Luke Stackpoole , a landscape photographer based in London and Adobe Lightroom ambassador has traveled the globe looking for dramatic scenes. From the barren deserts of Namibia to the frigid seascapes of Iceland, Stackpoole has amassed a stunning portfolio that shows the world’s most dreamlike landscapes.
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Stackpoole makes it look easy, but in reality, his work is anything but. Planning, patience, luck, and proficient editing in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom are all critical for Stackpoole to create his dramatic landscape photographs.
The 29-year-old visual artist hasn’t always been a globe-trotting travel photographer. Up until just four years ago, Stackpoole was working at a desk job, handling accounting for Deloitte. He believes that the analytical side of his mind works in conjunction with the creative side, as he meticulously plans his photos and edits his work down to the pixel level in Lightroom.
“I love to create dreamlike landscape images because it inspires viewers to want to travel and create photography work from these locations,” he says.
Stackpoole shares the process that goes into creating his stunning dreamlike landscape images.
At a Glance
Picking a Location
Stackpoole credits much of his incredible portfolio to the locations he photographs. While he says that it is possible to create dreamlike photos from almost any location, being somewhere with dramatic scenery gives the photographer an immediate advantage. It is important to identify photogenic locations, like jagged mountains or expansive deserts.
In an information-driven age, Stackpoole explains that social media can be your best friend when researching locations.
” “It’s often true that even the most remote locations have been filmed or photographed by someone, so be open to looking for cool spots while you scroll through social media,” Stackpoole said. “I use the save post feature on Instagram to house all of the videos and photos that I come across for a location that I think would make for some great photographs.”
Experienced local guides can also be a well of information for finding the most photogenic locations.
“If a photographer who I follow has used a specific guide in a region, I will reach out to them to talk about a potential plan for a visit. Usually, just telling them the types of images you are after will give them enough information to put together a rough itinerary of shooting locations that I would visit with them when I arrive. Often, the guide will bring me to incredible places that I didn’t even know existed from my initial research,” he adds.
Using his analytical skills, Stackpoole also obsessively scours Google Earth to identify potential photography locations and the best angles to shoot them from.
“When I was touring the Icelandic highlands and the Faroe Islands, I opened Google Earth and did a ton of map work beforehand to look for some cool aerial compositions. That extra research allowed me to capture some incredible landscape photos that hadn’t been shot much yet by others, if at all,” Stackpoole says.
“When I visit the more popular photography locations, I am always looking for ways to have my photos be unique,” Stackpoole says. “Sometimes this comes from original compositions. Other times it comes from an innovative approach to Lightroom editing the photo to reflect the creative vision that I have for the scene .”
Deciding on Weather and Time of Day
When in search of capturing dreamlike landscape images, the weather and time of day are critical to coming away with portfolio-worthy images. Photographers will find that each location has different shooting conditions. This will allow them to capture stunning landscape images.
“For a desert scene, you will want some clear skies as the light is really important in adding a soft, ethereal glow to the dunes and sand,” Stackpoole states. “For a moody, dramatic vibe, however, you might be better off with some flat light on an overcast day. Photographing in Icelandic’s highlands, I always hope for clouds to diffuse the sunlight and not make the landscapes too dark. The colors of Iceland pop in diffused light, so bluebird skies are not ideal in this environment.”
Of course, Stackpoole emphasizes the importance of the golden hour.
“The minutes right after sunrise and just before sunset almost always lead to the best images,” Stackpoole says. It transforms the scene completely and gives it a dreamy soft feel. The landscape is illuminated by the golden light from the sun, which may be reflected through breaks in the orange and pink clouds. And if there is a storm clearing during this short window, you will be given some of the most dramatic and photogenic conditions possible”
Stackpoole’s landscape photography doesn’t end when the sun sets, however. The photographer loves to photograph at blue hour. This is the period between sunrise and sunset.
“You still have enough light to work with, and you can add in some artificial light sources like headlamps to create dreamlike scenes,” he explains.
After the blue hour is over, an artist usually stays around to take some astrophotography.
“For photos of the night sky, you want clear skies. Clear skies are a great way to have multiple locations and a vehicle. You might find it easier to drive from one location to another if there is cloud cover.
“To capture the details of the landscapes in front of you, having a bit of moonlight is key. If the moon has already set, or it is a new moon, you might just get a starry sky in your photo, even though there is an incredible, yet pitch black, landscape in front of you.”
Deciding on Composition
Composition choices are important in any genre of photography, and capturing landscapes is no different. Composition is crucial in any genre of photography. It can lead viewers through the scene and make it or break it. In the age of viewing photos on social media through your phone, the old composition rules often go out the window.
“I tend to shoot my images vertically for social media, so having a clear subject in the center of the frame often works best,” Stackpoole says. “Once the viewer can see this subject, you can help tell a story and create that dreamlike atmosphere as it allows you to center the audience’s attention on what is important.”
Stackpoole says that when he is looking for composition options, he often searches for objects such as winding roads, a small cabin, an animal, or even people. It doesn’t matter what subject the photographer is photographing, it matters how they frame the image.
“I like to make use of foreground elements such as grass or flowers, which I usually capture from a lower angle. These foreground objects come in handy when using the rule of thirds, as you can lead the viewer from the front of the image to the back. You can either have these foreground objects in focus or allow the soft bokeh of an out-of-focus object to lead a viewer’s eye through the frame,” he concludes.
Include a Sense of Scale
To add even more dramatic effect to a scene, Stackpoole recommends adding a sense of scale. This is usually done by using a Telephoto Lens, which adds compression to the background. It doesn’t matter what lens you use, but it is useful to add a person or other object to illustrate the scale of the scene.
“Having someone stand in the frame in front of a waterfall or on a sand dune allows the viewer to feel like they are there, and can also show how big the landscape and its features look in comparison to the person,” Stackpoole explains.
“Another way I like to show the scale of a location is by including a vehicle, especially with a drone photograph,” he says. “I found this helpful in the Icelandic Highlands, as the vehicle helped show just how massive the landscape is, while also telling a story of adventure.”
How to Edit Landscape Images to Make Dramatic Final Photos
Using a Base Preset in Adobe Lightroom
Once Stackpoole returns from a photography trip, he immediately imports all of his photos into Lightroom and begins editing. He recommends always capturing photographs in RAW, as that will yield the best results in the editing process.
“One of the first things I do when I find a photo I want to edit is to cycle through my personal custom-built presets to look for something that stands out to me and is fitting for the scenario,” Stackpoole says.
“For example, I created my own presets for the dramatic blues of Greenland, the earthy tones of a forest, or to bring out the stars in my astrophotography. That’s one of the things that I love most about Lightroom. You can make unlimited presets, which I can use to create any new photos I take. In addition to the presets that I create myself, Adobe has a large number of Premium Presets that were created by some of their Lightroom Ambassadors as well as other talented photographers. There are many options when choosing a base layer, and the Premium Presets collection has some great choices.
“Before I apply a preset base layer, I always adjust the white balance to fit the creative vision I have in mind for the scene. I then hover my mouse over the presets listed in the preset panel and quickly scroll through these to see which fits best,” he continues.
“Rarely, I don’t start with a preset because sometimes none of them fit with the image,” Stackpoole says. “For instance, with my photos from Greenland, I didn’t have any presets that worked with the icy blue tones, so I simply edited an image and saved those edits as a preset, and I was able to quickly sync that preset to every image in my Greenland folder so I had a base layer to start with, which made my editing process much easier.”
Working with Global Edits
Applying a preset as a base layer helps Stackpoole get his editing started, but it’s far from the end. Making fine adjustments using Lightroom’s editing tools helps him get the dreamlike results for his landscape photographs.
“RAW files can be quite flat so I add vibrance to the scene to make it more colorful,” Stackpoole explains. “I then slightly increase contrast, but at the same time, I reduce clarity a touch. It is important to make the image feel almost painting-like. This clarity change is essential.
He continues, “I then will reduce the blacks a touch with the tone curve, giving a nice dreamy fade. Lastly, I’ll add some color grading, often blue hues and a touch of vignette if the image needs it. These small adjustments can turn a rather normal image into a dreamlike landscape without much work.”
Using the Healing Tool and Spot Removal
Many photographers only use the healing tool built into Lightroom to clean up dust spots that may appear on their photos thanks to a dirty lens or sensor. Stackpoole will however use this powerful tool in order to highlight the subject matter more.
” Using the healing tool to clean up an image and remove any distractions is essential. I find myself using the keyboard shortcut ‘H’ to enter the healing tool on Lightroom Desktop on a good amount of the photos that I edit. Unwanted distractions like twigs and unkempt fur from wildlife, humans, or cars are often removed. Years ago, I would need Adobe Photoshop to remove these objects from my photos,” he says.
“Now, the AI built into the Lightroom healing tool is so powerful, that most objects can be cleaned up or even eliminated by simply zooming in on the image and carefully ‘healing’ the distraction out.”
Working with Masks
As opposed to using the sliders on the Develop menu to make global changes to the image, the masking tools in Lightroom let photographers make detailed edits on a specific area of the photo. Masking can be used to alter the lighting or adjust the appearance of the face. It is an essential tool that all photographers should know.
During Adobe MAX in 2021, photographers were ecstatic with the additions of AI to the masking tools. With the update, photographers can simply tell Lightroom to select the entire sky or identify the subject of the photo automatically. This helpful enhancement not only eliminated errors in masking brushes that might have painted over the edge of the horizon but also saved photographers many minutes of tedious manual labor.
“I think masking is really where Lightroom can transform an image for me, giving it that dreamlike atmosphere,” Stackpoole says.
“Adobe has given us tons of options with the new tools available, including sky selection. It is a huge advantage to me as I often darken skies to create a more atmospheric feel in my images. With the new sky selection tool, I no longer have to manually brush in my mask layer. Lightroom selects the sky automatically in just seconds. And, most importantly, there are no mistakes. The mask is always perfect. After I have my sky mask edited, I can then add some directional lighting with the graduated filter, which helps add to the dreamlike effect.”
“I might then bring up the brush tool by using the keyboard shortcut ‘B’ on Lightroom Desktop to finish an image off with some dodge and burn,” he says. “This involves brushing on the highlight and shadow areas of my photo to help me emphasize the contrast in these regions. All of my masking adjustments are key to creating a dreamlike appearance in photos. While they may be small and unnoticeable on their own, the adjustments can have a profound effect on the way a viewer’s mind processes the story behind the image.”
Stackpoole says that above all, he hopes his dreamlike landscape photographs leave his viewers wanting more. “I want people to be inspired by the photos I have taken and to tell their stories through my photographs .”
With only four years of photography experience under his belt, Stackpoole has already made a name for himself in the industry. With an impressive client list consisting of companies like Adobe, American Express, Aston Martin, Camelbak, Pangaia, Talisker, and The North Face, he stays busy with commercial photoshoots.
But with almost every free moment available, Stackpoole is planning for the next adventure.
“For me, nothing is more enjoyable than the process of planning a landscape photography trip. I love the thrill of the chase, always trying to capture that perfect moment where everything comes together,” he says.
“I am addicted to that moment of euphoria when I finish an edit in Lightroom and I know that one image made all of the hard work worth it. I don’t think I will ever get tired of that feeling.”
Full disclosure: This article was brought to you by Adobe
Image credits: All photos by Luke Stackpoole.