Too Good To Be True / by sam taylor

Ok Folks. I’ve talked for years about how we try to “show it like it is”. We go to out of the way places, and try to represent our experiences honestly. Sometimes that is incredible, sometimes we get worked over - but we always strive to be honest about our experiences. For years I’ve complained about “unreal” landscape images. Sometimes, it’s because I went to the place in the photo and was pretty bummed that it didn’t look the way I expected, or the photo totally misrepresented the conditions of a place. Sometimes, its because I’ve had a student or a client that is really frustrated that they can’t make the image they’ve seen online - and they are upset to find out that it “can’t be done” without a lot of manipulation and software.

Straight Out of Camera

I’m going to take some time today to talk about and give some examples of these types of manipulations - and this won’t even get into heavy “compositing”, where parts of different images are assembled to make a new image. Compositing is an art form to itself, one I have a great deal of respect for - but it isn’t photography, and it isn’t what we’re going to talk about today. Instead, we’re going to talk about how to spot images that have been manipulated - and how different it might look, if you go there. From where I stand, this place is beautiful enough - we don’t need to fake it, unless the point isn’t about the place, but about the “likes and shares”.

Fall Foliage

My “Normal” Edit

Every year we travel this state like maniacs - searching out the leaves, chasing the views. Much of the time, I try to use photos I see from around the state to guide my travels. Fellow photographers I know make gorgeous images of Southern West Virginia - and it lets me know whether it’s a good weekend to head south or not. In the last few years, though, it’s been tougher - we’ll see images online that are all orange and yellows, even though it’s green everywhere we’ve been, and everywhere we’ve talked to people. How is that? Well, let’s take a look.

This first image is “straight out of camera”, taken at Holly River State Park. Pretty green. The next image is my “base” edit of the same image, and is the basic edit I apply to almost all of my images. But - it doesn’t look like “fall”! I can’t gain Instagram fame with this image?! The third edit is all in Lightroom - and requires no specialized techniques, just moving sliders. And boy, does this look like a lot of images I saw this fall. Lots of oranges, lots of yellows. But the big giveaway for me? The rocks and water. Other than AMD, we don’t have a lot of orange rocks and orange water in West Virginia. We also don’t have wall-to-wall yellow and orange trees typically in this state. Weird. And I would have been pretty upset for driving 3 hours expecting to see those wall-to-wall colors instead of what was actually there, based on this photo.

Fall Foliage! Sort of.

Fall Foliage! Sort of.

Beautiful early fall day at Seneca.

Oranges! Oranges everywhere! (including in the rocks)

Lets try one more, of another landmark in West Virginia - and one I seem to see every fall, Seneca Rocks. Once again, the top photo reflects my basic edit, the type of image I would post on our page, or share in our social media.

The bottom photo looks lovely, and nothing like most any fall I’ve seen in West Virginia in the last few years - and again, isn’t the product of anything exotic or specialized, just Lightroom. Which one is more likely to get shared across the internet? I have a pretty good idea, but it isn’t real, and if someone took the time to drive there, they might be pretty disappointed with the result.

I think this also speaks to one of the reasons this rankles me as well - fall is a BEAUTIFUL time in West Virginia, but it is also fleeting and elusive. We have years where it’s a little too dry, or a little too wet, or bugs get to the leaves, or the frost comes on too early, or storms come through and knock the leaves right off. It’s hard - and rewarding! - to find these beautiful places, because it doesn’t often set up in wall-to-wall “carpet of color”.

Sometimes the urge is to make it “what we want it to be”, but that isn’t what it is, and it diminishes the value of these things when they actually happen.

Super Moons

Super Moon over Morgantown. 24mm

Another one that I see all the time - especially whenever there is a “Super Moon” - is a rash of cartoonish-ly big moons over scenery. This is a more intentional bit of fakery, and is also hugely discouraging to folks that are learning photography. In general, the moon can only take up a certain amount of the frame in photography. Cropping and such will help a bit, but if you are out landscape shooting, there is only so big that the moon will be in a given frame for a given focal length.

For example, the first photo above is of a full super moon over downtown Morgantown. This photo was taken at 24mm focal length, a pretty common “kit” zoom length for point-and-shoot or SLR cameras. Notice how small the full moon is at that zoom length? Similar to how the moon “follows” you in a car, the moon is big enough - and far away enough - that it is always going to look that big, at that focal length - you can’t get “closer” by walking up or changing compositions to make it bigger. Also - take a close look and notice how you don’t see any stars in that image - but we’ll talk about that more later.

Full Moon from my porch - 250mm

Here is a photo, from my front porch, also of a full moon in the morning. This was taken at 250mm focal length - not a common “kit” length, but folks may have it around, or maybe with “digital zoom” you can get this equivalent focal length.

While the moon is “bigger” in this image, you can see how zoomed in I am on the surrounding scenery. To get the houses in my neighborhood in my frame, I would have to back up - a lot - which in our part of the world (hills and valleys and trees) isn’t always possible.

The Famous Lindy Point at Sunset.

To illustrate this, I’m using an image I’ve taken of Lindy Point at Blackwater Falls State Park. The first image is the original - no moon - taken at 24mm focal length. If you’ve been there, you know that the observation deck limits how far back you can get.

A little moon never hurt anybody! (24mm equivalent focal length moon composite)

In the next image, I’ve composited (added) the moon from the top photo, also at 24mm, into the image. There are probably a few times a year that Lindy Point looks something like this - with a full moon in the western sky, and the moon is proportionally sized to what you might actually see.

But that moon is scary! (250mm equivalent focal length moon composite)

In the third image, I’ve used my “250mm” moon from above. To me this looks terribly fake, and more importantly, there is no way to capture this image in real life. Quite literally, it will never, ever, actually look like this. If that image were taken to capture the moon at similar size, it would look something like the image below.

Would we prefer it to look this way? I’m not sure - I think I would be alarmed if the moon looked that big in our sky. But I have folks ask me how to take pictures like this, and they become very disappointed when the answer is “you can’t, not from there”.

Not as unbelievable as before, but also not the entire scene

Not as unbelievable as before, but also not the entire scene

This seems like a good time to talk about “compositing” - there are a lot of opinions about compositing, and folks that are good at it are true artists. But by definition, a composite means that the image is not a “single photograph”. Some folks will take a photo for the foreground, and then a second from the same place, at the same time for a different part of the image. This can often be well done - and can be used to capture what it actually “looked like” to the naked eye when they were there - but to a new photographer, it is important to note that it would be impossible to do in a single frame.

Other composites (like my image above) aren’t - they take images from different places, and different times, and create a scene which may never even be possible in the real world. For me, personally, I would hesitate in calling this a “photograph”.

As an aside, there are ways to make beautiful “super moon” photos with landscapes in the foreground - but they are very, very difficult to make as an actual photograph, and not a digital manipulation. They require getting far enough back from your subject to fit it all into the frame. Not an easy thing to do, generally - and remarkably hard in a place like West Virginia, where trees, ridges, and valleys all conspire to get in the way of your view.

A nice example of a photo made in this way (and explanation of how) is here: ( To put it in perspective - the beautiful image he describes there took a lot of planning, a 1,200mm lens, and he was standing a little over a mile away from the subjects when he took the photo.

Stars and the Moon and The City (Just Not at the Same Time)

Full Moon over Woodburn - Note Overexposure on the Moon!

Full Moon over Woodburn - Note Overexposure on the Moon!

Last but not least, I see so, so, many “full moon with sky full of stars” shots, and those are almost universally the product of compositing. I’ll give a couple of examples, and then talk about the technical reasons a little bit.

This photo of Woodburn Hall in Morgantown. The moon is over-exposed - no seeing the “man in the moon” here - but it was the exposure needed for the foreground scene. Why is this notable? The foreground was lit, extensively with lights - and yet was too dark to properly expose the moon! The full moon is extremely bright - way brighter than we tend to realize - and can dominate an image as a result.

Also - while there are a few stars peeking through here, note how it isn’t a “sky full of stars”. Why? Because, again, the moon is too bright, and I couldn’t make the exposure bright enough for stars without overexposing the entire image.

For perspective, this is a 1/4 moon!

This is an another example. This image was made in a very dark place (Canaan Valley, WV) - but more importantly, this was a waning crescent moon (2/10/2018). Note, even though the moon was only ~1/4 full, how bright it looks on the ground and in the sky when the rest of the image is exposed for stars.

So why does it seem like we can see these things with our naked eye? The biggest reason is that the human eye can see an incredible range from light to dark at the same time - about double the range of the best cameras.

In big cities, this becomes a very difficult thing because of light pollution. If you are in a city, and can barely see the stars, your camera is going to struggle just as much.

Full “Super Moon” over Morgantown. The moon is brighter than town!

Full “Super Moon” over Morgantown. The moon is brighter than town!

My final example is comparisons of two shots of Morgantown, from roughly the same place (the Westover bridge), one illuminated by a full moon (I used this image earlier), and one without.

No Moon Over Morgantown - See a few stars?

In the image with the moon, I had to make a compromise in exposing the city - the moon was that bright, and would have been way overexposed if I’d been any brighter. In the image with the stars, I was able to go brighter with the city, and pull out the stars a little bit as a result. Even in the starry image, this was getting to the limit that I could expose the city - any brighter would have overexposed the city lights, and it isn’t the “carpet of stars” or “milky way over the city” that I see in some obviously composited images.

I haven’t even started talking about shooting the milky way - we’ll just say that it is challenging to do, in terms of finding dark enough places to really make the image. A milky way image over Morgantown would be technically impossible, as the city lights would overpower the stars - and Morgantown is a relatively small city. Again, if you can’t see it all with your naked eye, it’s going to be tough to do with the camera.

So what’s the conclusion today? Well, I have a couple of goals. Firstly, I wanted to give a bit of encouragement to folks that are learning photography. There may be a reason why you can’t replicate a favorite image you’ve seen on the web, and it might not have anything to do with your camera equipment or your skill set as a photographer. I also wanted to put some light on the “real world” effects that come from these heavily manipulated images - folks make plans, take time off, to go to beautiful places or to enjoy the seasonal scenery, and it can be very discouraging to go somewhere and find that it doesn’t look anything like the photos you saw on the internet.

Lastly, I hope that it will help folks to understand what they are seeing when they see images that seem “too good to be true”. In many cases they are, and I think it takes away from the good - and hard - work that dedicated photographers do when pursuing this art form.

Hope y’all have a great week.