Pretty Little Lies

February 5, 2018

A treatise on landscape photography's dark side - digital manipulation

MW Pony

Stitched Panorama

The process of having thoughtful conversations with landscape photographers from all over the world on my podcast has really made an impact on my own thoughts and beliefs relating to all sorts of landscape photography topics. The topic that constantly causes me the most inner turmoil, the most mental energy, and the most controversy online is the topic of artistic composites and unrealistic post-processing. As a formerly avid practitioner of both (guilty as charged), I felt that I needed to explore the topic deeply. I am by no means trying to draw a firm line in the sand, rather, as a member of this community we call landscape photography, I felt it would be healthy to really dive deep into the topic to let people form their own opinions based on things I hope to bring into light. Lastly, I am certainly not jealous at all of the success found by those that employ these tactics, I just feel that a conversation about these tactics is necessary. If you disagree with that basic premise, then this article is likely not for you.

Landscape photography has had an interesting and arduous journey as an art-form, having been wholly rejected as an art-form for a very long time. Indeed, according to, at the beginning of 1862, an article published in the Photographic Journal, by an unknown author, summed up the discussions over photography as art, stating: "the question is not whether photography is fine art per se - neither painting nor sculpture can make that claim - but whether it is capable of artistic expression; whether in the hands of a true artists its productions become works of art." A French naturalist, Louis Figuier, also made an accurate observation in regards to photography and fine arts: "Until now, the artist has had the brush, the pencil and the burin; now, in addition, he has the photographic lens. The lens is an instrument like the pencil and the brush, and photography is a process like engraving and drawing, for what makes an artist is not the process but the feeling."

Fast forward to 2018 and beyond and the computer and Photoshop have become natural extensions of the camera and lens. In fact, almost all landscape photographers today employ the method of photographing in RAW format and adding contrast, color, white balance, saturation, and sharpening on the computer. This allows for the greatest amount of artistic freedom and allows photographers to have a tremendous amount of control over the flaws in their equipment and methodologies. Of course, the inevitable arguments arise among photographers and the public regarding the authenticity of an image and cries of "Photoshopping" are heard 'round the world. In fact, I can think of only one other art-form (music) where the "authenticity" of the art is even questioned. In music, the purists argue that any use of technology such as auto-tuning, re-recording loops, etc. is cheating the art-form. I see many parallels between music and photography in that regard.

My friend Zachary Bright put it best when he stated:

1. If I manipulate an image too much, it’s not photography.

2. If I don’t manipulate an image enough, it’s not art.

However, a potentially disturbing trend has emerged and become quite popular, especially on social media - not only are landscape photographers using Photoshop to control contrast, white balance, saturation, and sharpening, they are also using it to: add in objects that were not in the photograph such as a person, meteors, the moon, a mountain, or the Milky Way core; add objects that are literally not even possible to be seen in the scene depicted such as galactic objects, the moon, and the Milky Way core; or, to grossly exaggerate the size of certain objects such as mountains, lakes, rivers, people, etc. On the surface, it seems that certain landscape photographers have become so desperate for a sliver of social media attention in a suddenly over-crowded field that they are incapable of restraint. Or, it's just art, let it be. Which one?

The question I wish to pose and attempt to answer is: "Is it acceptable to employ these controversial post-processing methodologies, and does it even matter?"

This article is meant to be a deep exploration into that question as I believe that this is a topic worthy of deep analysis and thoughtful examination.

Shall we begin?

The forms of Unrealism in Landscape Photography

To start with, let us consider the different forms of "unrealistic" post-processing that exist today. I thought I would use some of my own photography to demonstrate how this works.

First, let's examine what I like to call the "post-processing" continuum. This is meant mostly as a guide of showing extremes and everything in between, with white representing purist perspective (no editing what-so-ever) and black representing the other extreme (swapping in skies, adding Milky Ways, making the moon bigger, etc). Everything else is in "the gray zone." The placement of each form of unrealistic post-processing was purely subjective on my part, but I think it is a fair portrayal. Where you stand on what is acceptable or not is up to you; however, later in the article, I pose some arguments that may make you think twice.

1. Purists

Purists represent a relatively small number of landscape photographers that are either shooting film or are shooting .JPG format and don't realize that their camera is applying an algorithm of variables including saturation, contrast, white balance, and sharpening and is post-processing on their behalf. We won't spend time arguing the merits of shooting .JPG vs. RAW here, but if you need a primer, this one is good.

2. Overcoming Technology to show what was actually there (exposure blending, luminosity masking, and focus stacking)

These methods are quite common in landscape photography today. While cameras and lenses are getting better and better, it is sometimes still necessary to blend multiple exposures to bring out all of the details in both the shadows and highlights or to overcome other things like diffraction. One such extreme example of this can be seen in one of my personal favorite images:

Milky Way over Colorado Mountains
Milky Way

In order to bring out the extreme details of the Milky Way, I shot the stars at ISO 10,000 for 10 seconds. This introduced a tremendous amount of noise to the foreground. In order to compensate, I shot a second exposure of the foreground at ISO 1600 for 243 seconds with Noise Reduction turned on. I then blended them together. The Milky Way was really there at that time and the mountains were really there at that time. The RAW files are below.

Milky Way

Milky Way

3. Same scene, different times of day

This is more common with night photographers, but essentially the idea is to capture a photograph of a scene closer to sunset or sunrise to allow for lower ISO images with subsequent reduced noise which are then blended into the same scene at a different time of day from the same perspective. This is also referred to as a blue hour blend. Many very famous and well-respected night photographers, including Michael Bollino, Joshua Snow, and Mike Taylor use this technique on a regular basis. One such example from my own gallery is this image of the Milky Way over Mexican Hat. I shot a panorama of the scene at blue hour and then another panorama of the same exact scene (in fact, my tripod never moved) later in the night when the Milky Way was in position.

Blue Hour Blended Panorama Milky Way
Milky Way 2

4. Focal Length blending

This is a relatively new technique which I dabbled in back in 2015. I am not even sure if others were doing it, but I got a creative idea in the field and executed it later using Photoshop. Essentially, the idea is to blend a scene shot from the exact same spot using two focal lengths (usually wide and telephoto). Wide angle lenses make distant objects look really small and closer objects large, whereas telephoto lenses make distant objects look closer. I took one photo of the flowers in the foreground at 14mm (very wide) and another of Mount Hood at 200mm. I then blended the two to look like they were taken at the same time in the same shot.

An image showcasing a perspective blend
Perspective Blend

Perspective Blending

Perspective Blending

5. Same scene, different day

The idea here is that two images are blended together to show what a scene would look like at a different time of year or if there actually were nice clouds, etc. This is a very common practice among some landscape photographers, known as "sky swapping." In fact, the scene can be made even more fantasy-like by blending focal lengths AND skies, such as the example below, which is sadly one of my best selling images.

A fake Milky Way over Mount Sneffels.
Fake Milky Way

6. Warping objects to make them look bigger

In this type of post-processing, you have some of the most egregious examples of post-processing. Moons are doubled, tripled, quadrupled in size. Mountains are made to look bigger by stretching them. The most classic use of this technique is the presentation of a full moon or a lunar eclipse in a wide angle shot with the moon enlarged. F-Stoppers recently posted an article about Peter Lik's recent moon image that pretty much confirmed that it was a total fake. A clear giveaway here is usually atmospheric refraction (or rather, the lack thereof). Additionally, with sharp lunar photographs, the edge of the moon should appear bumpy due to mountains and craters. Here's an example of a real moon photo I shot several years ago with a 300mm lens with a 1.4 teleconverter attached. I was accused of the image being fake. The only "size" enhancement I did was to crop the image. Here are the images (exported from RAW). Notice the atmospheric refraction which makes the moon look a little oblong.

Good Moon Rising

I captured this rising moon from the Garden of the Gods. The moon was rising just behind Penrose Hospital, several miles to the east of me in Colorado Springs. There was a thin layer of clouds making it hard to get the moon sharp, but it helped a lot with the color/hue, so I can't complain!

Good Moon Rising

I captured this rising moon from the Garden of the Gods. The moon was rising just behind Penrose Hospital, several miles to the east of me in Colorado Springs. There was a thin layer of clouds making it hard to get the moon sharp, but it helped a lot with the color/hue, so I can't complain!

7. Totally different scenes blended and the scene is impossible to exist naturally

Perhaps the most controversial use of unreal post-processing is the practice of blending two scenes into one photograph that could never exist. For example, a photographer captures an incredibly sharp image of the Milky Way at various elevations over the course of one night using a star tracker and voilà - you now have a few base layers of the Milky Way that you can re-use over and over again in any given scene, even if the Milky Way is never actually visible over your chosen foreground. There are several well-known photographers that employ this methodology to great success. The give-away to the un-informed bystander is when a person's images of the night sky all start to the look the same, when objects such as clouds, airglow, or light pollution all look the same in every image. I personally had the opportunity to use a star tracker this year and it is a very amazing device. Basically, the device follows the rotation of the earth to allow for much lower ISO shots with longer exposures of the night sky, creating crystal clear images. Below you can see a completely unedited .RAW export of an image I was able to get with it.

Tracked Milky Way

8. Adding objects that were not there

This is highly related to #7 above. The most common things I've seen done are: adding a moon where a moon was never at; adding meteors to images where a meteor never fell; adding people to images where people never were; adding deep sky astrophotography objects to scenes where they would never even be visible (OK let's admit it, they are only visible using deep-sky equipment and never combined with a foreground); adding sources of light where no sources of light existed, etc. I don't have many examples of this in my own work because I gave it up a long time ago; however, here is one example from Oregon where I added in a moon where the moon never was. Also, I'm not super proud of the processing. Yeesh!

A fake moon over Mount Hood
Fake Moon

Now that we have established what we are talking about, let's move on to some analysis on what the ramifications, if any, are in using these techniques.

Ramifications of artistic composites and unreal post-processing in landscape photography

For this section, I am going to take four separate approaches to describe what I believe to be the ramifications of the uses of these techniques.

1. Landscape Photography as an Economy of Trust

You'll need to bear with me on this one, but I think there are strong correlations with basic economics and landscape photography as a consumed media. Just think about it for a minute - photographs are consumed, they are purchased, they are licensed, they sell people on an idea that a place exists and that nature is amazing. In that vein, I posit that landscape photography is an economy based on trust. When people see an image of a location, they are sold on the idea that if they also go to that location, they will have the opportunity to see what the photographer saw, or at least a reasonable facsimile of it. By presenting images that are literally impossible to exist, trust in that idea is completely eroded. The ramifications are not only individual but also global - all landscape photographers suffer. Indeed, if we believe that pursuit of these techniques is in any way an adoption of a policy, then we must consider how those policies will impact the craft of landscape photography. In his classic 1946 book, Economics in One Lesson, Henry Hazlitt explains: "The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups." Meaning, short-term personal gain may have consequences on other landscape photographers later.

In my opinion, when some of the techniques are employed (especially #7 and #8 above), it is no longer about showing the world how beautiful the natural world is, it's about creating an increasingly dramatic image every single time with total disregard for the implications of doing so. If you're compositing an image and you pass your photograph off as real, you're trading in people's future belief in landscape photography as a medium, you're eroding that economy based on trust. You're creating something that was more amazing than what existed, and in the future, people will look at a photograph and say, "maybe that's real, maybe not." In the below example, the mountains and sunset were very real; however, I used a technique by which I flipped the image and created a mirror to make it look like a reflection. I then added rocks from another foreground to make it look more real. Is it pretty? Sure. Is it real? No. Guess what question people asked the most? Where's that lake!?

A fake lake reflection.
Fake Reflection

2. Supply and Demand

There are plenty of photographers trying to naturally represent the landscape. I posit that post-processing techniques #2 and #3 above all fall into this category, more or less. There are landscape photographers busting their ass to get a photograph, including: doing research on locations, watching the weather, spending hundreds of hours driving, spending countless days and nights at a location to capture something special, being in the right place at the right time, and of course, using their equipment correctly. With some of these post-processing techniques, you literally can eliminate almost all of the hard work involved and short-cut the entire process to create fantasy-like photographs of places and times that never really occurred. The result is a diversion of demand to fake, hyper-real imagery away from authentic imagery. Since demand for landscape photography as a consumable medium is finite, this unfairly diverts sales, accolades, awards, customers, and work away from those photographers working hard to those willing to take short-cuts and trick consumers into believing a false reality. Simply put, the easier something is produced, the greater the supply. The greater the supply, the lower the profit from existing demand.

To further illustrate this point, I hope to present an analogy which can be especially poignant for any sports fans. In sports, there is the problem of athletes that use performance enhancing drugs such as Human Growth Hormone, Steroids, or other doping schemes. The impact of these drugs is that it artificially enhances that athlete's ability to perform at their given sport. In baseball it was home-runs for Barry Bonds. In cycling, it was faster times for Lance Armstrong. The effect on the ecosystem was that in order to compete, one needed to also use these drugs. Consumers (fans) of the sport came to expect more and more out of the athletes until they were exposed for their behavior. In my opinion, it is no different in landscape photography.

The below photo is an example of what is really possible. Through planning and scouting, I placed myself in the ideal location to capture the Milky Way directly above Cape Kiwanda at 1 AM in August. Someone employing tactics 7 and 8 could just go take a shot of this place during the day and then swap in a Milky Way above it and call it good. That's highway robbery, sir!

Vertical milky way
Milky Way

3. Demoralization of other photographers

Another case I'll make to demonstrate the ramifications of the use of some of these techniques is flat out demoralization of other photographers. Photographers spending countless hours in the field to try to get an authentic image are greatly discouraged when an up-and-comer re-creates or completely blows away their vision with a few clicks of the mouse in Photoshop (OK, it's a little more complicated than that, but a $75 tutorial or a few hours on YouTube will teach you everything you need to know about composites). I've heard a lot of photographers (including myself) say that to avoid this phenomenon, you should just focus on your own work and not worry about what other people do; however, that is a really hard pill to swallow when you put in the hard work to create an image that was completely authentic (with no print sales) only to see someone else create something totally over-the-top and receive viral attention and sales. This is particularly painful when the fantasy-like image is obviously impossible. For example, in the recent blood moon event, the moon set in the West at dawn, yet I saw images of the moon set in the Eastern sky with sunrise light under it.

Maybe this fits the definition of jealousy, I don't know: "resentment against a rival, a person enjoying success or advantage, etc., or against another's success of advantage itself."

I personally feel like it is not jealousy because I don't want to be known for creating images that are unreal. That's too easy.

I know I'm not alone - I know of one very famous photographer in particular that has given up photography altogether because of this phenomenon.

An image of the Blood Moon over Shiprock
Blood Moon

Single exposure of the recent lunar eclipse over Shiprock. ISO 1600, f/7.1, 138mm, 4s - totally real!

4. Landscape Photography as a vehicle for conservation

I’m a strong believer that landscape photography can and should be used as a vehicle for good in the realm of conservation. This is perhaps the most damaging ramification of all for using unrealistic post-processing techniques- the general public can no longer trust that a photograph actually represents a location that needs to be conserved; in fact, the more prevalent these types of images become, the less people will actually care - just go Photoshop in what it should still look like. Who needs reality? This type of processing directly undermines the effect that landscape photography can have for good. Additionally, when one employs extreme post-processing methods (#7 and 8 especially), I posit that they don't have a real connection to that landscape - a necessary component if one is to fully and truly use their art as a medium for conservation.

Possible motivations for digital manipulation and why this occurs to begin with

I've talked to a lot of photographers about this and have done some deep introspection regarding my own personal motivations relating to post-processing, especially using techniques #4-8. For myself, my motivations were two-fold:

1. It was a creative outlet and something to try for fun

2. I genuinely wanted a way to get my photography noticed more frequently by consumers with the end game being increased print sales and prestige among my peers (there, I admit it)

I've heard over and over again from people regularly using techniques #6, #7, and #8 that they only do it because they want to create artwork and share it with the world. In fact, they claim to have no financial stake in their behavior at all (regardless of the fact that they sell online tutorials and teach workshops relating to their techniques).

What can behavioral science tell us about this phenomenon? Quite a lot actually.

1. Social comparison and dishonesty - why people cheat

In order for this explanation to work, I need to convince you that landscape photography could be seen as a competition, despite what many of my podcast guests have suggested. Given my economical arguments above, I think that it makes perfect sense to state that landscape photography can be seen as a competition. Competition is, in general, a contest or rivalry between two or more entities for territory, a niche, for scarce resources, goods, for mates, for prestige, recognition, for awards, for group or social status, or for leadership and profit. Unless you're not monetizing your photography, giving your art away for free, and teaching workshops for free, your actions as a landscape photographer land you squarely within this definition whether you care to admit it or not.

Social psychological experiments have demonstrated that when people succeed in competition against others, it seems to compromise their ethics. It makes them more likely to cheat afterwards. Winning a competition engenders subsequent unrelated unethical behavior. The studies revealed that after a competition has taken place, winners behave more dishonestly than competition losers. The studies also demonstrated that winning a competition increases the likelihood of winners to steal money from their counterparts in a subsequent unrelated task. Additionally, the studies demonstrated that the effect holds only when winning means performing better than others (i.e., determined in reference to others) but not when success is determined by chance or in reference to a personal goal. Finally, the studies demonstrated that a possible mechanism underlying the effect is an enhanced sense of entitlement among competition winners.

According to Amos Schurr, the study's author and professor of psychology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, "People who win competitions feel more entitled, and that feeling of entitlement is what predicts dishonesty." In the words of the Roberto Ferdman, the author of the article from the Washington Post about the study, "In other words, when people win against others, they tend to think they're better, or more deserving. And that thinking helps them justify cheating, since, after all, they're the rightful heir to whatever throne is next — If I'm better than you, I might as well make sure I win, because I deserve to anyway."

A mountain scene from Colorado
Mountain View

This photograph of mine is totally real and employed absolutely no Photoshop techniques. How can you tell? It's pretty dull (haha).

2. Moral Disengagement

Tapping deeper into social psychology, we discover the concept of moral disengagement. I strongly believe that moral disengagement helps to explain all sorts of disturbing behavior we encounter as landscape photographers, including destruction of sensitive locations, buying followers on Instagram, and more. For this article; however, I will attempt to use it to describe the behavior of using post-processing techniques to create an image that otherwise would be impossible to create.

According to, moral disengagement is "a term used to describe the process by which an individual convinces himself that ethical standards do not apply to him within a particular situation or context. Moral Disengagement can be further broken down into four categories: reconstructing immoral conduct, diffusing responsibility, dehumanizing the victim, and misrepresenting injurious consequences." For the purposes of this article, we will only refer to the reconstructing immoral conduct and misrepresenting injurious consequences.

"Reconstructing conduct is a method of moral disengagement in which the actor depicts an otherwise morally reprehensible behavior as having some sort of moral purpose. In this way he convinces himself that the behavior is now acceptable." Time and time again I have heard photographers say that what they are doing is creating art for the world to enjoy, inspiring others to do the same. It is like they all practiced this line and regurgitate it whenever they're confronted with the truth. So, I guess as long as their work is considered "art" and "inspires others" it is totally acceptable? Following the concept of moral disengagement, this response completely makes sense.

"Misrepresenting injurious consequences is a method of moral disengagement in which the actor attempts to avoid admitting to himself that his conduct is wrong by ignoring personal reflection on what the negative consequences of his behavior might be." I personally think this one hits home for so many photographers, yet many are afraid to admit it, or they are simply unaware of the consequences of their behavior (which we've covered at length above). I think this is also highly related to the next social psychological concept that is related - cognitive dissonance.

3. Cognitive Dissonance

Of all the social psychological concepts, this one perhaps has the most application to this topic. According to Simply Psychology, "cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. This produces a feeling of discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance, etc.

For example, when people smoke (behavior) and they know that smoking causes cancer (cognition).

Cognitive dissonance theory suggests that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and avoid disharmony (or dissonance). This is known as the principle of cognitive consistency.

Let's explore this further. The conflicting beliefs are: "Unrealistic post-processing is fine, I'm creating art, it has no impact on anyone, or, anything else," and, "Unrealistic post-processing is cheating, even though it looks amazing, it's not authentic and it is lying to my audience." That's pretty discomforting trying to hold both of those beliefs at the same time!

According to cognitive dissonance theory, there is a tendency for individuals to seek consistency among their cognitions (i.e., beliefs, opinions). When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance.

Dissonance can be reduced in one of three ways:

1. Change one or more of the attitudes, behavior, beliefs, etc., to make the relationship between the two elements a consonant one.

When one of the dissonant elements is a behavior, the individual can change or eliminate the behavior. However, this mode of dissonance reduction frequently presents problems for people, as it is often difficult for people to change well-learned behavioral responses (e.g., using unrealistic post-processing techniques to showcase your artwork).

2. Acquire new information that outweighs the dissonant beliefs (hey maybe that's why you're here to begin with).

For example, thinking unrealistic post-processing is ultimately bad for landscape photography could cause dissonance if a person uses these techniques. However, new information such as “unrealistic post-processing is an innovative way to showcase your vision” may reduce the dissonance.

3. Reduce the importance of the cognitions (i.e., beliefs, attitudes).

A person could convince themselves that it is better to "only care about what I do for me" than to "consider my behavior's impact on landscape photography as an art-form."

In other words, he could tell himself that only caring about their own photography is better than caring about the craft as a whole or the impact on other photographers. In this way, he would be decreasing the importance of the dissonant cognition (unrealistic post-processing does have a negative impact on landscape photography).

Salt and rivulets of water reflect vibrant and beautiful sunrise light at Death Valley National Park.
The magic of Death Valley and amazing sunrise light reflected in salt flats - a real scene in nature.

What Now? Is All Hope Lost? Should I Uninstall Photoshop!? Do People Buying Prints Even Care?!

At the end of the day, only you can decide what line to draw in the sand, if any. Through my podcast, I’ve heard all perspectives on this and at the end of the day, no one is really “right.” I do believe; however, that using some of the more extreme post-processing techniques is ultimately bad for landscape photography. You may not agree with all of my assertions; however, if one person (me) is willing to dedicate the amount of time it took to write this article about the subject, then you can bet that it matters. People do care about this topic and people are impacted by it.

Additionally, I don’t think people in the market to purchase photographic prints care all that much about how an image is created. In fact, my friend TJ Thorne stated on my podcast ” Either an image moves you, or it doesn’t, how it was created is irrelevant.” I still believe that’s mostly true when it comes to the consumption of art; however, I strongly believe that my analysis here demonstrates that there are hidden costs to that attitude. Also, I think we all can agree that we would hope that consumers of our medium had good taste.

My only plea for those employing these techniques:

Please tell the truth about your photography! Don’t just say, “created in Photoshop” – that’s not good enough. If it was, then no one would trust anything edited in Photoshop which I think would be a huge mistake. Come clean. Tell people that your images are not real. Don’t let the public lose trust in our art-form. And for Pete’s sake, stop being so damn defensive about the topic. What do you have to lose? If I’m wrong, your fans will still love your work and won’t care. If I’m right, they will still love your work but will be more informed regarding how your work was created.

Feel free to leave a comment below – what did you agree or disagree with? Did I change anyone’s mind, or are you still sitting comfortably on your cloud of reduced dissonance?

Posted in Articles and tagged Photoshop.

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