Three Pictures to Get the One

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.


32 thoughts on “Three Pictures to Get the One

  1. I find myself rushing through hoping I might perchance stumble upon the jackpot of a good photo. This is a helpful reminder for me to slow down and think of the entire process. Thank you.

  2. I am so glad you posted this. It confirms my earlier nudging to shoot some of my photos in raw. I am fascinated with the idea of combing photos to make the photo I really want. You have inspired me to go for it. step out of the “point and shoot” mode of my DSLR and really use what it is meant to do. I am following you closely for more great advise.

  3. Priceless pointers. The 3 steps are very helpful to achieve the best picture possible. Perfect angle of the boat with colors that brings forth calmness. Wonderful post . Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience….

  4. Every scene I view, I think either of a photo or an oil painting! With your talent, you can make the photo any view you want. I find that incredibly awesome.

  5. Nice write-up, Otto. It is always interesting to advance through these steps. We begin with a certain vision of the end result, often ending up elsewhere. 🙂 But it’s important to keep in mind the steps you’ve laid out here. Great points.

    I have my camera set to capture both JPEG and RAW, processing the latter most times. Thanks for sharing your insight on this subject.

  6. Thank you for putting in words (that are written so clearly) the process that one goes through in photography from vision to final result. It is so unconsciously done at times that I would find it difficult to commit the process in writing. I want to say how much I’ve enjoyed exploring your blog and the fine photography you create. It is full of both visual and verbal inspiration and I find I revisit some of the posts to read them again. Never getting too far from home, I have ended up focusing on the parts of my surroundings and my family that I want to preserve in my memory forever. Sometimes I feel I’m able to capture the scene as I “saw” it or that special expression of one of my grandsons and other times it falls short and the photo serves as only a memory prompt for the real scene in my memory. (such as the photo of a sweet pea brings back its heavenly scent just by viewing it) Thanks for the inspiration and also for visiting my blog. Keep up the great posts!

  7. Great post Otto. I especially like these words:
    “The more you know about all steps, the more you are able to see as potential pictures in the first place.”
    Keep up the good work sir.

  8. Am I pleased I stumbled on your blog, what an inspirational man you are. I echo all the comments here, and with your permission, I am now going to view all your posts.
    Thank you for clicking the like button on my post.

  9. I’m glad you dipped into the technicalities. You’ve reminded me to go to my notes from my photography course and practice shooting RAW again. I remember how much fun it was to experiment.

  10. I’ve really enjoyed reading this post and following through your reasoning and trying to compare it with my own process. I believe that as we progress as photographers we develop our own way of looking at the world. The example that springs to mind from my own experience goes back many years when I was primarily a B&W printmaker. I bought a second camera body and started carrying one loaded with Kodachrome and the other with FP4 B&W film. I found it really difficult viewing the world simultaneously through two sets of eyes. One looking for subjects that worked in colour, and the other looking for the line and contrast that I sought out as a B&W enthusiast. I think this is a strand of evidence that suggests that we slowly ‘tune’ our brains subconsciously to view the world through a developed set of photographic criteria that appeals to us. And the more we ‘tune’ in, the more we develop a style that is personal and distinctive.

    1. Back in the days of films, I had a hard time shooing both colour and black and white at the same time, too. As you say it comes down to be able to tune in. Somehow with digital photography I have gotten used to think in both visual languages at the same time – although for the most part I am a colour photographer.

  11. That histogram is so beautiful! It takes a beautiful histogram and a good photographer, such as yourself, to produce a beautiful photo.
    I like how you divided the photographic process into three steps involving three different pictures. And, you didn’t get too technical. I think it’s a wonderful explanation. Thank you.

  12. Thank you everybody for the wonderful response. It’s really fun to write when you get so much positive feedback. As to the three pictures i talk about in this post, I want to add that despite the fact that I wrote that the captured picture by the camera «has no value of its own», it is important to make it good, so to speak. If the picture captured by the camera isn’t good, either technically, compositional or with regard to its expression, no post-processing will be able to change the fact. You might be able to improve it, but it will never be a great photograph. That’s why it’s important to make sure you get the most out of all three steps.

  13. I am sneaking around your page and found you have shared a terrific posts. Thank you so much to share and thank you to like my post. 😀

    ~dance like you do when nobody’s listening~

  14. Oh dear…. you are making this old brain think too hard!!!
    I am inclined to see something I like and then play with the zoom until I like what I see.
    Thank you for your visit.

  15. Thank you for visiting my blog. This reminds me of how far I need to go in order to have good photos. I am like Granny above who just points and clicks. My cheap camera is not one to analyze a good photo with. Reading your posts make me want more.

    Thanks for posting this.

  16. hey, to me photography is about story telling. Sharing with friends, family or even memories of what I saw and experienced. If there is no story there is no photography. I liked the way you have deconstructed the photograph. To a photographer, I do not think you need to convince about shooting in raw and post processsing. Its as important as shooting photographs to my mind.

    ps: thanks for visiting my blog – look forward to staying connected. I just followed you as well.

  17. Fabulous post, all round, Otto! I enjoyed the subject matter and the photo’s. Great job, and thank you for introducing yourself via my blog – much appreciated 🙂

  18. Wow, looks like someone is making the best of living in the moment. Thanks for the Photography lesson. I ‘ve always wanted to get into photography. You have possibly inspired me with this post to at least buy a descent camera. Amazing how all elements in life tend to be made up from three particles: ie Protons, Nutrons, Electrons, quarks, leptons, and bosons…etc…

    As a photographer, I’m sure you would find, or do find the three stages of the eye, lens, and makeup of the light ray a very interesting study. I know I do. I don’t understand all I know about it by any means, but I love studying things concerning a Trinity. This beautiful beached Thai long boat.(I’m assuming, as I looked it up and found the Ko-Rawi Long boat to most resemble it’s construction) and your description of the three pics to get one…brings to mind a beautiful story of creation, and such a wonderful finished product. Thanks for dropping by my site, happy to have found yours, especially this post, as I have a special interest in things of the sea.
    Bless You

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