How Much Should You Edit Your Photos?

Debate about how much you should edit your photos can get heated. This conversation is common within the photography community, but I have found the aversion to overediting is perhaps even stronger from those who do not take photos on any serious level.

I can sympathise with both sides of the argument. Photography seems – on the surface a realist’s medium, so you can feel betrayed when you find out a photograph is lying to you. But fairly early in its development, Victorian photographers took photography in an impressionist direction. As long as someone is upfront about their process – and if long exposure and ICM are fair game in camera – I have no problem with sky replacements, perspective warping and intense, surreal colour grades in the digital dark room.

In my mind, the only possible exception would be in reportage, but even then, can a little cloning here and there to remove things that distract from the story hurt too much?! In fact, creative effects such as shutter drags sometimes tell a better story (cf. Barry Talis.)

My position now being clear, I should tell you that I have learnt to manipulate images to a high level. I think this comes from my interest in astrophotography. While you can get shots in camera, but with the high dynamic range involved in landscape astrophotography, it is much easier to get a clean image by taking separate frames for the foreground and sky and then blend them in Photoshop. As you have no doubt gathered, I definitely do not consider this ‘cheating.’ If our camera sensors were good enough, I could extract the same image from one frame.

However, learning the skills involved in producing good starry landscape shots did blur the lines between photography and digital art. For a while last year I played with some quite extreme manipulations to images. Spectacular sunset sky replacements on very ordinary images – evident on my social media accounts during spring of 2020 – probably led Camera Craft magazine to call my Photographers Guild Gold rated image of Glastonbury Tor a ‘composite.’ I assure you it’s not.

Fine art print of a Glastonbury Tor solstice sunrise with stormy skies
Glastonbury Tor

There are times when radical editing is required. Although I liked my first – truer to life – edit of the photo below, these petrified trees at Porlock Marshes in Somerset just weren’t as a subject-focused and the stillness of the image was not as compelling until I went into photoshop with a clone stamp and removed the horizon.

Landcape Astrophotography in Porlock Marshes
Porlock Marshes

The picture of Glastonbury Tor is a one in a hundred shot. I returned to that viewpoint twenty, possibly thirty times before these spectacular atmospherics happened. Nevertheless, in the year since I took the frame, I’ve decided that I can do better. I’m of the mind now that the composition in that shot is fairly ordinary and it’s the stormy weather and light conditions that make the image.

This all sounds a little dismissive, but I don’t mean it to be. Storm chasing is fun and I always pray for those rare conditions, but recently, I have been more interested in getting better at composing than on the getting favourable weather or even good light! I don’t want a glorious sunrise to compensate for a lack of compositional thought. By the same token, I am less interested in sky replacements and radical manipulations than I used to be.

A recent trip to the Brecon Beacons was the start of this journey. I don’t think either of these images works, but they are more graphical in nature. They represent the baby steps on a path down which I see more options for mastery than I did when I was turning up at photography hot spots repeatedly, hoping I would get lucky with conditions.

The next attempts at this more composition-focused way of approaching photography have yielded better results. And while there is still an over-photographed monument in each of these shots, I see a new style emerging.

These are of course very different types of photos. Godrevy and St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall are short telephoto images, while the Glastonbury Tor image is taken with a 200-600mm lens from several miles away, but I am looking forward to the improvements that I can make by taking a more considered approach. And the next time I see a sunset as spectacular as the one of the Tor above, I hope that I am ready to do justice with a well considered composition.