors that are opposite of each other on the color wheel

colors that are opposite of each other on the color wheel

Example shot: As you can see the Greenish Blue is complimenting the Yellowish Orange and it's comforting to look at. These colors are opposite of each other on the wheel.

Example shot:
As you can see the Greenish Blue is complimenting the Yellowish Orange and it's comforting to look at. These colors are opposite of each other on the wheel.


Triadic themes use colors that are evenly spaced around at 3 equidistant points on the color wheel. (Similar to Split-Complimentary)

Triadic harmony shown above in one of my images from the Yukon

Triadic harmony shown above in one of my images from the Yukon


Other common relationships to note:

Monochromatic colors are variations in saturation and brightness of a single color.

Quadratic is when you combine four colors that are separated by two hues on the wheel.

Diad is when you combine two colors that are separated by two hues on the wheel.

Keep in mind that these are just a few that I have listed. There are more color rules out there that have been proven to work well together. They are not all included in Adobe Color Theme but you could create your own and save them as custom presets. There are lots of articles to read on this subject. Just like composition, understanding color takes lots of time and practice. You'll eventually not even think about it anymore and your eyes will be trained enough to tell what's working and what's hurting your photograph. Now the question becomes, where do you draw "the line" when shifting colors? That really is a personal choice but when it comes to landscape photography, purists will tell you to stay within the realm of reality. For example; don't shift the blue of a mid-day sky to a pink or a bright purple. Personally, I give myself a little bit of extra room but I still won't go absolutely nuts! It is landscape photography after all. It has to stay believable. For example, in the image below which I took in Tombstone Territorial Park of the Canadian Arctic in Yukon, you'll see a strong reddish tone in the clouds. I did see a light red in the sky which was closer to orange, but I darkened it down to get more saturation in this picture. I also changed the hue a little towards red, though it's a very rare color to see in the sky. Some would tell you that it's not possible, but it's close to what I remember or close enough! I had envisioned this photograph like this before hand. I really wanted that extreme red color in the sky. I wanted to give the landscape that feel of an Alien planet but didn't want to overdo it at the same time. That was the feeling I had when I first got there. The landscape of Tombstone Territorial Park is just out of this world. Getting there though, is another story... let's just say that it takes two hard days (one way) of hiking and pretty much climbing at some point! The reddish color was my artistic choice. I have personally experienced after-storm sunsets with colors very close to this. Note that every color is different and each color has different strength to the human eye.

Remember: SUBTLE changes make a huge impact. Sometimes it's even better to reduce the saturation rather than boost it. For example, if I have a really nice subtle red color in my sky and I want to make it pop, I will reduce the punch around it. Maybe make the blue in the sky less saturated and shift that blue to a point in the color wheel where it is complimenting the red. Also, I make local targeted adjustments. Never boost the saturation slider for the entire image. It just looks unnatural and makes the colors fight with each other even more. Your brain is naturally looking for simplicity. It understands a simple scene way better than a complicated composition. You're really not fixing anything by boosting all colors. One last note on color harmony is that each of these rules have their own way of incorporating into an image, some are difficult to master, some are closer to the natural world depending on your landscape.

Additional processing tips:

Color and Mood

One great way for boosting saturation is to darken the scene; add a "Curves" adjustment layer and take the mid point down. This will not only give you saturation, but deepens the mood. Pay attention to your histogram to make sure that you're not clipping any shadows but don't let that histogram hold you back either...clipping a little bit of shadows is totally fine in my opinion. I don't like bright photos myself. The more I grow in my photography career, the less I care about having everything exposed "properly". Darkening a color will add saturation to it if you don't change the Curves layer's blending mode. If you see that it's adding too much saturation, you can always change its blending mode to Luminosity.

The image on the right is after the Cuvers adjustment. As you can see, all i did was pull the midpoint down. It added saturation and contrast.

The image on the right is after the Cuvers adjustment. As you can see, all i did was pull the midpoint down. It added saturation and contrast.

Composition and Lighting

Dodge and Burn... repeat after me, DODGE AND BURN! For the ones who don't use Photoshop or know the terms, it simply means darkening or lightening specific areas of the image. This is a technique that is often underestimated but every photograph needs it. Embrace the shadows, they are what give your image a sense of depth. Don't confuse this with a contrast adjustment. Graduated shadows are great for adding depth to your objects. Back in the film days, this was a technique that every great name used but it's a very deep subject. You have to understand what gives your image the depth it's missing. Often you can look at Nature itself to understand what you have to dodge or burn. When Mother Nature gives you a great light show, she's teaching you what you need to do; just look at those late golden hour shots casting beautiful light on your foreground objects creating shadows that mimic the shapes and observe them. Once you understand the difference between good light and bad light, you'll know what to boost and what to darken. I always shoot at least 8 different exposures of the same compositions. This gives me the ability to pick and choose the best that represents the shadows, then I'll use that as a guideline to my dodging and burning. RAW files are flat, it's how they're designed to be. It's your job to bring them to life and apply the proper contrast to them. Remember that naturally, your eyes are first attracted to the lighter areas of an image so whatever the most important part of your image may be, try and make it the brightest.

Above, you can see an example of before and after dodging and burning. Just by selectively brushing areas, there's now more depth to the image. Move the slider and pay attention to the snow in the foreground, the water, Mount Cephren and the overall look of the image. This is dodging and burning ONLY.



When it comes to Landscape Photography, You must become one with Mother Nature. You have to get out there and understand and chase the light. Albert Bierstadt didn't get to where he was as a landscape painter by reading articles. He did it by practicing it in real life and mastering this form of art can take hard years. It really does take lots of patience and countless hours of practice. You have to face the elements of Nature which can be really harsh at times. That's the only way you're going to transform your feelings onto a piece of paper. Post processing in the digital room is simply a part of being a good outdoor artist. No great photograph was ever exported without being retouched straight out of the camera, especially when shot in RAW format. What else would you shoot in anyways? JPEG? If you do, you should stop right now, go to your settings and shoot RAW and watch the possibilities unfold. Having said that, no amount of post processing can fix bad lighting or a bad composition. Half the battle is getting your image composed properly. There are tools in Photoshop for fixing distortion and fixing minor issues, but if you do not understand composition, that's what you need to work on first. Composition is everything followed by good lighting. Remember that cameras and settings are only tools. What makes a photograph is yourself, the artist, not the camera so don't get too caught up on gear. 

Once you bought that fresh tomato, basil and cheese, once you have mastered how to make a great pizza dough from scratch, once you understand the process and have your pizza oven hot and ready, then and only then you can start making your pizza. That will be the only pizza you'll ever want to have because it's done right, and it tastes right!