Editing Landscape and Travel Photos (How Much is Too Much?)

Photography is art – perhaps we have something to learn from painters

By Andy Strote – visit ExploreDiscoverShoot on YouTube

For years photographers have discussed, debated and argued about the editing and altering of photographs. This is especially true of landscape photographers.

Typically, the discussion focuses on “too much” editing that makes elements of the photograph too dramatic or unnatural for some.

I think it’s a silly debate and most of these discussions can be safely ignored. The photography we’re talking about falls into the category of art, and as such, anything goes. Whether or not you like it, whether it’s to your taste, is another matter entirely.

Landscape and travel photographers are neither news photographers nor government archivists.

My Reaction to This Vlog

I watched Simon Burn’s vlog on this subject, and that got me thinking. Have a look at the video and then come back for the rest.

Two Photo Editing Accusations: Unskilled or Tasteless

Generally, the talk is that either the photographer / editor must be just starting out and is not yet skilled enough to produce quality work, or is simply lacking taste.

That’s the point Simon makes in his first example. “… common mistakes that we all make when we start out…”

Dramatic landscape photo with dramatic editing

Too much editing, amateur hour or just right to make a point?

Really? Who says they’re mistakes? To borrow some of Mark Littlejohn’s quote in the video, maybe it simply doesn’t fit with your vision of what photography should be about.

Perhaps it’s difficult to accept that a photo not to your liking isn’t a mistake or the work of an amateur, but exactly as the photographer had intended, and is in fact pleasing to others.

I think it’s also important to acknowledge, that over the years, a photographer’s style may change and evolve in composition, editing and subject matter. Sometimes, it seems to me, not enough. Certainly not at the rate of change we’ve seen from many painters.

Dramatic landscape photo with more traditional editing

Does a more traditional edit lose something, or is it just right?

Photographers Could Look to Painters for Guidance

When photography first came along, it was seen as a way of keeping records. A photo showed “this is how it was at this time and place”. Whether it was portraits, cityscapes or landscapes, these were deemed to be true records of what the camera saw.

It took many decades for photography to be viewed as any type of art form, as an expression of a photographer’s vision.

To some degree, that notion of a photo existing simply as a record still exists.

It was never like that for painters. To begin with, painting was generally about ideas and storytelling, often of religious subjects, or portraits of royalty or wealthy patrons. In any case, the goal wasn’t necessarily to record reality, but to enhance the subject and make him or her look smart, powerful, rich and in the case of religious images, to be worshipped.

Even landscapes were highly idealized, sometimes with Roman or Greek ruins thrown in for good measure.

Many paintings told allegorical stories to a largely illiterate population. The paintings and stained glass decorating European cathedrals are all Bible stories. Since the church paid the bills, they dictated subject matter. (Look what happens when the church doesn’t call the shots – read about the Matisse chapel in Vence, France.)

There was never a question of whether they depicted reality – how could they, the artist wasn’t on hand to paint Mary and the baby Jesus.

But Even Artists Tried to Create Rules

It’s understandable that patrons or churches would want to dictate the subject and style of a painting. But artists did it to themselves, much like photographers today.

You only have to go back to the mid-1800s when French artists participated in government-sanctioned salons to see how the establishment tried to reign in younger artists presenting a fresh vision.

For the salons, artists submitted their work and a jury would decide what was accepted or rejected, based on their “rules”.

When impressionist landscape painting first surfaced, it was roundly rejected. Wrong subject matter, wrong painting styles, not technically skilled enough to suit the salon (sound familiar?).

Finally, the impressionists created their own salons, and their landscapes became enormously popular with collectors and art lovers.

That opened the floodgates for styles that veered ever further from strict representation to all manner of abstraction. (See the Matisse landscape at the top of the page.)

Two Picasso portraits side by side

A more traditional portrait by Picasso in 1896. By 1909 he’d made radical changes

Artists Evolve from Conservative to More Radical

If you study the work of artists such as Matisse, Van Gogh, Picasso or Rothko, you’ll notice that they are at their most conservative in their early years and grow more radical as they continue to explore.

When they start out, they’re building on what they learned in school and from other artists they’re associating with. They’re finding their way. So, their work tends to be based on what they’ve seen, what they know.

But as they progress and turn out more work, they’re looking to grow beyond what they’ve already done to branch out into new fields of exploration. At that point, they often leave representation and realism behind. They’re looking for fresh ways to tell their stories and make a mark.

Mark Rothko painting of subway entrance

Mark Rothko captures the feeling of a NYC subway entrance, 1938

Mark Rothko abstract painting

By 1947, just nine years later, Rothko left representation behind and painted pure abstraction

Photographers Now Call Themselves Storytellers

If “every picture tells a story” as many photographers posit, then I suggest we let them tell whatever story they like.

For some that means slightly enhancing an image to compensate for the shortcomings of the camera, lens or light.

Many photographers take greater liberty with their shots to add drama by manipulating shadows and light to guide the eye (see Ansel Adams’ Yosemite photographs).

Other landscape photographers take a more liberal approach to fulfill their vision, replacing grey skies with technicolor sunsets, super-saturating colours or moving buildings to create better balance.

From our perspective, it’s all valid. We may not like all of it today (and we’re free to change our minds tomorrow), but we’re open to the photographer’s interpretation. For us, landscape photography tells a story. It’s art, not a documentary.

Dramatic landscape photo with colourful editing

A study in contrast, or just an annoying edit? It’s never been easier to explore

Dramatic landscape image with colourful editing

Another play at colour, contrast and composition. Background for a poster with type?

Andy Strote

In Andy’s career as a copywriter and creative director in advertising and marketing, he has created numerous campaigns for corporate clients in all media. On these projects, he worked closely with leading photographers and commercial directors.

Along the way, Andy was the co-founder of two successful marketing agencies. The first, which he started in partnership with Simon, often featured Simon’s photography and videography in our campaigns. We grew that company to 30 people before it was acquired by a multi-national IT firm.

Sixteen years after starting his second marketing firm, Andy sold his interest and now has more time to devote to travel which fuels his photography.

Today, our love of photography, filmmaking and the creative communities that surround these passions has brought us together in ExploreDiscoverShoot.

There has never been a better time to be a photographer or filmmaker. Now the onus is on you to grab your camera and go!

Andy Strote


In Andy’s career as a copywriter and creative director in advertising and marketing, he has created numerous campaigns for corporate clients in all media. On these projects, he worked closely with leading photographers and commercial directors.

Along the way, Andy was the co-founder of two successful marketing agencies. The first, which he started in partnership with Simon, often featured Simon’s photography and videography in our campaigns. We grew that company to 30 people before it was acquired by a multi-national IT firm.

Sixteen years after starting his second marketing firm, Andy sold his interest and now has more time to devote to travel which fuels his photography.

Today, our love of photography, filmmaking and the creative communities that surround these passions has brought us together in ExploreDiscoverShoot.

There has never been a better time to be a photographer or filmmaker. Now the onus is on you to grab your camera and go!

1 Comment

  1. Chris

    I agree with much of what you say, and I certainly get the point that art isnt a simple matter of right/ wrong. I do think, though, that not all art is equally successful and that eg a picture can be over or under processed. We use some shared criteria – which can be challenged but do act as starting points. Why else do we have the concept of ‘improving’?

    Reply

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