When I work with an image, I want to create something pleasing to the eyes, a piece of art with a wow-factor. I desire to produce a scene that takes the viewer on a journey from foreground to background.
When it comes to editing, it really helps to have a guiding template. It helps the creative process. Many call this a creative vision. That said, I would never advocate or introduce rules for landscape photography. My photography’s core motivation is the freedom to express myself in whatever artistic fashion I find fulfilling. It should be the same for you.
For me, though, I have always found it helpful to have some guidelines that outline the direction I am heading. Walking blindfolded isn’t something I enjoy. I have adopted three main principles for my post-processing, and I will explain each of them in detail.
1. Going from cold to warm
Our eyes travel from cold tones to warm ones. This is one of the reasons why warm sunrise or sunset images are so popular on social media. Thinking in “cold to warm” terms has a significant impact on how I edit. In Lightroom (and Photoshop), I consciously attempt to manipulate the colors so that my immediate foreground is colder than the background.
The split toning feature in Lightroom, now replaced by Color Grading, is my favorite tool to achieve this effect. I add cold tones to the shadows and warm tones to the highlights, which usually provides a good starting point for further post-processing.
Going from high to low contrast
Once you start seeing contrast, you can’t unsee it. I was personally surprised at how I did not see it before with all the landscape photography masters. They almost always go from high contrast to low contrast in their art. If you look closely, you will see how their foregrounds have high contrast, while their backgrounds are low contrast.
One way of achieving this effect is to control the blacks throughout a scene. The darkest tones in the foreground are perhaps 90 percent black. The darks in the midground are a tad brighter, and the blacks furthest away even brighter.
Going from dark to bright
Sometimes my raw files have a bright foreground while the point of interest is much darker. This happens a lot with waterfalls. When I shoot waterfalls in a dimly lit location (like a ravine), I see bright places in the frame, while the waterfall itself is much darker. When that happens, the viewers’ eyes focus on the foreground. They are not led to the focal point because the light is incorrectly distributed throughout the frame.
The use of two radial filters in Lightroom is a quick way to change the light. The first brightens the waterfall. I invert the second and use it to darken everything else. Quite often, the only slider I use with the radial filters is exposure.
Sunset or sunrise scenes automatically create this dark to bright transition because the ground is darker than the sky. It’s hard to beat the sun for brightness. In Norway, we can have sunsets that last quite a while. As the colors in the sky grow in intensity, the ground is becoming increasingly darker. This wide dynamic range is quite a challenge for the camera sensor. However, you can overcome with the graduated filters or bracketed shooting.
Of course, the guidelines above are not a magic bullet. Not every image fits the mold, but having some idea where you would like your post-processing workflow to end is very helpful. Creating visual paths for the viewer will always create a more compelling image.