I do whatever it takes to make the photo look good, but I try to avoid spot editing like removing stray tree branches, power lines, etc. Unlike most, it’s not for “ethics,” but because it’s a terrible pain to remove elements while holding to a realistic ideal (no smudge marks, dark spots, obvious cloning, etc.). Spot editing with a soft brush for dodging, burning, or desaturating is easy, but for removing distractions, it’s easier to recompose or chop down a tree than to fix it in Photoshop (usually). If you’ve spent three hours meticulously removing telephone poles, houses, and reshaping trees like in the title photo, then you know why (right is mirrored to show continuity).
I get a few hecklers saying that efforts are no better than a forged bank note, and must be labeled as photo-manipulations—the Scarlet Letter to any “real” photographer. To them I say: how could I dare claim that of my work when I’m doing basic stuff like color shifts and increasing contrast, while others are spending days weaving dozens of photos into a cohesive vision? If anything, it’s not the ambitious photographers that are the trouble, but the people who press “auto levels” and then call their pieces digital art.
To all the fledgling digital photographers: don’t let anyone tell you that you’re “cheating” by editing your creations. This is the new revolution; this is your photography. Go wherever your art takes you. You’re stymying your creativity by not enhancing your photos. Know that when to stop is not when the image is looking too different from the “original,” but when it is looking bad on its own accord.
^ This is no good. When colors go to solid pink or blue, there is no detail or brilliance there; just an unshaped blob of light. Sometimes, like in the silhouetted trees, no detail looks good. It takes a human to know this, not Photoshop. You are that human. Let no one stand in your way. You are the artist, and the world is your canvas.
For more about this, read Being a Free Photographer.