Post processing in nature photography is a highly personal process. We all have our likes and dislikes, best workflow for our nature photos and more. But there are some things that are often overlooked, pushed too far, or not pushed far enough, resulting in images of nature that don’t look like nature, or prints that disappoint.
If you are new to nature photography, here are few common post processing mistakes that you should avoid to take your photos to the next level.
#1: Chromatic Aberration
Without getting too technical, I’ll simplify it by saying that it has to do with your camera lens, the color of light traveling through it, and it shows up primarily in areas of high contrast. More detailed explanations are readily available on line. If it goes unnoticed, and therefore not dealt with, you may find yourself with a big lovely print with horrible purple, red, green, or blue edges around objects that shouldn’t have colors like that. In the image above, the original photo looks just fine, but on closer inspection, there is horrible chromatic aberration showing up on the wood fence where the dark wood meets the white snow behind it. This is the most likely place you’ll see CA, areas where dark objects meet light backgrounds or the sky. It’s a very simple fix in Lightroom or any RAW processor. I have Lightroom set up to deal with CA on import and will double check with a 200% zoom in areas of high contrast. Last thing you want is to spend time working on an image only to see this horrible color fringing show up on a print.
#2: Wrong Amount of Contrast
Adding contrast in post processing can bring out a lot of detail in your nature photos. However, applying it globally is usually counter productive for nature photography, especially in already high contrast situations like sunrises or sunsets. Decreasing it can also make a photo look flat, lifeless, less realistic. I’ll use the same photo for several of the examples to come to see how different a single image can look with a number of adjustments applied. When it comes to contrast, I rarely adjust the “contrast” slider and instead opt to use the shadows, highlights, blacks, and whites sliders to adjust areas more specifically.
#3: Incorrect Saturation for Nature Photography
One of the most common post processing mistakes in nature photography can be as simple as taking the saturation slider and moving it too far to the right. This is also an issue when working with High Dynamic Range images like the beach scene in the photo below. In instances like this, I’ll take a 3 image bracketed camera exposure in the field, but I don’t necessarily create an HDR all the time in post.
Sometimes, I can just process the “metered” image and draw details out of the highlights and shadows without having to blend. I find it creates a more realistic image as well as being more pleasant to the masses. When working with dynamic range, just remember that in nature, the sky is almost always brighter than the foreground at sunrise and sunset. Making the foreground brighter than the sun in post just looks weird. Overcooked HDR in nature photograph can be a touchy subject as everyone’s idea of saturation is different. Do what makes you happy, but just be aware that pushing saturation too far can make colors look fake and create harsh transitions from one shade to another. If I’ve worked on an image for a while, I’ll walk away and come back to it with fresh eyes and sometimes I realize I’ve pushed my colors a bit too far.
#4: Overuse of the Dehaze post processing adjustment
When this new feature came out a few years back for Lightroom, photographers were super excited at the capabilities. However, sometimes we get a little over zealous when it comes to new toys and do things we normally wouldn’t…like pushing that dehaze post processing adjustment too far.
In the photo above nature photographers should watch out for your blues, especially in your skies. It can take a pretty blue and turn it cyan in a heartbeat. Another reason to ease up on that slider is when you have fog.
A foggy image will no longer be foggy if you use the dehaze slider. The whole point of dehaze adjustment in Lightroom is to remove this atmospheric element. If you want a moody, foggy image, stay away from dehaze.
#5: Too much post processing can result in noisy images
I have a basic landscape photography rule that I live by. Shoot at the lowest ISO possible for the circumstances. I’m almost always at ISO 100 unless I’m doing night photos, working indoors, or photographing wildlife. But even at ISO 100, if you push an image too far, it can result in noise, especially in the dark areas.
Taking the dark areas of this same image and trying to make them too bright has turned smooth water into muddy, gritty weirdness. If I truly wanted the dark areas this bright, I’d be better off using the original bracketed exposure set and making an HDR where the shadow areas are already brighter than this. Darkening them won’t produce noise but brightening will. Just be careful and watch those shadows.
This is the final processed image I came up with. I used a single exposure instead of the bracketed 3 that I took in the field.
#6: Ignoring an Obvious Color Cast
The color of the sky or surroundings will affect the color of the objects in your images. A sunny day will produce blue in the shadow areas. Wedding photographers know this one very well as the bride’s dress is suddenly blue! That’s a quick way to NOT get any more wedding gigs! In nature photography it can take your white waterfall and turn it green if it’s surrounded by trees. Light is bouncing off of everything around you and sometimes it will cause colors to show up where there really shouldn’t be any.
Now, I’m not saying that you should ALWAYS get rid of a color cast. After all, at sunrise and sunset we should have a nice warm glow on everything. I like to keep it but that’s a personal choice. Take this image above. Photographed in the shade on a clear sky day and if you didn’t pay attention, you probably wouldn’t notice that the white boats are in fact blue! I just used the white balance dropper in Lightroom to do a quick adjustment. It warmed the image quite a bit. Pushing it any warmer took the blue out of the sky so I left it there. If I wanted to make the boats completely white, I could do that with a brush and desaturate them….but I like them a bit warm.
Here is a short video from Kate Silvia on how to correct some of these post processing mistakes for nature photography:
Post processing is highly personal as I said. I hope, however, that you are a bit more aware of some of the pitfalls of post processing in nature photography and will watch out for these in the future. May you bring out the very best in your images. After all, you worked hard for them!