One question that I hear debated among the photography community, and that I debate with myself sometimes, is whether or not it is OK to modify a natural environment for a photographic composition. This could mean cleaning up a few leaves, removing some weeds or twigs that are in the way, or even removing branches from trees. Does this subtract from the purity of the landscape image? To me it, it depends. I have certainly done stuff like this on a small scale, but in certain circumstances I feel that I shouldn’t do anything to change the scene and play it as it lies.
First, there is trash or anything a human put somewhere. I have no qualms about removing trash either physically or in Photoshop. I am out to photograph the ‘natural’ world and if a human put it there, a human can remove it. One could argue that humans are natural, and we are, but I am out to mostly photograph everything but the anthroposphere. In the photo below there was a sign on the beach and some garbage on the sand and I happily cloned them both out in Photoshop. But I left the neatly arranged shoes as they didn’t bother me as much.
What about natural debris? Leaves, sticks, rocks, fallen trees, etc. Here I kind of feel like I am cheating a little but that doesn’t always stop me from trying to get a nice photo. Leaves and twigs might just as easily get blown away by a gust of wind. And a fallen tree branch is already dead and I don’t think I am doing it any harm by moving it. In the photo below I moved that old tree branch around so that it would get a little sun and be amid some rocks in the grass for the contrast. Does that make this composition less natural? Is that too much cheating? By the way, that was about a year ago and that tree branch still sits where I put it today.
There are other times that I have considered modifying the scene and have chosen not to. When it comes to living things, I have a much harder time manipulating the environment. Oh, I may hold a tree branch out of the way for a photo, but I wouldn’t ordinarily break it off to get it out of the way. I have broken a few weeds off to get them out of a picture before.
The photo below was the inspiration for this post. It might have been a better photo if I had gotten down there and pulled the weeds around the prickly pear to simplify the composition. I really wanted the prickly pear to stand alone in the golden sunlight against the distant hillside and I considered for a moment clearing out the weeds. But this is at a wildlife refuge and nature preserve and I felt not only that I shouldn’t disturb the plants that much, but also that I should portray the landscape as it is. So, I have prickly pear and weeds in evening sunlight.
I look at a lot of beautiful landscape photos online and often wonder how much of the scene was modified in pre or post production. Unless it is a bit of trash or dead twigs, I will generally leave the scene alone, but getting that composition you have in your mind can tempt you to make some bigger changes. When I am tempted like this, I usually just try to think of a better way to work the scene, but I am only human and I even speed sometimes too.
What do you think?