Is That Beautiful Photo an Honest Image?

Is there such a thing as too much enhancement, and does it make a difference?

Viewing photos in tourism brochures, travel magazines (think, Arizona Highways), and Internet sites such as Instagram can be uplifting. Some images are downright stunning. As a photographer, I can tell you that quite a few of those stunners have undergone their fair share of editing. 

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For instance, the starry night photos you may see of certified Dark Sky Places such as Canyonlands National Park (Utah), Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (California), and Petrified Forest National Park (Arizona) are composites of two or more images blended together. Some photographers will state how many shots it took to create that composite, while others remain silent about it.

Rockport-Fulton, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Is it a beautiful image? Yes. Is it an honest image, true to the original scene? Well? The photo was taken at an honest location as opposed to a Hollywood backlot and the photo portrays what you will see in that specific location during a visit to the park. But the photo itself has been manipulated beyond the average contrast, brightness, saturation, and sharpening adjustments.

Edisto Island, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the shot was captured at a beautiful location, there were numerous enhancements made to the image allowing the natural beauty of the scene to really pop out and catch the viewer’s eye, even in the dark of night. Does that matter to you? Is a beautiful image a beautiful image, manipulated or not?

Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I believe most of us like our landscape images to look natural. But, what is natural? If the image is dull, do we think that is what the natural landscape looked like? If the image is colorful, do we automatically assume it’s overdone, simply because there is so much saturation?

Lake Pleasant, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you visit Arches National Park with its already-colorful rock formations set afire by the glow of early morning or late afternoon sun, do you think that’s overdone? I’m not kidding when I tell you that the brilliant hues of gold and orange are indeed that deeply saturated on a clear, sunny morning or late afternoon.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I believe every photo needs some degree of editing. The camera captures all of the data it sees, but the resulting image doesn’t always deliver what you originally saw due to issues with lighting, color, or exposure settings. The quality of the camera and lens and skill set of the photographer are also key factors. The data is there, and it’s up to the photographer to bring out the beauty of the composition. In my opinion, though, there is such a thing as overprocessing an image.

Glen Canyon Recreation Area, Arizona and Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In “The Art, Science, and Craft of Great Landscape Photography,” Glenn Randall recognizes “there are significant differences between viewing the real world and viewing a photograph of it.”

Okanagan Valley, British Columbia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I, personally, dislike landscapes that are heavily edited to the point of being unnatural. Of course, photography is a subjective art, and what I think is overdone, others might think of as state-of-the-art. Also, my views on the appropriate amount of saturation in post editing have changed over the years. I no longer feel that more saturation is necessarily better.

Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Removing extraneous objects from an image is called “cloning out” and is accomplished via Adobe Photoshop’s clone tools. With a simple click of the mouse, cloning removes sensor spots as well as objects and people that got in the photographer’s way.

Amador Flower Farm, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When is it OK to clone something out aside from sensor spots (those round blobs you see on your photo when your camera’s sensor has dust particles)? I believe that unless it’s to be showcased as artistic fine arts the photo should be left as-is. It is my opinion that scenic vistas and other landscape images should remain true to the scene.

Bernheim Forest, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

OK, so back to my original question: Is there such a thing as too much enhancement and does it make a difference? My personal opinion is that you can edit an image too much.

Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Park, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whether it makes a difference is really up to you. If you think the image is beautiful and it entices you to visit, then no matter how much it’s edited, that photo has accomplished the goals of getting you to like the shot and to go see the beauty of that particular location firsthand. Any alteration is inconsequential. The caveat is that you might be disappointed upon your arrival at a specific view to discover it’s not what you had expected based upon others’ shots.

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As an aside, the “Share The Experience” photo contest hosted by the National Park Foundation, in partnership with six other federal agencies, stipulates in their guidelines that images entered must not be “altered or manipulated except for minimal cropping, red eye removal and/or adjustment of contrast, brightness or saturation.”

Worth Pondering…

…painting is something you do. You make a painting. You don’t make a photograph. You see a photograph. Photography is seeing only, you see it, you release the shutter, you use your aperture, your machine and once you’ve seen it, that’s it. It’s done.

—Jurgen Schadeberg

Travel Photography Guide

Travel photography is exciting and gives you a chance to explore new subject matter and photography styles

In today’s post I’ll offer a little guidance on what images to take and how to create a stunning travel portfolio. One aspect I love about travel photography is the diversity of techniques available to create a well-rounded image set.

The No. 1 rule: Engage the viewer! Your viewers may never visit your location. So, a travel photographer must convey a sense of place, mood, emotion, taste, and smell through captivating images. In other words, snapshots just don’t cut it.

Mount Washington Resort, New Hampshire © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Below you’ll find an outline of subjects and techniques to help you photograph your next travel story—and engage the viewer! From simple family vacations to travel books, try these tips to creatively photograph your travel adventures.

Brooks County Courthouse and the old Chisholm Trail, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“It’s a small world after all” and we know a lot about other places without having been there. For example, when I say “San Antonio” most people think of the Alamo and the River Walk. Or, if I mention “New Orleans,” the French Quarter comes to mind. 

The Alamo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Photographing iconic structures and characteristics of a location establishes where you are and gives the viewer a starting point. Often these subjects are clichés, at least in the sense that they have been photographed thousands of times.

San Antonio River Walk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take the shot. But, cliché subjects require fresh perspectives, interesting light or different angles to show the viewer an iconic landmark in a new way. Make it your mission to photograph the Alamo unlike it ever has been photographed before or during a special event or reenactment (see photo below).

Reenactment during the anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go shopping. Yes. That’s what I said: Go shopping! But be sure to shoot photographs while shopping. Farmers markets, swap meets, and street fairs are great locations for photography.

Galt Farmers Market, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Try some of the local flare and photograph the kiosk vendors. Think about what makes the market special. Local foods and crafts paint the picture of the area and you can almost taste the fresh peaches and apples in those orchard fruit stands.

Baskets of fruit and vegetables at a local market © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Experiment with depth of field and photograph baskets of fruit and veggies up close. Shooting wide open will result in soft blurry backgrounds which helps reduce clutter. Also, look for interesting beams of light filtering through the scene.

Truth BBQ in Brenham, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Food can make or break a trip for many people. Yet, despite how important food is during a trip, many photographers never take photos of food during their travels.

Boone Tavern Hotel, Berea, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here’s a quick tip: Sit near a window with diffused light and let the chef do all the food styling. Plus, you can use the simple diffused light coming in through a window to compose compelling food images. Remember that although food photography is very detail-orientated, try to keep it simple. And, take several steps back for a compelling image through the window as the outdoors street scene unfolds often with amazing pastel shades.

Plaza of Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many regions of the country are defined by their architecture whether it’s adobe construction in New Mexico or the opulent mansions of the Gilded Age.

Loretto Chapel, Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Adobe structures are extremely durable in arid climates and account for some of the oldest existing buildings in the world. Located on the historic Santa Fe Plaza, the Palace of the Governors (see photo below) served as the seat of Spanish colonial government for centuries. The building was named a Registered National Historic Landmark in 1960 and an American Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1999.

Historic Newport © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nowhere in New England compares to the Gilded-Age splendor of Newport, Rhode Island. This coastal town is set upon cliffs dotted with some of the most spectacular mansions of the 19th century including The Breakers (see photo below) but that’s far from the only draw.

The Breakers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Research the area you’ll be visiting. Architecture isn’t all about big buildings or churches. You might try photographing a cobblestone alley or an old library interior or renowned book store (think, Powell’s in Portland, the world’s largest independent book store) with volumes of books.

Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Savannah, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And, don’t forget about the countryside, landscape, and wildlife. They can be a major draw for travelers and photographers. Landscapes are often best photographed in early morning or late afternoon light. Stormy weather can result in very dramatic images and provide a fresh look to an iconic scene. Wildlife can also be an important part of a travel portfolio. Decide if wildlife defines your location and photograph the species that identify the area.

Early morning light at Usery Mountain Regional Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you can see, there is an almost limitless array of subject matter at your disposal when it comes to RV travel photography. But remember what’s important as a RV travel photographer: Capture the essence of the destination through creative, stunning photographs of diverse subject matter.

Cerulean Warbler at Falcon State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Greater Roadrunner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beauty can be seen in all things, seeing and composing the beauty is what separates the snapshot from the photograph.

—Matt Hardy

A Photographer’s Guide to the American West

Tips to ensure your photos are as striking as the American West’s breathtaking backdrops

From west to east and north to south, we have toured and photographed numerous National Parks Service sites including national parks, national monuments, national recreation areas, national seashores, and national historic sites and battlefield.

These parks offer a cross section of the best of the best for scenic beauty and historic significance across America.

Canyon de Chelley National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most amazing iconic landscapes in national parks and beyond are found in the American West. Few landscapes are as awe-inspiring as those found in the western states. And who can resist taking lots of photos?

Here are some pointers to help you bring back images you’d be proud to share.

Take the Iconic Photos and Move Beyond

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Everyone wants to capture those iconic images we’ve all seen in books and on postcards. Give it a try and you’ll likely realize it’s not as simple as it may seem. Many of those images were taken from high up on a mountain trail or from down below in a canyon.

Coronado National Memorial, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But even if you get that iconic image, push yourself to something beyond. Move around and go higher, lower, closer, farther away to find a different perspective—one that reflects your personal vision. Simple changes often redefine your image and give a more complete sense of the place.

Include an Interesting Foreground Element

Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One problem with many landscape shots is that the subject is far away and there’s nothing of interest in the foreground. That gives landscape images a flat sameness that we want to avoid. As you look at some stunning vista, pay attention to nearby rocks, plants, or even puddles of water that can add interest to your image.

Work with All Kinds of Natural Light

Arches National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Light is the primary ingredient in photography. You’ll encounter various types of natural light throughout the day and from one day to the next. Learn how to make the most of whatever light you have available.

Saguaro National Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Even dull overcast days can work wonders with landscape photos. Such days bring out natural colors and eliminate what can often be annoying shadows. Take advantage by getting a high perspective so your image is mostly land with very little sky.

Since early morning and late afternoon are the choice times to photograph, plan out at a key location prior to venturing out.

Pay Attention to the Sky

Joshua Tree National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Composing a landscape includes making a decision about how to deal with the sky. Finding the right balance between land and sky is often what makes or breaks a landscape image. Consider the sky and general weather conditions. A blue sky or one with puffy white clouds or threatening dark ones can be an asset to your image and you may want to include more sky and less land.

But if the sky is a uniform dull gray, minimize the sky or eliminate it completely. Nothing spoils a landscape photo more than a swath of white where the sky would have been.

Optimum Sharpness is Paramount

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the great advantages of landscapes is that they don’t move, so you can take your time to compose and get optimum sharpness. What is optimal depends on the image you have in mind, but certainly you want the foreground and middle ground as sharp as possible.

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For maximum control over sharpness, use a tripod. That allows you to take several shots of the same location with different settings so you can decide later which works best for you. Also, you’ll get a sharper image with a higher f-stop. If you’re shooting just the landscape, a slow shutter speed should not pose a problem. But if you’ve got your eye on some wildlife in the landscape or want to capture grasses bending in the wind, vary your shutter speed to get either a sharp image or an interesting blur.

After-Capture Techniques

Glen Canyon Recreation Area, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the great boons of digital photography is that the image-making process continues after you have taken your shot. Today’s digital photography offers an incredible number of options for improving or rethinking our images in the computer.

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One simple tool lets you crop your image in case you were unable to keep an unwanted element out of the frame during shooting. Remember, you can always cut something out, but you can’t add something you didn’t include in the rush of shooting.

As you become more familiar and comfortable using after-capture techniques, they will become a natural part of your photographic repertoire, helping you achieve the aesthetic results you want within one or two minutes.

Petrified Forest National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you work these pointers into your landscape photography, you’ll come up with landscapes that truly look out of this world.

Worth Pondering…

No matter how advanced your camera you still need to be responsible for getting it to the right place at the right time and pointing it in the right direction to get the photo you want.

—Ken Rockwell