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I’ve been noticing a trend recently in people’s attitudes and perceptions on landscape and nature photography. I see it across different segments of people I talk to and work with—photographers on workshops, print buyers in galleries, people I follow and who follow me on social media, and just talking to friends on the street.

But I’m also seeing it in the industry as well, whether that be professional established photographers or leading magazines.

What trend am I talking about? The trend towards a more organic manipulation and processing of images, a return to reality, veracity, and hopefully art for art’s sake.

I’m getting a strong sense that the tides are changing against a heavy-handed approach to digital processing and manipulation. People are not impressed anymore with super saturation, or technical perfection, or perfectly exposed images where every tonality is perfectly captured and presented leaving little to the imagination.

On my recent talk at the Sierra Club in NYC to about 65 members, I mentioned how HDR has gotten a bad reputation because it has been abused, and how in many cases it hurts an image, and many nodded their heads in agreement.

Now to be clear, I’m talking about images that are shared with the intent of being fine-art in nature. I don’t think anyone cares if you’re up front about what your work is (or isn’t). But if it’s landscape or nature photography in the lineage of Elliot PorterAnsel Adams, Galen Rowell, or David Muench, then there’s a tradition of veracity and artistic merit that is expected.

Here are a few real world examples that I’ve come across that made me think of this change, and where we might be heading.

Facebook

I frequently post images on my Facebook page, and enjoy the feedback I get from followers and friends – positive and negative. It’s a great way to get a reality check on my own work and it keeps me honest. I also look at other photos that are posted, and it’s easy to see that images where there’s lots of manipulation or extreme HDR processing are often shunned by others.

National Geographic

We all know how NG symbolizes the epitome of the nature photographer, working under difficult conditions to capture rare, evocative moments in nature that tell a story. It’s what got me excited about photography as a 9 yr old when I couldn’t understand the words, but the pictures were so captivating.

So I wasn’t really surprised when I noticed recently that the rules for their photo contests prohibit images processed with HDR. I suspect this is not because there is anything wrong or dis-honest about HDR, but because it has been used in a way that exceeds people’s expectations of reality.

Tom Till

Tom Till is one of the worlds best landscape photographers, and based out of Moab Utah. His work is primarily of the southwest, has his own gallery in Moab, and has been influential to many including myself.

Recently however, he wrote an article for Outdoor Photographer Magazine where he regretted how overly saturated his prints have been over the past two years. This was very interesting to me since I had visited his gallery in Moab earlier this year and thought the very same thing. Why was a photographer of Tom’s caliber and experience going too far (in my opinion at the time) with his processing? Surely he didn’t need to given his mastery of composition, light, and ability to capture truly unique images in such a popular location.

Or did he? I wondered, and thought about where photography was heading.

Then he wrote this truly eye-opening article which was timely and brutally honest. We can all learn from it, and I have a deeper respect for Tom and his work after reading it. (And I certainly respected him before.) Read it now, then come back when you’re done. It’s that good.

Conclusions

So where does this leave us as landscape photographers? I think there a few points we can take away and I want to share them here with you.

  • Perceptions Matter – Regardless of how we chose to express our creativity, people have perceptions of what is real vs what is not. Yes there is lots of room for interpretation and opinion here, but there is a line where I think many have crossed with HDR and other types of manipulation. If you’re work is photo realistic or similar, then say so. But, I do believe the subject matter and aesthetic content of your work has to reflect that as well.
  • Digital Processing is a Tool – Just as great painters master their medium, so we as photographers must master our tools. This includes our digital tools like Photoshop and Lightroom. There’s no excuse not to become as versed as possible in your chosen RAW processor, the alternative is to be mastered by it, and it’s easy to see how that can lead even the best artists astray.
  • Find Your Voice – Composition, vision, and story will always trump the impressive yet short-lived approach of over saturation, processing, and eye-catching manipulation. Focus on your opinion, your way of seeing, and make that an integral part of your work. And stop comparing yourself to others.
  • Think Long Term – Sure instant gratification and immediate feedback is great, but what about after a month, a year, a decade? Will your images stand the test of time? I believe they can. Images that transcend the subject, location, or specific techniques will be valued and appreciated for much longer than those without these timeless qualities. An image may have a high initial impact, but if that’s because of ultra-realism, will be at risk to have the same positive reaction in the future.

Finally, please remember these are my opinions, and only mine. I’d love to hear yours if you have a differing one, or perhaps just a different perspective. I’m always open to hearing your feedback. Thanks as always for reading!

RR Jr

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This Post Has 17 Comments
  1. I think the obviously overdone images will pass with time as a fad. When I see those types of images, it doesn’t strike me as artistic vision. It strikes me as “crap work”. I’d like to believe that the general public can tell the difference.

    1. Thanks for the feedback Richard, and sorry for the delay in my response. I agree that I also hope the general public can tell the difference, but I’m also afraid that photographers are falling victim to this mentality – like Tom Till who is definitely a extremely talented photographer. I wish it were so simple, but the reality is far from it. I hope as more people both write about it and express their perspective, we’ll develop a better appreciation and understanding of this important issue. thanks!

      RR

  2. I glad I follow your blog so I found the link to Tom Tills article. I was in his gallery in May 2011 and was dismayed at the intensity of the color. Having just come from Dead Horse I knew, even under the best light, the colors were “off”. I sort of knew his work & wondered. It seemed less like art & more like decoration. We all could use such a good friend with an honest opinion.

    1. Thanks CottonM, and you are right about Tom’s willingness to be honest and forthright. These are the qualities of a true artist, and as I mentioned before, offers much to learn from. Thanks for stopping in, appreciate your feedback very much.

      RR

  3. Apparently great minds think alike, Kurt Budliger is having many of the same thoughts on his blog http://www.ianplant.com/blog/2012/12/13/selective-blending/

    My Dad, who got me into photography, has asked pointedly “Is that ‘processed’?” about some of my work. I ask what he means and tell him that I worked on it Lightroom to slightly spot adjust exposure, nothing that couldn’t be done in a darkroom.

    Signed,
    Too cheap to buy a grad ND filter.

    1. Thanks for the insights and link, and enjoyed Kurt’s article as well. Good grad filters are’t cheap, and much can be done in post-processing, but I do like the option of having a very useful tool when I need it. There are some cases when a grad is the only option…again whatever works for you.

      RR

  4. Loved the honesty in the Tom Tills article. And I am so glad to see the heavy handed approach is losing favor. I have had people ask me when I have a particularly colorful image what HDR I use and the answer is always the same “just nature”. I am slowly learning to detail images more but when I do use any “processing” I say so.
    I am such a fan of your art. I always feel like I am sitting in the scene. I am so grateful that you share your images of peace and nature. Oh and thanks for posting all your helpful hints!!

    1. Thanks for the very kind words Nancy, and for your support – I appreciate it,but really just want to share and get others thinking and doing for themselves instead of always comparing to others. Have a great holiday!

      RR

  5. I don’t see what the issue is. I don’t think there’s a landscape artist out there, whether its Tom Till, Ansel Adams, or Robert Rodriguez, Jr., who’s images truly reflect reality, nor do I think that should be their objective, and that’s precisely why we love their images. I’ve been looking at the Hudson River for 49 years and yet I always love a Robert Rodriguez, Jr. image because it shows it to me from a new angle, or with new lighting or shading, or with new colors, and I know for a fact that much of that was added by the artist. You recently posted an article showing how you “developed” a particular image. Your goal wasn’t to represent reality, it was to express your emotions. The same could be said of the Hudson River school of artists (Frederick Church, Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, etc.). I defy you to find any spot along the Hudson that looks like a Frederick Church painting. If we just wanted to see reality, we’d take the pictures off our walls and cut out windows instead.

    Having said all that, I’m not arguing that supersaturating digital images, or the use of HDR is necessarily a good thing. I just think we shouldn’t condemn the techniques just because they have been used injudiciously. Artists should be allowed to experiment and to change over time. If Tom Till saturated his images because he felt it was beautiful at the time then so be it; and if he later changes his mind he should be free to do that as well.

    One final note (sorry for being so long winded), I think whether or not one saturates colors in an image might also be dictated by how that image will be used. If something will be used in a glossy color magazine ad then one needs a splash of bright colors to capture the readers eyes. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to hang that on my wall and look at it for a year. For art work a more subdued image might be more appropriate.

    p.s., thanks for raising the thought-provoking issue.

    1. Hi Bill,

      Thanks for your feedback and for sharing with all of us here. I welcome your perspective and hopefully it helps everyone who reads this. I would like to clarify some points I made based on your comments. First, I never said interpretation wasn’t important or discouraged. On the contrary anyone who has taken a workshop with me knows I emphasize the emotional content of an image, and the importance of conveying not what you saw, but what you felt. And I agree we should not condemn any technique, they are just tools…as I’ve also stated ad infinitum in this blog. Not to mention that a camera does not see the way we do, and therefore the photograph must be interpreted or “developed”.

      This does not mean that I’m adding things to the image that weren’t there to begin with. But I also want to add my emotional connection, and that involves making sure the image tells the story or conveys what it is that made me press the shutter in the first place. If it’s not there in reality, I do not press the shutter…that’s just me. I do not “re-light” my images, nor feel the need to add purple clouds when they were just as impressive when grey.

      While the Hudson River School painters idealized the landscape, people perceive painting and photography differently, and the artistic license that painters enjoy is not easily enjoyed by photographers simply because the subject matter is similar. That’s much of the reason why it took so long for photography to be accepted as an “art form”, and even today there are many who do not accept it as such.

      We each need to decide what works best for us, and more importantly, why we’re making photographs. Each of us has the opportunity and freedom to express our creativity in whatever way we choose. The question for me is whether we’re really expressing our creativity or simply adding to the noise. It’s something I struggle with every day.

      RR

  6. Robert,

    Carol and I were also of the same opinion or feeling when we visited Tom’s Gallery. I knew of him before we went to Moab, but was surprised to see his images being so oversaturated. The colors of Moab do lead to this as it is almost unwordly, but you need to step back and see where you are at times. I know Ansel Adams started to print with much higher contrast as he got older. It is amazing to see the difference in his prints over the years. As a person who does print my own images, I often feel they are not just right, but am not clear how or why. I know it is tough when you don’t get much feedback. I think the idea of sharing with others where you are on a frequent basis is essential. Great information, and the article was great. Thanks for sharing.

    Bill

    1. Great points Bill, especially since you were also in Moab when I visited Tom’s gallery. I’m getting uncomfortable talking about Tom so much, he is a great landscape photographer, and I didn’t want to make this about him, but rather use his article as an example that illustrates the challenges we face as photographers.

      It’s so easy to armchair this whole issue, but when you exhibit your work, it definitely becomes a whole new ball game. The idea for this article came to me when I was exhibiting at PhotoPlus this year, and over 2,500 people came through the booth and saw my prints. These were not just ordinary people, but people interested in some way of form in photography. The comments and feedback I heard echoed much of what I wrote here, so I know I’m nit imagining things.

      My advice is keep printing, experimenting, and showing your work. There’s nothing like the real world to develop the confidence you need to find your own voice, frustrating and difficult as it may be. It can be savage and downright cruel, but also powerful as you grow as a photographer. You’re on the right path Bill.

      RR

  7. Great article, Robert. I’ve been meaning to comment on it for some time, but am glad now to read some of the other excellent comments first. I say that the sky is the limit in terms of altering images, as long as you disclose the alterations you made. What I have an issue with is “photographers” who alter their images post-camera and try to give the impression that was how the scene looked. Nobody who proposes realism in photography is saying that photographs are “real.” However, there has been a contract built up over time between photographers and public perception that photographs are accurate representations of “reality.” Paintings never had this relationship. Paintings have always been assumed to alter reality. Whenever the art of photography is compared to the art of painting as a yardstick for realism, you are already going way further down the road toward the photograph BEING a painting than photography ever has gone before. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as it is done honestly and not by deceiving the viewer into believing your work is a photograph in the usual sense of that word. Photography is what the photographer does with a camera. Everything else afterward may be creative and wonderful, but it is not technically photography. The straight photographers looked down even on those who overly manipulated images in the darkroom. Edward Weston contact printed the majority of his work without any alteration or darkroom manipulation at all. For me, the use of Photoshop and other post-processing tools are best used in the ways that the darkroom was used to improve the final image. Photoshop is a superior tool to the darkroom. It is much more precise and diverse in application. Unfortunately, those who have very little artistic sense, except to make their images stand out as much as possible, have given Photoshop and even photography a bad name, which neither deserve. I have long predicted that the passing fad, as I have referred to it before, of over-saturation and over-manipulation, would eventually run its course and be seen for what it is, not always, but often: people who have inferior seeing skills trying to make up for it after the capture.

  8. This is a fascinating piece you created!

    After still finding myself within the Landscape realm, I choose not to ‘judge’ one based on how they go about doing it. At the end of the day for me, what really matters is ‘does the image speak to me’ whether it is by ‘truth’ without manipulation or anything else. On the other hand, many collectors care more about a traditional process as well as the final product.

    I’m heavily involved in Graphic Design so it is always tempting to manipulate at times but where does it start and where does it end? To be honest, it only matters to the artist himself and then it is only up to the viewers themselves to bite it or not.

    This leads me to asking myself from a more philosophical point of view. Am I doing this for myself? If so, then I can do what ever the…I want. This is usually deemed as an Artist’s expression not to be told what to do to create his/her own world. Am I doing this to make a living? Then, does the term ‘art’ sometimes gets lost somewhere along the lines? Maybe, maybe not.

    The irony in Photography is digital ‘manipulation’ which is mainly used to correct the imperfections of the camera itself. Basically, the camera doesn’t tell the whole truth and it is up to the artist to ‘manipulate’ after the fact in order to tell the whole truth, whether they want to or not. There’s a book that highlights the many different work and philosophical beliefs of photographers I would recommend. I’ll post it later when I remember the name. Photographers have been manipulating images from the start…make it lighter or make it darker in how they see fit. Personally, digital manipulation is no different. It just uses a different tool.

    The truth is we all have to be careful getting sucked into someone else’s Universal black hole and just concentrate on creating our own, however we see fit. Photography is a part of Art and there’s no rules to constrain ourselves to one thought process. Art is sometimes about breaking the rules and it is the very reason why many flock to it. Not to be told what to do, how to do it and when to do it. We are rebellious in nature.

    My POV and no one else…

    1. Hi Al – so sorry for my delay in responding, we have a newborn in the house, so I’ve been spending more time away from the computers, and more time enjoying the moments.

      You make lots of great points, and I don’t disagree with any of them. I never meant to judge how someone wants to interpret their images. My focus was on the perceptions of people in general when they look at landscape photography, and for me when and how they decide to purchase fine art prints. Of course this is an age old question that has been going on since the beginning of photography.

      At the end of the day, what matters is that you’re true to yourself, and creating work that makes you happy, and if you’re fortunate, makes others happy.

      RR

  9. I agree with doing away with the over processing. The over processing is giving photography a bad name and in my view banned in competitions.

    Just to add Robert I have watched your tube presentation on Landscapes and how to see. Love it. You are a great artist so thoughtful. Please keep on sharing.

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