Is Modern Landscape Photography Really Art or Is It Fake?

You can learn so much about yourself and photography by briefly getting familiar with art history. But is photography art in the first place? 

Since I became a landscape photographer, my enjoyment of visiting art museums has increased by a lot. Danish art history is rich and is reflected in the art history of the world and past trends. One of my favorite museums is the Skagen Museum, and you will find it in northern Denmark in the small town of Skagen. In Skagen, a group of painters formed a colony in the late 19th century. Their paintings are arguably the most famous in Danish art history and also some of my favorite paintings.

Do not worry, I will get to the photography part in a bit.

A three-exposure photo. Focus stacked and the birds are blended in from a third exposure at high ISO.

This colony of painters painted their families, the daily life in Skagen, the surrounding landscapes, and the fishermen who lived in the town. The painters were mainly inspired by impressionism, which is known for an emphasis on accurate depiction of light, ordinary subject matter, movement, and some different painting techniques. The main point was not to depict a subject matter as seen by the eyes, but as perceived by the painter; it was the impression of the painter, which is depicted.

In one of the most famous Danish paintings (see below), the painter PS. Krøyer painted a get-together of some of the painters from the colony. He was inspired by the real events captured in the photo, but the painting is not an exact depiction of what happened on that day. No, Krøyer was much more interested in giving an impression of the friendship and social bonds of the colony, which led to his painting “Hip, Hip, Hurra.”

Even though there are many photos from the late 19th century, we humans have a tendency to look to paintings to understand the past. However, paintings from the past — no matter how realistic they look — are still a product of the painters’ skills, impression, vision, and purpose.

Photography

This is the same for all the artistic fields, no matter if it is painting, sculpting, or modern arts like photography or even computer graphics. Photography does not have to be a single thing with a single purpose. Yes, it is fantastic for documenting events and even better if the photograph is accompanied by text. However, journalistic photography is not the only purpose of using a camera, just as a “truthful” depiction of an event in the 16th century was not the only purpose of painting (it very rarely was).

No humans experience water as long streaks. Some photographers may disapprove of the long exposure effect, but you cannot deny that it has certain aesthetic value to it. It is your artistic decision to use it or not.

Contemporary landscape photography is arguably much more about the impression of the individual photographer than depicting the landscape as realistic as possible. You may not like this. It is often important to remind my co-photographer that nobody in the entire universe has the authority to decide how an individual should use their camera. Not even National Geographic who is often celebrated as a kind of "standard of nature photography." National Geographic decides what they want to publish in their magazines based on their criteria, which you can choose to follow. National Geographic is known for more “realistic” depictions of places and events, but they are not to decide whether you want to or should photograph like that.

I will bet that in 80 years (or even earlier) some art historians can say a whole lot of things about the tendencies within landscape photography in the early 21st century. How people made fantasy-esque landscape photos because they are influenced from growing up with cartoons and fantasy movies, how many photos are taken during travels because people were not limited to their own backyard, how many photos look alike because social media helped push the most popular landscape photos and the internet made it easier than ever to learn the skills of the most popular landscape photographers? There are likely even more tendencies to point out. As I am writing this, the world moves on, as it always has, and in a few decades, we can look back and analyze why things were as they were and we can keep discussing what good photography is and what good art is, as we always should.

My photo from Eystrahorn in Iceland is made up of several exposures (a so-called time blend). I experienced all of it and put it all together in one image. The post-processing helps balance tones, colors, and light, and make it "pop."

There is a tendency to label this kind of impressionist landscape photography as “fake” because it reminds some people of fantasy that they cannot see it in reality. Here is a surprise for you: art requires imagination! Just because the photo depicts more (or less) than the eye can see does not make it fake. It is as narrow-minded as labels come. The point here is that there are several different approaches to photography, and they are all valid. Some are more artistic than others, and that is all fine. When impressionist paintings first started to hit the world stage, they were ridiculed and met with harsh opposition too from the conventional art community.

Be sure to check out the above video, where I discuss my approach to impressionist and contemporary landscape photography even more. Let me know down below what kind of photography you enjoy doing and why.

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71 Comments

Deleted Account's picture

It's not a question that matters unless you are trying to increase the value of your work; however, have you noticed how the vast majority of landscape photography looks the same?

Michael Fraser's picture

They’re all photographs of planet Earth, so it’s a bit difficult to change things *that* radically.

By extension, all classical Western music sounds the same because it’s all based on the same twelve notes.

Deleted Account's picture

Let me rephrase; Marc Adamus did it first, then everyone else did it. Style on social media is largely driven by a feedback loop betweeen artists and viewers.

I am inclined to suggest if you view a photograph as nothing more than a representation of the subject depicted then you are incabable of comprehending any question pertaining to photographic art.

Venson Stein's picture

Modern Landscape mostly looks like fake, Video Game type imagery. Disgusting. I will stick with the old masters where at least the photos look real, and not "fantasy art" of some kind.

Paolo Bugnone's picture

Well I don't think the question is whether it's art or not.
It is art for sure, there is no technical rule defining art.
Photography on the other end has a definition, and when you're starting to blend together various time of days and adding other stuff like birds, lightnings, nonexisting lights etc you aren't taking a photograph anymore, you are composing an image which might look good, might be art, but it's not a photo, it's a work of graphic design.

Sadly landscape photography is more and more victim of editing abuse, it started with stuff that could be justified for the purpose of going beyond the camera limits (like HDR and bracketing) but it now "evolved" (or involved?) to time of day blending, focal lenght blending, shameles stretching of landscape features in Photoshop etc... and the worst thing is whan said manipulations are hidden from the viewer which thinks he's looking at a real landscape and then builds an unrealistic expectaion that makes hard to appreciate simpler real landscape photo that aren't made on a computer.

PC B's picture

How can Paulo say that? It's there in your definition of photography: painting with light. Once you start compositing, stretching, blending, etc in photoshop, you are painting with PIXELS, not light. What about Ansel Adams and his heavy manipulation of landscapes in the darkroom? He was dodging and burning and therefor still painting with light. What about Gary Ulesman who composites his landscapes in the darkroom? It could be argued that he is still panting with light. But if Ulesman were to start using photoshop to create his art, it would drift further and further away from actually being "photography".

Rory Sheridan's picture

I think that's a drastic exaggeration. Not all manipulation changes things to the same degree. And I think it is completely rational that at a certain degree the manipulation has extended into the realm of digital art, passing limits of photography. Not recognising that is just a justification for an unnecessary categorisation. Just call it what it is, digital art.

I mean, why even take a photo if you're going to manipulate the picture so heavily? Taking things from other photos is just adding things that aren't there. Why not just draw mountains, fake an ocean? All manipulation is valid, right? Is something completely created using graphic design considered photography? No, it's art. So why would something that starts with a photo but uses similar methods to produce its results be considered photography rather than art?

In my opinion, for landscape photography, in particular, it necessitates that the photographer actually represents the landscape. That includes the sky when the photo is taken, time of day, relative colors, etc. There's some freedom within that. But once you start adding stuff that isn't there, you aren't representing the natural world the landscape is in, and therefore not representing a landscape at all! Only a fantasy. Which is totally fine, but it's digital art, not landscape photography, because photos can't capture fantasy, but fantasy can be created digitally. Ansel Adams could only doge and burn what he had photographed. Digitally we can dodge and burn invented content. Yes, there's a difference.

And if we're making comparisons to painting. We can say that realist painters aren't impressionist, and impressionists aren't abstract. Why do these differences exist if it's all just "painting"? Because lines between their definitions do exist. The reason for such a possible range is simple. Painting begins within the creator and is materialised. Photography is the opposite. It begins with the material and is captured. So the definitive lines are completely different from the outset. If you are materialising things from your mind into your photo, yes it's "painting". But it is painting more than it is photography. Therefore, art.

PC B's picture

I don't distinguish dodging and burning between darkroom and photoshop, I distinguish all the other tools available in photoshop that have noting to do with quantity or quality of light. And absolutely no, you don't have to allow ALL if you allow some. That is absurd.

anthony marsh's picture

Painting with light is one thing, painting with PHOTOSHOP and LIGHTROOM is not photography.

PC B's picture

But there is a way to manipulate a photograph so much that it is no longer a photograph, but rather something else.... something beyond... and I think it's the position of that line between "photograph" and "other" that we are all discussing. That line does indeed exist, and it lives somewhere in photoshop... it also lives on the drafting table, the scrap book, the collage, the canvas, etc, but it does live. If all it takes is for a camera to be involved, is a statue built from cameras a photograph? Is the light projected inside a camera obscure a photograph? Is a lifelike painting created by an artist using a camera obscure as reference a photograph? Is a printed 3d model that was originally mapped using cameras capturing a subject from different angles a photograph?

PC B's picture

Sure thing, James. Peace.

anthony marsh's picture

There IS a way to create an unmanipulated photograph. As I have previously stated the way is to simply print from the negative as it is. I have never requested a lab to do other than that. At risk of sounding pompous and or self righteous If my photograph pleases me I consider it to be good.

anthony marsh's picture

I have always shot with film since1969 with my 1955 LEICA M-3,50 mm 2.8 ELMAR. Since 2018 BRONICA S2A, MAMIYAFLEX-2 MAMIYA C-3, C-33, 1937 VOIGTLANDER BESSA, 3 IKOFLEX, 2 AGFA BILY COMPUR. Each allows me to create my personal vision of photography. I view the results and if they do not meet my standards they are discarded. It may appear to some a waste of time and film however it satisfies me and quite a few others. The M-3 was for mainly street shooting in MANHATTAN and my home town ALBANY,N.Y. the medium formats for fine art photography. I have not ventured into MANHATTAN for the past twelve years because it began to be too much of a risk to person and camera.

microteck's picture

The true meaning of Photography is "the practice of creating durable images by recording light, either electronically by means of an image sensor, or chemically by means of a light-sensitive material such as photographic film". So it has nothing to do with painting of light, it has nothing to do with manipulating light. But everything to do with capturing light through the lens. Better double check the dictionary.

Rory Sheridan's picture

In my post I was specifically writing about landscape photography. I think if you alter a landscape to any point in which it doesn't represent a true landscape, encompassing the whole reality, then it's not really a landscape, is it? It's imagination.

Landscapes are real physical existences that occur within set contexts and are formed by defined rules. I'm all for giving photos alterations to represent an emotive context, but there is a limit, a line.
IMO, changing sky boxes is already too far for landscape photography. That land, in that season, has a set kind of weather which impacts the world around it. I don't want to see tropical sunsets in Norway during winter for landscape photography. They don't exist. And if they did that landscape wouldn't exist either.
Ihe line sits somewhere in a grey area, I know. Cool.

Once you start to go deeper into the gray area though, certain kinds of photography become something else. Nature, Landscape and wildlife photography stop being what they are.

They become artistic photography with landscapes, nature and wildlife as the subject. Is it photography? Sure, absolutely. Should it be in the same category? No. It stops representing what those categories are about.

You can't even really change a bird's color without making it a fantasy creature because the color is part of the definition of the species. Is it wildlife? No, because wildlife is a fixed definable concept in reality. There's not so wiggle room to interpret it because there isn't a grey area.

We all, as artists, creatively interpret the world through our camera (and PC), so it's just a habit we have. But these things are definable, so a category should represent them. If that's not the goal, just stick it in a more versatile category, no probs.

Rory Sheridan's picture

I dunno why you're so flippant and argumentative? It's unnecessarily adversarial. Others are just chatting on the concept, the point of the article. I didn't even disagree with you? I just expanded the discussion.
And if you agree there's a limit, who are YOU even disagreeing with?

You even wrote in a previous post, and I quote:
"if you're going to call things what they are, and I think we should, then you need more specific labels for specific ideas".
🤔

That's literally my entire post. Specific categories exist, so use them as they are, they're all photography.

I suppose you're right, you should refrain from commenting, especially if you can't have an adult discussion... 🙄

Rory Sheridan's picture

If you're as close minded and ignorant to not be open to discussion, you're absolutely right, don't comment. You have nothing to gain through communication and nothing to contribute to a beneficial discussion.

Honestly, I think you don't have a good idea of genre, category or what people are even writing. I'm not surprised the responses don't make sense to you. You literally haven't made sense of them. Nobody is talking about "what is or is not photography". We're all saying where things belong in category within photography, and you just keep responding to something else you've invented. Whatevs, man, keep it easy.

P. S. A person who writes like you has clearly not considered anyone's arguments. They don't even understand the word "considerate".

PC B's picture

His definition of painting with light predates the English dictionary itself... he was looking at the origins of the words themselves: photo + graph. Phos means light and graphe means drawing or writing, both from latin / greek.

davidlovephotog's picture

Coming from a troll that has no images.

microteck's picture

Still can't get the wrinkles out of your panties?

davidlovephotog's picture

Still using lines from middle school?

Javier Gutierrez's picture

i COMPLETELY agree with you. The photograph above that the author posted in my opinion that does not mean anything, is ART. It is no longer a photograph. Nothing wrong with that though.

anthony marsh's picture

Art as beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In my eye PHOTOSHOP manipulation is not art it is pure gimmickry.

Ed Sanford's picture

However, it is not new. Photographers throughout history have masked, cut, and combined negatives to achieve visual effects. Aubrey Bodine, the great pictorialist for the Baltimore Sun was noted for placing the sun and moon in positions that could not have been. This topic really is kind of tired. If you are a photojournalist or documentary photographer, it's conventional to create an "accurate" visual of a scene. If your work is creative, it is evaluated on another set of criteria. Painters are given wide latitude to express scenes based upon their mental and/or emotional visualization. Why shouldn't photographers have the same privilege. In the final analysis the viewer gets to decide; not a group of "expert" photographers.

Hans Gunnar Aslaksen's picture

Wonderful way of seeing things 😀

Tor-Ivar Næss's picture

It’s fake most of the time on Instagram... I mean if the other alternative is art 😁

Mikkel Beiter's picture

Always a pleasure reading your articles Mads! Quality stuff.

Aritz Atela's picture

Inspiring, instructional and always quality articles. Well done Mads :)

Christian Thorsen's picture

Quality stuff Mads!

David Mullen's picture

Great article. My own personal guideline is whether the subject or the technique (whether unusual optics or post-processing) is what stands out in the end... if the main thing one gets out of a photo was that it was shot on a fish-eye lens, it is less interesting than a subject that was enhanced by a fish-eye lens. I like a lot of the dreamlike landscapes done today, though I am bothered by more realistic landscape photography where dramatic skies are added later, that can feel a bit like a cheat to me if I find out that was done.

jim hughes's picture

Like everyone, I have my own personal idea of a "photograph". It captures a moment in time. And it looks like something that an actual person might have seen, had he been there. It feels like reality - not a movie, a painting or a dream.

There's plenty of room in my concept. But replacing a sky, adding a bird? Sorry, that's fake. And usually looks like it.

Javier Gutierrez's picture

Amen !

microteck's picture

Well said. I just wish I have thought of it first.

Nigel Voak's picture

I like this definition: "And it looks like something that an actual person might have seen,"

So much landscape and other photography we see today looks "fake" with exaggerated colour, strange contrast and such.

The pictures illustrating this article fall somewhat into this trap of not being credible to anybody who ever gets out into the countryside.

The silky waterfall or steamy looking sea, are other clichés that are becoming a bit tired.

I quess this "exaggerated" type of landscape photography is popular with those who never leave the city.

Jake Keane's picture

For me if something is taken with a device/tool that society collectively and by majority would still define as a camera or photographic device that in itself makes it a 'photograph'. Just because you take that captured image and then change it digitally in computer software doesn't then suddenly make it NOT a photo, but it does makes it MORE than a photo (digital art, graphic design). The art side of it has no answer, there is no set definition on what makes something art or not art. Also, just because you use time blending, stacking, long exposure etc doesn't make any photograph suddenly more artistic, or less. It may do so however in the eye of a particular individual based on their personal feelings and aesthetic preferences. For me personally, when i first got into photography I was wowed by the looks of modern style landscapes with heavy post processing, and i tried to emulate it. As time as wore on, I have found myself drawn more to landscape images that can evoke a feeling or emotional response through simplicity. I prefer monochrome, I prefer minimal. That's just my person preferences. I think what might be more pertinent to your article is the question, what makes 'good' art, which is again subjective, but perhaps more relevant when considering the trends of modern landscape photography and the well known criticism around it.

anthony marsh's picture

Sorry it is definitely NOT a photograph, it is a digitally manipulated picture.

Taxco Boy's picture

Stop using click bait headings, or I will stop reading this website. In fact, I completely skipped this article and didnt read it because of this. If you think that treating people like imbeciles is the right thing to do the i will vote with my wallet and deprive this website from my clicks. Not to mention that i will never subscribe to the authors youtube channell. Way to lose prospective subscribers.

Mark Guinn's picture

Bye, Felicia.

Kai Hornung's picture

There is no good or bad art. There is just art. Some people have tried to separate into these categories and that was usually done by oppressors in dark parts of history.
But you can question if every intent leads to art. The mere fact of content creation in order to earn money or gain attention to pad ego (which applies to 95% of social media) doesn’t make it art, in my opinion.

Simon King's picture

I think saying it's "narrow minded" to label highly edited photos as fake is a bit unfair. I think most people who describe a highly edited image as fake are referring to the fact that the end result doesn't reflect what the scene actually looked like when captured - if the sky has been replaced, or colours heavily manipulated/changed, or mountains added etc then that scene has in fact been "faked". It doesn't mean the end result isn't a beautiful piece of art. Fake literally means "not genuine" - a heavily manipulated image as described is not genuine. I really like a lot of these "fake" images, but I would probably describe them more as pieces of art, rather than an individual photograph. Do I feel a little cheated in not knowing it's been manipulated? Not really, as it's often so easy to tell, and I look at it for what it is. I can appreciate both styles - photos that are true to how the scene actually appeared, as well as those that have been more "created" after work in editing.

Rashad Hurani's picture

Photographers hate to admit they are photographers

jim hughes's picture

I think there's some truth in that. Today everyone and his dog is a "photographer" with a whole bunch of "creative filters" just one click away. How can I set myself apart?

Rashad Hurani's picture

Soon the most frequent question you'll face as a landscape photographer: is it real?

Dax Anderson's picture

I catch myself thinking that while looking at landscape photos. Wondering if thy sky has been changed, parts added or removed, etc.

Fritz Gessler's picture

all art(work) is fake - the most art which pretends to be naturalistic :) even the famous romantic ladsvape paintinhs by d.a. friedrich were composed often from various landscape pieces - exacly for the better effect, let alone the mood/atmosphere added.
landscape photography (esp. at sites like fstoppers) are PURE FAKE - photoshop & co. abused to the exteme to produce kitschy sweet (or dramatic dark) landscape a la the last disneyworld -videogame :)

Sridhar Chilimuri's picture

There are places on this Earth that require no special technique to showcase their beauty. I would argue we should take photographs as the human eye would see it - for instance the Antarctic. And rest of the places I am not sure. One has to take into account that human DOF is unmatched. So merging images is acceptable I guess to some extent. But long exposures are more art than real.

David Oakill's picture

I'm a digital artist by profession. My job is to make things that don't exist in the real world look as if they were photographed. This is the basis for image reality, we mimic how light, texture, and form works in the real world. I could easily add 5 suns into a landscape to create something that is art, that is 100% fiction, but looks like a photograph. Can I call it a photo?

Of course this is extreme example, but my point is that photography inherently has an element of truth to it by definition. All other forms of art (traditional art at least) require the artist to be the medium through which the information is filtered. It's not really possible to 100% eliminate the artist from the art. Even realistic painters have to make judgements of how to depict light.

Technically though, the way most people view photography, it's simply pushing a button and the camera does the work. And by most people, I mean everyone who isn't a photographer. There is the belief that the camera records reality. The term "photographic evidence" comes to mind here, meaning it can't (or shouldn't) be challenged.

I have no problem with manipulating photos, but I think if the photographer (artist?) is adding things that were not there or removing things that were, this needs to be called out. Even if it is simply calling it digital art or a composite / creative edit. Some context needs to be given as to what we are looking at and more importantly, HOW to look at it. A swapped sky might make a compelling image, but it's only an exceptional image when compared with another photograph, if it was compared to another piece of digital art of the same landscape, then it will most likely be less compelling. Sports analogy - if you take a pro athlete and put him in a high school game, but don't tell anyone that he's a pro, they will be impressed. Once they find out he's a pro, they will no longer be impressed. Context matters, and photos are contextually thought of as reality.

jim hughes's picture

We need to evolve the terminology. What we're talking about is some combination of photography and... what? "Digital art" already sounds a bit dated...

It's something based on a photograph, but containing additional elements.

David Oakill's picture

Absolutely agree and not just composite images. In my world, "post production" means to alter the image significantly by adding elements and effects (think green screen), not just dodging and burning. Often I hear people refer to photo editing as post production and to me that right there is where the line is crossed from photo into digital art. If they are simply holding true to what you would do in a dark room then of course IMO that is still photography. But then as you pointed out, even comparing editing digital images to film images could be considered outdated.

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