Should You Modify Your Environment For A Photo?

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?

32 thoughts on “Should You Modify Your Environment For A Photo?

  1. I have no problem with things that were resident in the area to be repositioned for visual pleasure. If it’s something that doesn’t belong, like human trash, or something that you put there from a different area, I might have some discomfort with that, unless the reason for such has been stated. (like why a starfish would be displayed on a mountain top).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s art, so who cares? Just as long as it looks good, I don’t care if the scene or photo was manipulated or is completely natural. But if it’s a very unusual photo and was manipulated, I think I would appreciate some disclosure on that.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Jason you definitely have a knack for capturing the sunlight in may aspects. Not to mention the subject of the photo. I love the cactus photo, you’d think that with so many around here I’d be tried of them, lol. But I’m not, and the beach pic, it’s just gorgeous!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I don’t think there is anything wrong with what you do with scenes. You have a special eye for how things will look the best. I still like the prickly pear pic, even with the weeds.
    Of course the beach scene is my favorite, and the sneakers don’t take anything away from it.
    Now if you could add some dolphins out in the ocean that would be cool! But I would want to know that you didn’t really see dolphins. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I don’t mind a bit of trash being brushed out, but I’m not fond of sky replacement and such. Apart from that, I grinned at your first photo. That surely does look like the beach down by Pointe West on the west end of Galveston Island. I was in the area last weekend, and walked the boardwalk across the dunes at access point #40 — the last one before San Luis Pass

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I have only done sky replacement as an experiment and other than that it seems kind of pointless to me.

      It is one of those boardwalks at Pointe West. There is usually a trash can near the boardwalk and I cloned that out. I rent one of those condos from time-to-time to take the family to the beach. It is a nice place.

      The other two photos were taken at a wildlife refuge near Austin where I hike a lot.


  6. it’s an interesting question, one I never thought about. I think I would default to leaving the scene the way I discovered it, primarily because I am too lazy to move things around.

    When I look at your prickly care photo, I like it because it gives me a sense of what nature is like at that place and at that moment of time.

    Liked by 4 people

  7. So the question, are the images “created” by Ansel Adams natural or pure? He manipulated the processing and printing. While maybe not touching the physical elements he still manipulated Nature and what “he saw”. Not what someone else saw and “thinks”Adams saw.

    Should a photograph/artist be allowed to create what they see in their head, or have to play Nd follow rules someone else thinks are important?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. No picture can be truly “unprocessed” as camera lenses and film aren’t exactly how the eye sees. Digital cameras process the image while writing the file.

      I was mainly talking about removing or adding element to the scene rather than making color, contrast, white balance, etc. adjustments. I am certainly not telling anyone else how to make their photos, just opining about my own.


  8. I realize that. Just playing devil’s advocate. Shooting for news publications I wouldn’t do anything to an image but crop, maybe burn down some corners in the old days, just tone, crop and sharpen in the new days. But now, not shooting for news publications I will tweak. Either way, keeping or removing or doing some stuff in post, you are presenting to a viewer your vision. Nice job. And have fun doing it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Well, that’s one of the latest controversies among photography know-it-alls, which basically describes all photographers: AI generated images that look like a real scene but are completely produced by some program. How can you compete with that? It might take years of planning and trying to get that amazing landscape photo and a computer can whip one up in a matter of seconds.

      We’re all going to be replaced by computers eventually I guess, though I am not sure what the point of that will be.

      Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.