As photographers (or people interested in photographing) we are mostly concerned about the end result. The final picture. But to get that far and get the best result it is useful to think of the photographic process divided into three steps involving three different pictures. The whole process starts with a picture in our head, reacting to whatever makes us want to make a photograph. Then there is the picture captured by the image sensor by the camera. And finally we have the finished post-processed picture, the one that the two previous pictures have lead up to. The two firsts are only steps on the way, but being conscious about the whole process might help clear our vision and getting it express in the most telling and best possible way. All three pictures have their own approach and their own variables we need to make decisions about. They need to be treated quite differently and be recognised for their own right.
Let’s start with the beginning, the picture in our head, what we see that will end up as a photograph in one way or another – or hopefully so. Something makes us react to a subject matter or a subject and triggers our desire to photograph. We form a picture of some sort in our mind that is a blue print for what might become. But what is it that makes us want to photograph this particular subject matter? I think there are four mechanisms that can trigger this first step of the process. Let me use an example. I am walking down the beach an early morning, enjoying the first morning light. In the periphery of my vision I see a boat dragged up on the beach. It seems interesting to me and as I get closer I believe this might well become a picture. I start to form an idea of the picture in my mind. This idea can either be triggered by some similarity to other pictures of boats I have previously seen and liked – either my own or somebody else’s. It can also be that the subject matter or subject triggers something emotionally or brings up some form of attachment in me independently of its actual picture value, but makes me want to try to make a picture out of it. Boats might be something I have always been interested in for example. It might also be that the inherent quality of the subject matter independently of myself sets off a desire to photograph it, for example the way the boat has been built, its colours or the way the sun shines upon it. This is a more contemplative approach to photography, which I will address on its own in a future post. In addition I might actually have a more unconscious approach. I might just be walking around on the beach desperately searching for something to photographing, and the boat seems to be the only thing there. So why not give it a try.
None of the approaches are more right or better than the others, and most likely a combination of two or more are involved. In addition when we start to form an idea about a potential picture in our head, we can either start to work around it by pre-visualising the end result or by just working around it in a more intuitive and open way. Again one is not better than the other, although many photographers state that to get the best end result one needs to be able to pre-visualise the picture. I do not necessarily agree. Sometimes a less conscious approach opens up for new possibilities that we otherwise wouldn’t have seen. We might actually get something completely new, by coincident if you want. Again a combination of an intuitive approach and pre-visualisation is most likely happening.
The next step, to capture the picture by the camera’s image sensor, is all about making the transition between the image in our head and the final result as smoothly as possible. It’s about setting up everything for the final outcome, and as such the captured picture has no value of its own. But the approach for some parts is different if you shot in raw or in jpeg while others are the same. At this point some form of pre-visualisation would have taken place in order to make a decision about shutter speed or depth of field – that is if you don’t trust the camera’s program setting. This is more about the visual expression that a technical matter, although the combination, exposure, is somewhat technical, too. And that’s where the difference between raw and jpeg comes in. If you shoot jpeg you want to get the exposure as close to the end result as possible while in raw you want to make the picture as light as possible without clipping the highlights – no matter how dark the final picture will actually be. With jpeg you need to get it correct right away while in raw you have more slack and want to take advantage of the fact that the lightest exposure value in a captured picture has 1024 tones while the darkest exposure value only has 64 tones. So when you are shooting raw it’s easy to make a picture darker in post-production but not good for the quality to make a picture lighter. In addition when shooting raw you don’t need to think about white balance since it will be taken care of later on in converting the raw format to either tiff or jpeg. While shooting in jpeg again you have to get it right at the point of capture. It’s very hard to correct later on in Photoshop. (I am sorry this became more technical than usual).
The last step involves creating the final output, usually in Photoshop or some other image processing program. Libraries have been written about this, and I don’t have space to go into this part of the process – not now anyway. I will just say that this is when you bring out and realize whatever you had pre-visualised when you took the picture – if you had. Or you just play around and see whatever you can get out of the picture. Again nothing is more right than the other – in the end it’s the final result that counts. Nobody asks how you got it. Still, by being conscious about the whole process involving the three pictures needed for making the one, you will have a better chance of succeeding. The more you know about all steps, the more you are able to see as potential pictures in the first place. And that’s where it all starts, after all.