Let's talk frankly about what makes a great landscape photo for a minute. What it comes down to is having all the right elements in all the right places and finding just the right way to photograph them. Simple, right? Not necessarily.
The problem is that nature doesn't always present us with the perfect placement of everything. Occasionally there's going to be something in your way, whether it's a blade of grass in front of a flower, a branch ruining a perfect reflection in a pool of water, or some other little nuisance you'd rather get rid of without having to spend hours with the cloning tool later.
Just as often, there's going to be an area that needs a little something added to make the scene. Maybe a bit more color would add some interest. Perhaps another rock in the stream would complete that leading line. Maybe you just need something to cover up that footprint that spoils an otherwise pristeen setting.
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I'm sure there are some environmentalists and photo purists that are already unhappy with where this is going. Let me make it clear that I'm not suggesting you grab a chainsaw and start removing trees or destroy a spawning redd by rooting around in a stream bed. What I am saying is that there's nothing wrong with a little rearranging or even a little careful pruning, as long as you're not inflicting any permanent damage.
I think many readers would be surprised to know how many award-winning landscape photos were shot after a little bit of minor manipulation. I've personally been fortunate enough to see some of the “before and afters” of my pro friends and I can tell you that many perfect landscape and nature shots aren't as “natural” as they appear. In the final analysis, it's a matter of doing what it takes to create the perfect shot without harming the environment.
The video below, from Adorama and Bryan Peterson, is a great demonstration of my point. He's going to walk you through a shoot of a waterfall, using mirror lockup, a polarizer and a long shutter speed, but he's also going to “cheat” a little toward the end of the video, and the difference in the before and after shots is stunning. Take a few minutes to watch it. I think you'll be impressed and inspired:
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