Why Presets Don’t Work for Landscape Photography

No presets. No one-click edits. While presets may be a welcome time-saver for wedding, portrait and travel photographers (often offering a solid base to then apply custom adjustments), editing a landscape photo is different.

Other photographers may take dozens of great images in a day. Yet most landscape photographers will be pleased with one or two—some seasoned pros will be delighted to add a single image to their portfolio after a trip away. Often we get none.

Side note: It’s great to set high standards, but don’t let the fear of failure inhibit you from creating and growing as a photographer.

Landscape photographers have many obsessions—with lenses, camera bodies, filters, tripods, light, weather and scoping locations. The same investment and care ought to be taken when it comes to editing the final image. Here’s why.

Why Landscape Images Deserve Bespoke Editing

Landscapes are dynamic. From each season to each passing hour, they shift and change at the mercy of the weather and light. A small change in camera position can have a drastic effect on the strength of the composition. Altering the camera settings can create either a dreamy long exposure or a dark low-key image.

Each landscape image we create is unique. Each is deserving of its own post-processing.

Creators of ‘preset packs’ have likely spent hours fine-tuning their adjustments. And their curated collection of before/after images often look amazing. I’ve thought it too, I want my images to look as good as that.

Yet a preset that looks amazing on their image of a forest is (very) unlikely to suit your mountain scene. And even if you were to use ‘Moody Forest 4’ on your own forest image, at best it might look okay, at worst it’s an inferior imitation of the original creator’s style.

If you simply want to take candy-coloured drone images of cyan water and orange sand, go for it. Stop reading here.

But read on if you want to create something more. To create something of your own making. To create something that is a true expression of your artistry.

Develop and Express Your Creative Vision

Some landscape photographers insist on minimal post-processing. Some insist on none. And that’s okay.

Other photographers, myself included, have a vision for their final image and the RAW file just doesn’t live up to those expectations. Perhaps the sky was too-blown out. Perhaps a wave didn’t crash at the right time. Perhaps the forest behind our subject was too bright and distracting.

Post-processing can alleviate all these issues. But a one-click preset won’t.

When we invest the time to learn and apply various post-processing techniques, we become more capable in knowing the best approach to develop an image. We discover what’s possible, not through cloning another’s style, but through our own trial and error. Through growing our own skill-set and capabilities.

Post-processing equips up with the tools to better realize our vision for what an image could be.

Stronger Processing, for Stronger Compositions in the Field

Being well versed in post-processing not only helps back on the computer screen. It opens your eyes to what’s possible with an image, presenting opportunities to be more creative in the field too. For example, on recent shoots I’ve left the tripod at home—particularly for long exposure seascapes. Why?

Because a tripod limits my opportunities for strong compositions. Planting my camera on the tripod creates tunnel vision when I’m exploring a scene. And it soaks up valuable time during the fleeting window of great light.

Shooting handheld allows me to quickly eye up compositions from different perspectives. It allows me to get close to wave movement without having to invert the tripod legs in the water—and quickly save the camera from incoming rogue waves!

But what about sharpness? What about blending exposures for dynamic range?

These concerns have abated as I’ve taken the time to experiment with what I can achieve in post-processing.

I know I can still capture handheld seascape images at 1/15 second that create pleasing motion blur in the water, while still retaining 95% of the sharpness a tripod would offer. Likewise, unless I’m shooting directly into the sun, I know I can recover all the dynamic range I need from a single exposure. I’ll take a tiny sacrifice in RAW image quality—knowing I can alleviate it in post-processing—for the larger gains in stronger, more varied compositions.

I’m not wading out into the rushing waves to take the sharpest image possible. I’m wading out into the rushing waves to create a piece of art that conveys feeling and emotion—being well versed in post-processing enables me to realize that.

Be Authentic, Be Honest

“Has this been photoshopped?”

It’s a question that rubs many photographers the wrong way. Behind the surface lies the unspoken question: “Is this real?”

Enough words have been written and opinions expressed on what is acceptable post-processing—and the debate continues. I’m not going to add fuel to the fire here. But what I do advise is that you be honest with your edits, and don’t be ashamed of them.

If you blended a bright sky with a dark foreground, take a moment of pride in your technical skills to better capture your experience on location. If you darkened distracting elements to focus attention on your subject, that’s an artistic choice to improve the impact of your work.

When we treat post-processing as a dirty word, we further the myth that it is one.

Final Thoughts

Presets seem a tempting option to make good photos great. Yet more oft than not for landscape photographers, they’re a shallow one-click shortcut.

Like most things in photography—and in life—a great result is so rarely the result of a simple ‘hack’ or secret trick. Great results are the fruit of showing up, again and again, to refine our approach. When we invest the time to develop our post-processing skills, we invest in the quality of the work we can produce.

Landscape photography is an art. Like other creative endeavors, the art form demands time for the artist to practice and enhance their technique. It deserves time to sharpen our skills—time to create compelling work that realizes our vision.

About The Author: Mitch Green is an Australian landscape photographer. He can be found via his website, through Instagram, or down by the beach at 5am waiting for sunrise.

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