Knowing What To Do (with an Image)

Lots of articles are written about gear, editing software, and training for both.  Lots more are written about composition – rules and tips.  Lighting, time of day, angle, selecting the subject – all of these receive wide commentary from writers, vloggers and trainers alike.

PuzzlementI can shoot an image, I can even stage a scene.  But more often than I would like, I completely blank out when I bring the raw image onto the computer.  I ask myself – now what?  What’s the final look I want to achieve with this image?  How should I present it?

To those photographers who always know what the result will be, even before they shoot, I applaud you.  I’ve listened to photographers speak of their work in exquisite detail, outlining every capture and adjustment decision and why they made it.  I envy them.

I have friends who deliberately do minimal edits.  I have others who retouch to the point of the original piece serving only as a framework for a piece of art.  Frankly, I rarely like either extreme.  So I guess I’ve made my first decision – establishing a boundary around my edits.

Why is it so hard to know what to do next?  A few random thoughts come to mind.

I watched a series recently where fine art photographer Doug Landreth offered the standard framing and compositional tips for image capture, then took us through several edits of different images showing how he achieves his signature final looks.


Two observations:  his first comment was always – “I saw this in the scene and I wanted to find a way to emphasize it”.  But as he progressed, once he achieved a particular look, he invariably said “Then I wondered what would happen if…” and proceeded to add more adjustments, more filters, more effects.

Adobe FiltersI have to admit:  there were points during two of the four images he took us through where I said to myself – enough already!  Time to move on.  One more layer with yet another texture does NOT improve things.

But the point about initially seeing something in the scene hit home for me.  I definitely can attest to that becoming more and more of a prominent influence in what I shoot and where I start in my edits.

As a young(er) photographer, I would come across a scene and want to memorialize all of it.  I’ve learned that’s impossible, and importantly, not usually of interest to others.  The best photographers find a way to bring something to your attention that you might otherwise have missed.  A smile, a look, a relationship between elements, an action, a line, a shape, a colour, even empty space, are all deliberately positioned and edited to draw your eye to something specific.

Royal Ontario Museum

At least I’ve learned that.  So that’s where I typically start when reviewing an image for edits.  Is there one thing I can emphasize?  There usually is, even if I haven’t noticed it during capture.  One of the black and white photographs I’m most proud of was exactly that:  seeing a play of light across glass that I wanted to somehow make shine.  The rest of the edits were all about that.

The other point Doug makes is around his signature looks.  He has a style that is recognizable and uniquely his.  He does it over and over again, although somehow each image is also unique.  This brings me to ask:  what role does simple practice play in the creative process?

Practice can imply mundane repetition, like practicing piano chords.  That’s not what I mean.  I mean the practice of seeing a scene, isolating the bits that matter and applying specific edits.  You might use some of the same tools again and again, but not necessarily in the same sequence or combination.  Something triggers the capture; something else triggers the edits.  And away you go.

clock-clipart-29The bottom line is time.  How much time to invest in finding your muse.  Should we make it a practice to do not one, but two or even three “looks” for an image?  Maybe so.

We’ve heard repeatedly that the best way to become a better photographer is to shoot lots.  I think the real answer is to create lots.  Since photography today is as much about the editing as it is about the capture, both need time and practice.  Most photographers hate sitting in front of a computer.  But, like practicing piano scales, eventually, the editing process becomes as fluid as the shooting, and magic appears on the screen in just a few minutes.

But I think the most important thing about time is something I learned only recently and reinforced while writing this piece.  If you invest time at the front end, to examine your scene before you press the shutter and absorb it with all your senses, you are much more likely to know what to do with it during the shoot and after.  Duh!

I’ll leave you with one last example:  the before and after of a local landscape scene.  The first image is a single quick exposure as soon as I arrived, which is what I would typically do (and then edit of course).  But after standing there for a few minutes, I realized that the motion of the clouds and water, along with an incoming storm, would benefit from a long exposure.  The second image was taken with an ND filter in changing light.  I waited until the light was just right on the cliffs.  It was then edited to emphasize sky, water and the light on the cliffs.  My only problem:  it took me about 30 extra minutes both on scene and in post to get the final look.  Was it worth it?  Would love to hear what you think.

xScarboroughBluffs_20181125_0132 (Affinity Photo)