The short story?
I try to get every image as close as I can as a single shot in-camera.
Most images need a light touchup to overcome lighting and camera limitations or to emphasise key features within a scene but still leave it with a natural look authentic to the time and conditions it was taken.
In some rare cases very small artificial objects may need removal to avoid being a major distraction to the overall natural scene.
I may merge multiple shots into one from the same scene and same time for some very specific situations such as creating a panorama or to show movement.
I don't engage in combining completely separate elements from totally different times and locations to artificially "make up" a scene.
Now for the longer story..
Every photographer must have a philosophy they use to present an image because in the digital era many manipulations are possible.
Ideally the image taken in-camera is perfect and can be used as-is.. and sometimes it is just as simple as that.
More often for the outdoors photographer simple physics is against this from the point of view of lighting extremes because the human eye and brain together do many things we take for granted and even the most expensive equipment and latest sensor are not able to match.
At the very least this means exposure and lighting adjustments need to be made to the original just to bring it back into the range of light that we saw.. if not then the image ends up disappointingly dark, or light, and simply wasn't as we saw it with our own eyes and as we remembered.. that's physics in action.
Once we overcome the technical limitations of the camera what then?
Sometimes that's all you need to do.. "but wait there's more" as the well known advertising spiel says.
Here's we we come to an interesting cross-roads.. and where you branch from here depends on your creative philosophy you would have decided on as a photographer and the image itself.
One the one hand you continue with the same line of editing as you started with overcoming the sensor limitations and continue to edit to perhaps further emphasise features you consider important in the image.. on the other hand you can go on a wholesale creation of something never there in the first place.
There is no right or wrong in either decision.. what is important is honesty in the process.
To help shed more light on the question of honesty and integrity inherent in the process that let's depart briefly from the world of outdoors natural photographer and look at 2 other areas of photography.
For one extreme of literal truth there is news journalism, where we expect, and demand, there be nothing more or less than what the camera saw.. in such as war zones and breaking news we want to know everything in front of the lens without additions or deletions.
At the other extreme is commercial photography where there is a paying client wanting a specific look with their product as the centrepiece.. in this world there is no off-limits and what the client wants the client gets and there is nothing wrong with this because it is a commercial product shoot and we naturally expect it to be nothing more than presentation of the product being promoted in the best light.
Some examples of typical commercial digital manipulation would be swapping out the sky for something completely different because it wasn't good enough on the day the shoot was scheduled for or for wholesale deletion of distracting objects deemed not relevant to the image.
There is nothing wrong with either extreme, they are relevant and valuable to each image and its intended use.
In the middle of these 2 extremes sits the typical outdoors photographer neither charged with delivery of a literal scene as per the photojournalist, nor paid for their time and to deliver on a brief as per a product photographer.
The outdoors photographer is essentially an artistic person with a wide range of options.. they are delivering on a vision based on what they see before them and deciding what to do with the image.
The ideal is that it is perfect in-camera.. and certainly for the composition and main lighting considerations this is the ideal to always aim for.
Using the elements within the scene I find it almost always beneficial to adjust lighting to emphasise a mood that was present, and motivation for, taking the image.. perhaps dark clouds and make them look the moody way they were to your eyes, or to show up things in the shadows if dealing with the hard sun during the day and would otherwise be unseen if left to the limitations of what the camera sensor can see.. to find a balance in other words and to tell a story by showcasing the shape of the waves for example if doing an aerial shot.
That is by far the main goal in the images on this site.. to present them in the most natural way possible using technology to assist overcoming the limits of the very technology that captures the image.
From time to time I find it necessary to sometimes delete very small, but highly distracting, artificial elements.. cars are a prime example and sometimes unavoidable.. a popular and shapely headland at the end of your perfect beach and surf composition can be very jarring to find a harsh metal reflection from a car, or perhaps a pair of headlights in the far distance can interrupt an otherwise elegant and peaceful evening light composition.. to my eye these distractions may only be literally a few pixels but are very distracting and I have no problem in removing them given 99% of the image is left untouched by their deletion.
Also from time to time it's good to have options for processing an image further than my usual steps to tell a story.. in the example below, and in a rare case, more processing is used to arrive at a specific result.. to tell a story of the patterns and power of surf and incoming tide.
At the break wall at the Hastings River bar entrance surf is forming and breaking in the normal way while just on the other side the power of the incoming tide shows as a starkly different pattern in such a short distance.
Individual colour images show this difference well enough.. but I thought it might be even better shown but taking a series just a few seconds apart from the same viewpoint and merge them to give what is effectively a time-series captured in a single shot.. and not only that turning it into black and white removes the sometimes distraction of colour and forces us to look at the patterns and tones instead to appreciate the scene.
Here are some of the originals and here is the final result and I think it tells the story well and was a worthwhile decision in this case..