I’ve wondered for a long time what it means to be an ethical landscape photographer. Sure, this field isn’t known for its wide-reaching moral dilemmas or particularly sticky situations, but the question still deserves attention. As landscape photographers, we are in a rare position to show the Earth’s most amazing places to an audience of countless people. It makes sense to me that we should do so with respect. One of the most important rules? Don’t cause harm — not in the field, and, perhaps, not even in post-production.
In the field
What you find to be acceptable conduct in photography might change day-to-day, or even depending upon the sorts of people around you. There is a vague, ever-shifting line that most photographers try not to cross, but it isn’t necessarily easy to define or enforce upon yourself.
My hope, though, is that all photographers can agree on the most basic of limits: Don’t do lasting damage to the landscape that you’re photographing. If you return to the same place a year later and see traces of harm you caused in the past, you very likely made a severe mistake (and, if you’re on National Park land, potentially violated the law).
Yet, we still see cases of tourists driving across the Death Valley racetrack playa, and photographers burning irreplaceable archways. Is it that they do not accept such a simple statement as part of their moral codes? Or are they so overwhelmed by a beautiful scene that they forget to act rationally?
It is natural to place all immoral photographers in the first group — selfish people who do not care about their impact on a beautiful place. But, as someone who has spent a huge part of my life as a landscape photographer, I know firsthand how easy it can be to get swept away by an amazing sight. I don’t think that many photographers, if any, activelybelieve that it is acceptable to damage a landscape beyond repair, or in a way that takes decades to correct. These things happen because people’s temporary whims often outweigh their higher judgment, sometimes spectacularly. Being in an amazing location can be absolutely blinding.
I won’t excuse people who commit the worst sorts of damage and vandalism. Sometimes, selfishness really is the root cause of things. But I think a lot of good people also face smaller-scale ethical decisions, where the potential for harm is nowhere near as severe, yet the same short-term versus long-term battle comes into play. Those cases are why it is very important to have a clear-cut moral code for landscape photography from the start. If you think through things ahead of time, it is harder to get swept away in the moment later.
But this can be tricky when you look at specifics. Clearly, it’s wrong to ruin a landscape beyond repair, but what about dragging away a fallen branch that is harming a composition, or stepping off-trail to position your tripod better? Is it wrong to pick up a colorful, fallen leaf and place it onto a rock in your foreground — or, simply to hold back a few blades of grass that keep blowing into your frame?
For you, these examples might range from wildly harmful to completely benign, but everyone will draw the line at a different point. Personally, being totally frank, I started out landscape photography without a care in the world for this sort of thing. Thankfully, I never repositioned or removed any elements larger than a leaf, but that was more for lack of opportunity than any other reason.
And, to be clear, I do believe it is incorrect to pick up a leaf and move it to a more pleasing spot in your composition — though this is not, by any means, the most heinous crime you can commit as a landscape photographer. Rather than causing long-term damage to the scene you’re photographing, images like this are harmful mainly because they have the potential to deceive your viewers. That’s a separate bridge altogether.
How do you know if an action counts as ethical? That’s the big question.
My suggestion is to imagine yourself telling a viewer every detail about how you took the picture. For example, imagine that you captured a beautiful photo with an interesting leaf in the foreground, and your caption said, “For what it’s worth, the leaf wasn’t in that spot initially — I placed it there myself.” Would people care? Would they be upset?
In fact, don’t just imagine this. Actually tell your viewers ahead of time if you made any significant changes to the scene in front of you. Don’t deceive them. If the behind-the-scenes story frames you in a negative light, maybe that says something about whether or not you should have taken the photo in the first place.
So, that’s two points I’m trying to make: Don’t cause lasting damage to the landscape, and don’t willfully deceive your viewers. Imagine telling people every unflattering fact about how you took the photo. Will anyone care? Will most people be frustrated by your actions? Certain cases are worse than others, and there is no broad answer that works for every situation — but keeping these points in mind as you take pictures is a great place to start.
The other side of the coin happens after you bring a photo back to your computer and begin editing it.
It’s no secret that you can do anything to a photo in post-production, assuming that you have the right skills. You can fix things that are wrong at a pixel-by-pixel level, and it can be all but impossible for viewers to tell what edits you made. It’s easy to see why that creates an ethical dilemma.
Also, unsurprisingly, this is an area where everyone believes something different. For some, it is crucial to preserve the integrity of the original landscape, and the only acceptable adjustments are — at the most — minimal edits to brightness, contrast, sharpness, and saturation, and possibly converting to black and white.
Other photographers are willing to push their adjustments a little further. Perhaps they frequently use color sliders and apply local adjustments to emphasize or minimize various parts of the image. Indeed, they might not have a hard limit on the edits they’re willing to do to an image, and it all depends upon the photograph itself.
A third category of photographers is willing to do all that, and also combine various parts of several different photos together. At the least controversial level, that includes simple cases like a panorama or an HDR. At the most dramatic, it includes multi-image composites taken at different times of day, or even of different landscapes altogether. Included here, too, are other in-depth edits: widespread spot healing, warping the image, applying extreme color or haze effects, and so on.
All I can say is simple, and a repeat of my earlier suggestion: Don’t deceive your viewers.
I am not the right person to write the rules of acceptable post-production in landscape photography, or to lay a groundwork for other people to follow. Personally, I haven’t even followed a particularly consistent code until recently. This is a very, very tricky topic, without a clear answer in sight.
That’s why my recommendation is simply to be transparent about the post-processing you do. If viewers ask about your adjustments, tell them the truth. If you made a particularly unusual edit (say, swapping the sky from another image, or squeezing the shape of a mountain to make it look more unusual), say so off the bat.
I am of the opinion that it is strange and unnecessary to alter the fundamental character of a landscape. Any time that you use the spot-heal brush to eliminate something important that was actually there in front of you, think twice about why you’re doing so.
I don’t want to say that this is plainly, universally wrong. Nothing is that simple. But, if your edits alter the integrity of the landscape, it is crucial to be aware how that can deceive your audience.
Part of the power of landscape photography is that viewers believe they’re seeing a real thing that the Earth created. If you use that perception to pass off hyper-dreamscape photos as reality, people are bound to feel cheated when they find out the truth.
Landscape photography is about nature, and about showing people the beauty of the world’s most amazing natural places. If you constantly find yourself trying to modify and “improve upon” the scenes you witness, either in the field or in post-production, you open yourself up to criticism.
There is room for ambiguity in discussions like this. I don’t want to make any blanket statements, since there are exceptions to nearly anything I could say. For example, although I recommend against physically moving around elements in a landscape, I see nothing wrong with picking up a piece of litter, disposing of it properly, and then capturing an image.
So, if you haven’t done it already, think about your own limits and decide how firm or flexible you want your standards to be. I feel that I have shifted over time to be more rigid with what I allow in my own landscape photography, both in the field and in post-processing — but that doesn’t mean everyone must be the same way, or that photographers cannot change their approach over time.
In the end, it all boils down to two rules: Do not harm the landscape, and do not deceive your viewers. Although I hope that your specific standards will be more nuanced than that, this is a perfectly reasonable place to start, and one that most photographers already put into practice.
If you genuinely agree with both these points and try to embody them in your work, I firmly believe that you are pushing the field of landscape photography in a wonderful direction.
About the Author
Spencer Cox is a landscape and travel photographer from Franklin, Tennessee. To contact Spencer directly or view more of his work, visit his website or follow him on Facebook. This article was also published here and shared with permission.