Most of the time on this blog, I tend to just post a finished photo and give some context with regard to where I took it or maybe some perspective on how either the location or the photo have given me some cause for reflection. I rarely remember to include technical details and I almost never discuss my process.
But the omission of these latter details isn’t due to a reluctance to post such information – I’m not making statement by holding back. More often than not, I just find those details are rarely as interesting as the final shot.
But today, I thought I’d take advantage of a recent shooting experience to talk about three things: visualization, composition and processing.
These concepts are discussed a lot in the world of photography, but not a lot of people take the time to explain what they mean and how they work and contribute to a final shot. These aren’t universal definitions, but the following is what these terms mean to me when I am taking photos and making images.
Guy Tal pointed to me to a quote of Ansel Adams, who said that visualization is “…ability to anticipate a finished image before making the exposure.” I think that basically covers it. This can happen in all sorts of different ways. You may imagine a shot you’d like to see and then go about trying to make it happen. You may visit a place and see a shot in your mind, but forgot your camera and have to visit again another day. Maybe you’re out shooting and see the elements of a scene all fall into place and say to yourself “that would make a great shot!” Regardless of how you visualize, the basic concept is about seeing the shot you want before you take it.
Note: some people will also talk about “previsualization” or “pre-viz”. This is a term that was borrowed from cinema where movies are story-boarded or modeled on computers before filming starts. The term makes sense in films where the previsualization is more holistic than the visualization of individual shot sequences. In photography the term is basically just jargon.
Composition is the selection and arrangement of the elements of a scene within the frame of the camera. Guy Tal has two amazing articles on composition (click here and here) over at the Nature Photographer’s Network, so I won’t try to explain the mechanics, but I will attempt to illustrate my point. Imagine you’re standing in front of a wide beautiful scene and want to take a photo of it. Here’s the question: how do you choose what to put in the frame. Do you use a wide lens and take in everything? Do you get in close to the details and emphasize the contrast between the broad landscape the delicate elements? What do you want the viewer to see? What elements of the scene can you use to create lines that draw the viewer in and bring their attention to what you want them to focus on? These are questions of composition. A weak composition can reduce a powerful scene into something bland that lacks focus or interest. Conversely, a strong composition can pull the viewer in and keep their eyes locked on the image. Photographers who emphasize composition seem to be able to take a complex set of elements within a scene and bring it alive for the viewer, pulling them in and helping them to see what that photographer found so compelling.
Processing is what happens after you push the shutter. If you shot film, this involves heading off to the dark room and developing the photos from the negatives (or dropping them off to someone else who’ll do this for you). If you shoot digital, this means heading to your computer and processing your images using software like Photoshop. Readers of this blog will know that I am no fan of sitting at a computer, but processing is nonetheless a very important part of image making.
If you shoot film, processing is simply a necessity – unless you just want to look at negatives. Digital is a little more deceptive, but the processing is just as critical. Many people feel that the digital camera captures pictures, but what it really captures is data. Your goal isn’t really to take a good picture with digital camera as much as it is to capture as much data as possible. I am not going to explain the mechanics behind this, but rather suggest you read Darwin Wiggett’s awesome articles on aperture and shutter speed for more information.
Don’t get me wrong, you still need to visualize and compose your shots well, but when you press the trigger, you want to get the highest quality data you can.
Processing is how you translate that data into your final image. You can crop, adjust brightness and contrast, boost or lower the colour saturation, create effects, blend multiple exposures, all kinds of cool stuff! And no matter what anyone says, there is no right or wrong for YOUR image. Make it whatever you feel is right.
So at this point you’re asking: “Where are the photos?”
Well, here we go!
Admittedly, I chose the examples below because they are, for me, somewhat extreme versions of the processes I described above – especially in the processing – so in that sense they give a clearer demonstration of my points.
This also serves as a way to salvage what, for me, was a fairly unproductive shoot 🙂
I had originally conceived of a very different shot when I ventured out into the hip deep snow at the farm. However, what I had envisioned didn’t quite pan out so I started to look around at other elements in the scene. I ended up coming back to one of my favourites which is a large tree near the roadside. I envisioned a nice leading line that would draw the eye up to the tree set against the bright blue sky.
I started to examine the scene and noticed a line in the snow created by the wind. It looked like a jagged scar in the otherwise smooth surface. So, I positioned myself to use the line as a lead to the tree and shot this:
After taking that shot I decided that I wanted to focus in more on the relationship between the line and the tree, and reduce the amount of sky in the frame. So I zoomed in a little further and shot this:
While I was somewhat happier with the composition, I felt more and more drawn to the line in the snow and decided to get in nice and tight for this shot:
Limited by the snow and shooting wide angle, I couldn’t get any tighter than this to eliminate the tree at the top. I could have tilted down more, but that diminished the line too much. I took the shot as is, knowing that I could crop the image in the processing later on.
When I processed the first shot I found the image just didn’t have any real drama to it and was also bland in the lower part of the frame.
After some tinkering I decided to crop out the bottom and convert to a sepia toned shot. I also pushed the contrast slider a little further than I would normally to really emphasize the darkened skies (the blue becomes black in the sepia). In the end I wound up with this:
I ended up not liking the second shot at all and decided to skip it in favour of the last shot. I tightened up the shot by cropping to a square and boosted the contrast to give the line a faint glowing quality. I also used an ND filter over the whole image to give the snow a darker grey look without lowering the brightness of the line too much. The end result has a nice abstract quality to it:
As I said these are extreme examples. I don’t normally process images to quite this degree, but they serve to illustrate my points… I think.
Anyways, these are some of the things I think about when making my images. Everyone’s process is a bit different and mine is still evolving. But I hope this helps clarify a little bit about how making an image can start at any time and it isn’t limited to pressing the shutter button.