The Importance of Ethical Landscape Photography

Nov 14, 2017

Spencer Cox

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The Importance of Ethical Landscape Photography

Nov 14, 2017

Spencer Cox

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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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?

A beautiful scene can be thrilling (and sometimes overwhelming), but it shouldn’t stop you from thinking or acting intelligently.

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.

I placed this leaf here. It’s not something I would do today (I took this photo just over three years ago), but — unless I were to disclose the circumstances of the image up front — my opinion is that it falls firmly under the umbrella of deception.

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.

A few years ago, when I was taking pictures at Jökulsárlón, I saw people moving around blocks of ice to create their own “ideal” compositions. Is that unethical? It depends upon your own ethical code for landscape photography. (And no, I didn’t do that here.)

In post-production

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.

There was a speck of flare at the bottom of this photo, which I chose to clone out in post-production. I typically avoid the spot-heal tool for my personal work, since I don’t mind keeping minor imperfections that actually existed in the real world. Depending upon your own code of post-processing, that edit could be just fine in this image, or it might not be acceptable. It’s up to you.

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.

With this photograph, I chose not to spot heal any “imperfections” in the image, including the dots of light from hikers on the distant mountains (as you can see if you look closely). That’s a personal choice, though, just for my own uses. Other photographers will have different preferences, and cloning out those spots can be an equally valid choice.


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.

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9 responses to “The Importance of Ethical Landscape Photography”

  1. Jimmy Harris Avatar
    Jimmy Harris

    While I agree that you shouldn’t permanently alter or damage the landscape, the notion that you shouldn’t deceive your viewers is ridiculous. Photography is a timeless, silent, two-dimensional representation of a temporal, vibrant, three-dimensional world. Your lenses, sensors/film, post processing, and mode of display will all alter the scene from reality. As soon as you click that shutter, you’re creating a lie. Pretending that somehow you’re telling the truth because you didn’t spot heal something doesn’t preserve your integrity. It diminishes by proving that you’re willing to sell a lie as fact.

    For example, that sun flare in the woods. Did that sun flare actually exist in nature? Of course not! It’s a byproduct of the light shining through an aperture. In fact, I can tell that the lens used has 7 blades on it’s aperture to create that effect. Did the waves crashing on the shore ever look that soft? Of course not! That’s the byproduct of a very long exposure. You could never witness that in person. And I doubt any of those colors are actually true to life. The human eye has a much wider dynamic range than any commercially available camera can produce. I could go on and on with all of the incongruities in those examples alone.

    So my point is, don’t fool yourself into believing that you’re staying true to the scene or to your audience simply because you neglected a few edits in post or moved a leaf or two. Accept that photography is a lie from the beginning. Embrace your role as a photographer to sell the ideal. Be honest with your audience and tell them this is YOUR vision. Present them YOUR world. Don’t try to pretend you’re presenting them the REAL world, because you can’t.

    1. Spencer Cox Avatar
      Spencer Cox

      Jimmy, that is a fair critique. Thanks for taking the time to spell out your perspective.

      I do want to clarify one thing, since I don’t think I went into enough detail in the article.

      In my opinion, the things you mention — eliminating sun flares, using a long exposure, post-processing, and so on — are not deception. Or, if they are deception, it is only because everything in a photo is, at some level, a deception. RAW photos are duller than the real world. Out-of-camera JPEGs won’t convey the same dynamic range or colors that the scene held. No amount of post-processing can get you to the “true” way the world appeared, because, in many ways, everyone sees the world differently to begin with. And you are right, by no means are my photos staying true to the scene, either. They’re my interpretation, or, as you say, my vision/presentation of the world.

      But I do think that deception can still exist here. You might disagree, which is fair too. I’ve seen incredible, otherworldly photos from landscape photographers, and then realize after viewing other photos of the same landscape that the initial landscape photographer completely altered and squeezed the shape of various features in order to create something “ideal.” The photographer never specified those edits, and indeed in his descriptions of the photograph did everything possible to imply that he stumbled upon the scene by happenstance. To me, that felt frustrating and deceiving, though I’m sure that other photographers wouldn’t particularly care. But that’s the mindset from which I wrote the post-processing section of this article.

      Anyway, that’s just my two cents. Thanks for sharing yours as well.

      1. Juswinn Avatar

        Thank you for the article. Anything that causes someone to think about whether or not they’re causing damage is useful. However, I think it would be more useful if you had gone further into explaining what may or may not be damaging to a landscape. I for one think that moving a single leaf into a shot or out of a shot goes a little too far in saying it is damaging and/or deceitful. If that leaf blows out of the scene after the shot is taken does your shot suddenly become fake? If we are to think of photography (especially landscape photography) as art, which I do, we should also remember that it is highly subjective in that respect.

        Artists paint their vision (including leaves) onto their canvas all the time. They also paint crashing waves, sun flares, bright blue eyes, etc. onto their canvas. I do a lot of long exposure photography and am asked often if it’s a “Photoshop” picture. Then I have to explain no, it was done with my camera, which I often feel is synonymous with the oil painter’s brush.

        I agree with Jimmy in that photography is fake. But photography is also art, and art is the artists vision. I don’t like overly processed or “photoshopped” but plenty people do. Many of my “natural landscape” photos cannot be seen with the “natural eye.”

        In closing I’d just like to say thank you for the article but please expand on what may be considered damaging to the environment.

  2. WillMondy Avatar

    Photography is full of deceit.
    How often do you boost the saturation, alter the white balance (away from the true white) or clone out distracting elements?

    Apparently even Ansel Adams would rip off a tree branch he didn’t like, yet he is held in high regard.

    Personally I try to stay fairly true in terms of the colours and only remove distracting elements if it won’t harm the environment.

    The motto I live by is “take only photographs, leave only footprints”

  3. David Campbell Avatar
    David Campbell

    Regarding damaging the landscape, I agree that transparency about the process is a fine guide to ethical behavior. It is easy to misbehave in the dark, while publicity engages the gears of communal judgement that keeps us all honest. This is exactly why free press is so important, and the press themselves (including photographers) are on the front lines, so we should lead by example.

    Now consider the issue of stepping off the trail. I have done this many times, and I am confident that I did no lasting damage. But if one thousand people did what I did, then it becomes traffic, and damage definitely occurs. I find this to be a common theme with human action; once is acceptable, but a thousand is damaging. This is true whether it is hikers stepping off of a nature trail, tourists touching a statue, or drivers burning gasoline.

    And the real problem comes not when one person does it, but when the second group of one thousand are told No because it has been deemed harmful. “But nobody objected when all those people did it before me. It is only fair that I do it now.” The fact is that just a few people doing it really is okay. The key is to be aware of the collective impact of our human action. The rules of behavior do not scale upward cleanly, but human law often does not reflect this.

    1. Spencer Cox Avatar
      Spencer Cox

      David, that’s a great point to add: “The rules of behavior do not scale upward cleanly.” Makes discussions like this all the more nuanced.

  4. Sean Avatar

    I go by the motto of leave no trace which was learned in Boy Scouts. If the next person to visit the location can tell you were there…you failed. Thus bending a branch or moving a leaf does not violate that tenant. The Racetrack damage referenced in the image is a great example of violating it. If nature cannot quickly repair any damage you have accidentally done (ie. remove footprints via rain, grow new leaves on trees) then you really are a moron and should not be out in the world.

  5. Sean Avatar

    I also disagree, for the most part, with the notion that altering a scene in post is unethical. Landscape photography is art, not photojournalism. I do agree that adding elements from different photographic locations to create a totally fake one and passing it off as a real place is unethical. But to remove tree limb from the side of your image or to add some fake birds in the distance is not necessarily unethical. These types of edits only enhance the scene, not really alter it. Who’s to say those birds would not be there or that limb would not fall off in some future time? :)

  6. Richard Jackson Avatar
    Richard Jackson

    Happy to remind of the need to preserve for others (both people and animals), and for future generations too. Including extending beyond the image and into the surrounding areas to ensure no rubbish / plastic is left etc.

    Not interested in the almost religious stance views on what is acceptable in the image. The industry seems intent on pushing artificial rules constantly, like we are subject to some specific competition criteria.

    I am all about the final image and I don’t care how you got there. It’s art and anyone who feels deceived by what they are seeing should ask for their money back… ?

    No contract is being entered into and one simply can’t approach viewing online images today with an expectation that it is 100% representative of anywhere, able to be viewed in person there at any time, and will look exactly the same etc, unless explicitly told so in advance.