It’s All in the Detail — Beginners Guide To Editing Landscape Photography
It’s a beautiful clear night and the stars look magical. You look across the sky and notice the huge full moon. It’s bigger and brighter than you’ve ever seen it look and for a moment it takes your breath away. You stand and stare for a while before deciding to take a photo — this is worth having a memory of.
You take a few snaps, put your phone back in your pocket and carry on marvelling at the sky. Later that night, you take your phone out to look at the photos you took…
Where has the moon gone? Why is it so small? Why is it blurry? Is this even the same sky?
If there’s one universal truth it’s this: the moon hates being photographed.
Growing up, my family never owned a camera. We had very few family photographs and most of what we did have were from disposable cameras that my parents treated me and my sister to on day trips.
As you’d expect in the hands of two children, most of the photos were of someone’s feet, the inside of a pocket or half a lion at the zoo. Well worth the wait of getting them developed, I’m sure you’ll agree.
But now and then, there was a gem. Someone stuffing their face or a moment of happiness from a child’s-eye view.
These may not seem like gems at the time but finding them several years later brings back memories that you’d forgotten or give an insight into the life of a loved one you wish you knew more about. Details that bring a story to life are all hidden in those photos of the past.
With the invention of the camera phone and the cost of digital cameras becoming more accessible to the average household, the disposable camera inevitably died out and along with it, the developing of film. This now remains a process reserved for only the keenest of photography buffs. For me, there is both sadness and wonder in this technological advancement.
Kids now will never understand the excitement of waiting a week for their holiday snaps, only to be disappointed by 80% of them. Nor will they ever stumble across an old pouch full of delights to embarrass their siblings with, in years to come.
What they, like all of us now, do have, is an endless opportunity to document life, at an unlimited rate, anywhere and everywhere they go and that’s a beautiful thing.
Smartphones now come equipped with cameras so great in quality, that they rival many digital cameras, but that doesn’t mean they always get it right.
As a hobby landscape photographer, my phone is my best friend and I rarely go anywhere without it. Yet there are many occasions where I have snapped away at a stunning sunset or reflection on the water and have found myself disappointed in the result staring back at me. Colours look washed out, details get hidden in the shadows and the textures that drew me into the landscape, to begin with, now look flat and uninviting.
Luckily for everyone like myself who has lived the same underwhelming photography experience, there has been another fantastic technological advancement: photo editing.
Photo editing used to require fancy equipment and programs that the average person could only dream of, but with the boom in amateur and smartphone photography, photo editing is now widely available to everyone, for little to no cost at all.
Whilst there are still many high-end, costly options for the pros (and anyone trying to trick people into thinking a snap of Nottingham is Narnia), for people like myself who just want to do basic edits to enhance the natural beauty in landscape photography and to reflect the true charm of a location, there are plenty of options, all available in the palm of our hands. One of my favourites is an app called Snapseed.
Snapseed is a free app, available on iPhone and Android and provides everything that you needed to enhance your photographs to a high standard.
Snapseed has allowed me to take photos with my smartphone and edit them to such a quality where I have been able to sell my work on various stock photography sites (despite not being a professional photographer) and wow my friends and family with the odd photo I may post on Instagram.
Whether you’re looking to start making some side-hustle income from your photography, or you just want to step away from Instagram presets, Snapseed has everything you need to 10X your end result.
Using what I’ve learned, I’m going to walk you through my top 5 features of Snapseed, which will transform your images in a few short steps.
Whilst Snapseed does have its own range of presets, which allow you to save your masterpiece in high quality, the features that I will be walking you through below are all DIY features and can be accessed in the ‘Tools’ section of the app. So let’s dive right in.
Under the perspective tool, you will find four options: Tilt, Rotate, Scale and Free. The two I will be focusing on in this step are Rotate and Free.
Now, to many of you, this may seem obvious, but, this is one of my biggest bugbears. There is nothing worse, nor more offputting than a wonky horizon. Any photo you take can be improved two-fold, just by doing this one thing, please don’t skip this step.
Using the Rotate tool, slowly adjust your image so that your horizon is straight. To do this, use the natural lines of the sky and the ground etc until you are happy with the perspective in your image.
Of course, depending on the angle you have taken your photo from and the focus of your image, your horizon may not suit being completely straight and centred, but there will always be something within your photo that can provide insight into what the correct angle should be. This could be the sea, a building or a person, but use these as a guide to correct your image.
In some cases, your photo will have been taken from the wrong angle and try as you might to get the horizon straight, everything else in the image looks wrong. This where the Free tool comes in. Using this tool, you can adjust the height and angle of any particular part of your image, without adjusting the whole image, allowing you to create a more accurate representation of perspective. Drag the area you want to change until you’re happy.
2. Highlights, Shadows & Ambience.
Let’s talk about lighting. Sometimes you’ve taken what you think is a great picture, but on closer inspection, the details that you could see with the naked eye, have been obscured by the way your camera has perceived the light. Too much light and your image will have a lot of white space, and not enough light results in texture and detail getting lost under a dark shadow.
Whilst learning to understand light and exposure at a shoot stage will help you capture better images, there is still a lot we can do at editing stage to improve an original, under/over-exposed photo.
In Snapseed, there is more than one way to do this. For beginners, I recommend starting by using the ‘Tune Image’ tool. Making your adjustments here helps you to recognise and understand what each move on the slider is achieving and in time, you will start to instinctively know what your photos need. Once you’ve nailed this, there is the ‘Curve’ tool, which allows you greater control of the image as a whole but doesn’t offer quite the same learning opportunity for beginners.
Using Tune Image, we are going to focus on three scales: Highlights, Shadows and Ambience.
Highlights — Adjusts the brightness of only the areas containing highlight (light areas)
Shadows — Adjusts the brightness of only areas containing shadow (dark areas)
Ambience — Adjusts light balance, saturation and contrast of the picture as a whole
To begin, I recommend using Ambience. As well as adjusting light balance, the ambience slider also adjusts contrast and saturation in one sweep and is a great way of prepping your image for further edits.
Increasing ambience on the slider brightens up the overall image whilst simultaneously intensifying saturation and decreasing contrast. Sliding in the opposite directing decreases ambience and results in an increase in contrast, less brightness and less saturation.
Whilst there are of course separate sliders for brightness, saturation and contrast, for beginners, Ambience it’s a better place to start. Using Ambience to reach a level you are more or less happy with, move on to Shadows and Highlights.
Depending on your original image and your desired outcome, you can use the Shadows slider to brighten or darken any areas of your image that are already dark. A positive number on the shadow slider removes darker patches, revealing hidden detail and colour, whilst a negative number on the shadow slider will make darker colours/areas appear much darker and can mask unwanted/less interesting details. Too much in either direction and your photos can end up looking flat — play around until you’re happy.
Similarly, the Highlights tool works in the same way, but in reverse, focusing on highlighted, light areas. Use this to brighten up your image by sliding to the positive end of the scale, or, if needed, minimise white space by sliding the scale to the negative side.
There may still be specific parts of your image that you are wanting to target that aren’t changing as much as you’d like using these scales. Don’t worry — there’s a way to tackle these tricky areas, and I’m going to show you how later on. Get the image to an overall standard that you’re happy with and we can focus on finer details in another step.
Once you are happy with the light balance within your image, be sure to save your changes before you move on to the next step. This way, should you do anything you don’t like, you can easily undo these edits.
Play around with the Saturation and Contrast if you need to, but for simple edits, you will usually find that Ambience, Highlights and Shadows are more than enough.
Once you are happy with the light balance of your image, you will inevitably turn your attention to texture. Without it, images can appear flat at worst and at best, boring.
The most interesting elements of a photo are often the things that make us feel like we are right there with the photographer — the ripples on the water as the wind glides over it, the raindrops in the air, the spray of the sea as it hits the rocks. Texture for me is what brings an image to life.
We can increase the texture of an image by using the Structure & Sharpen tools, under ‘Details’.
Structure — Increases texture (detail) in a photo
Sharpen — Increases sharpness of the detail
I tend to use Structure far more than I use Sharpen, but the Sharpening tool does have its place — I’ll briefly explain why. As I use Snapseed to edit images on my phone, it can be easy to sharpen an image to only what you can see in front of you. However, when you then view your image on a larger screen, it becomes clear that the image has been over-sharpened, resulting in an image that looks far too pixellated and grainy.
One way to check for over-sharpened images is to use the zoom tool. Once you are happy with your level of sharpening, before saving your image, zoom in and see what your image looks like — if it looks grainy, scale it back a bit.
Use the Structure slider to bring out the details within your image that bring your subject to life. Don’t go overboard, remember, the aim is to make your image look natural, and not an animation. Often, Structure alone is enough, but if you want to sharpen as well, go ahead and see what level works best.
In step 3, I said that there is a way to adjust certain areas of an image, without affecting the entire photo, and this is it. The Selective tool allows us to adjust the brightness, contrast, saturation or structure of a particular area of our image.
An example of when you might want to use this could be to increase the saturation of a flower in the foreground without affecting the colour of the surrounding grass or sky.
To do this, enter the Selective tool and locate the area you want to make changes to. Tap on the area and a pin will be dropped to the spot. Pinch with two fingers to adjust the size of the area you want to effect — this will be identified in red.
Once you are happy with the area you are editing, click on the pin to choose which effect you want to apply (the circle arrow with the slider in the middle icon)
B — Brightness
C — Contrast
S — Saturation
S — Structure
Adjust until you’re happy and save.
The last step in my natural editing process is the Healing tool. Often, this won’t be needed, but as is the nature of landscape photography and the unignorable litter problem the world over, sometimes, this step is necessary. I use this in instances where I want to remove a wrapper on a pavement or a bald patch from the otherwise beautifully lush green grass.
To use the Healing tool, just open it up and tap the object you want to remove. You can also zoom in if you want to focus on a smaller area.
If the area that you’re trying to correct is large, then I recommend using the Healing tool in stages, instead of highlighting the entire area at once. Selecting the whole area to heal in one go can distort your image.
As the Healing tool works by using the image around the area you want to remove, anything that sits outside of your selected area will be drawn in to fill the gap. Therefore, selecting in stages gives you far more control over the result. I recommend tapping slowly and building up to the desired outcome.
Some people may want to use the healing tool to remove the fence shadow in the foreground, however, I felt this added more depth to the image, so I chose to leave it.
One final tip…
Once you’ve completed all the above stages, you will see a huge transformation in your image, bringing out the natural beauty within the shot.
Throughout your process, try to remember the scene when you were taking the photo. What was it that caught your eye, to begin with, and what is the story?
Was it sunny or stormy?
Was it tranquil or bustling?
Were you drawn in by the fishing boat or the lone tree on the bank?
Asking yourself these questions as you go along, ensures that you capture your personality within the photo and allows you to edit your work into a storytelling piece of art and not just another photo on Instagram.
Why not have a go and see what you can create?
As for taking a good photo of the moon? I’m afraid that’s just one of life’s little mysteries.