Yesterday I was delayed leaving Svalbard by eight hours from my Winter Scouting trip to the Arctic due to significant ice on the runaway. This isn’t the first time I have experienced lengthy airport delays due to weather (and I am sure it will not be the last either) but the time did give me an opportunity to put further thought toward Landscape Photography with Emotion and Mystery and as such I want to expand a little further on the previous articles.
There is another aspect to the creation of evocative imagery that I have not yet touched on in this series of articles (See Part One, Part Two and Part Three) and that is post production. Post production is the generally accepted term for the adjustments made in software to the original RAW file that was captured in the field (post production can be applied to jpeg files as well but there are significant advantages to using RAW images). There are numerous programs available in the marketplace that facilitate post production. Two of the most well known and commonly used are Adobe Camera Raw and Adobe Lightroom.
The purpose of this article is not to provide a step by step set of instructions on how to process your photographs in these applications to create emotive photographs. That is frankly beyond the scope of this article and it is best demonstrated in person or via a video tutorial in any case. Or dare I say it – in a book. One of the best books on this topic is Jeff Schewe’s ‘The Digital Negative‘ (I recommend you add it to your library and will be reviewing it here on my blog in the coming weeks). Rather the purpose of this article is to understand the relationship between time of capture, post production and the creative vision.
When we return to the studio with a memory card full of RAW files what approach should we take to fulfil our creative vision? Specifically, what is the mental process we go through that is going to lead to editing, selecting and ultimately processing a RAW file that is powerful, evocative and that tells a story?
In order to attempt to answer this question I think we need to look at the step between capture and post production that I feel gets glossed over all to often by photographers (especially in this age of social media and the rush to share photographs) and that goes a good deal of the way to understanding the mental process of going from capture to fulfilled vision. When we are out in the field capturing photographs we are actively looking at the ‘real world’ in front of us. The ‘real world’ for lack of a better term gets absorbed by our eyes and baked into our brain as a memory. Occasionally, when the conditions are really good we ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ (known affectionately as ‘chimping’) because we feel we have captured the scene in such a way that it meets with our eyes and brains perception of what lies in front of us. We then come back to the studio, look at the file on our monitors and are subsequently disappointed. We are disappointed because the flat 2-dimensional file on our computer monitor fails to live up to the image and memory we still have in our minds eye. This is an interesting phenomena that I have experienced many times and I have learnt how to overcome it to some degree with a staged approach to my post production. Just as an interesting observation: I will caution you now that the approach I am advocating goes against everything you are witnessing (and possibly participating in) on Social media today. Social Media has given birth to an age where prolificacy is seen as a virtue. Quantity is rewarded over quality as photographers race to outdo each other by simply posting more images more quickly than the next photographer. Its a death spiral that has resulted in a torrent of mediocrity.
The problem is that the original scene is still fresh in my mind and quite honestly the flat 2-dimensional photograph cannot compete with my memory of what it was like when I pushed the shutter. Something got lost in the translation between being at the location in person and the capture of the image. Or did it?
With the experience of being out in the field still fresh and at the forefront of my mind I feel I do myself a disservice when I try to compare my recent RAW capture to my memory of what it actually looked like. I need to let some time go past so that my memory of the scene fades. I need to forget about the morning dew droplets on the long grass, the smell of the clean, cool air, the sound of the nearby waterfall, the way the low mist hugged the ground, and the way the slight breeze caused it to curl ever so gently over the fallen logs. All of that sensory input got locked up in my brain when I was out trying to capture the photograph and its what my brain is now using to compare against what my eye sees in the RAW file on my computer monitor. Good Luck with that!
The problem for me is that this comparison gets in the way of my vision and the story I want to tell in my photograph. If I let a period of time elapse the memory of the scene begins to fade. I forget that the dew drops were so pure, that the air was so fresh and clean. I no longer remember the sound of the nearby waterfall or how the mist was gently curling just so at the time I made the photograph. My memory has faded and like the RAW file that lacks contrast the playing field has been levelled. Now I can look at my photographs without my brain instantly telling me they are a failure because they fail to live up to the fresh memory my senses worked so well to create. I can now also be far more objective in my assessment of the RAW file and am far better equipped to make the critical decision of wether I should process the file and take it to output – and then possibly share it. This is something I have experienced time and time again in my own photography and learning to understand it has enabled me to give myself the best chance to overcome it.
It has been an interesting experience for me to watch other photographers grapple with this phenomena. I have seen photographers on workshops and expeditions come back from a single days shooting in places like Antarctica with over a thousand photographs. I have then watched them diligently sort, edit, select and process their favourites all within the space of a few hours. What I find when I subsequently look at their photographs is that quite often they are what I term ‘record shots’. ‘Record shots’ are photographs that have accurately recorded the scene but that usually fail to convey an emotive story. This isn’t always the case, but I find it holds true most of the time. It holds true because the photographers brain is working to record the scene as they remembered it and not to fulfil a creative vision. They are not trying to tell stories with the photographs and are focusing instead on documenting the scene as quickly as possible (usually because of the seemingly omnipotent Social Media call). There is nothing wrong with this by the way and I do not mean to in any way disparage this approach. It is just not an approach that works for me if I want to do more than document the scene.
There is a marked difference between just recording the scene in camera and fulfilling your creative vision through storytelling using a photograph as the medium. I want to also clarify that I am not advocating extensive post production long after the image was taken (I don’t do extensive post production – see my Ethics Statement. I actually have a strong distaste for post production that disingenuously misrepresents Nature and will have more to say on this rather disturbing trend in a future article). I am advocating story telling and understanding the relationship between what you were thinking when you pushed the shutter, how the RAW file matches up to your vision both immediately after the shoot compared to how it compares with your vision after the passage of time. And finally how the passage of time ultimately frees you from the memory of being there and thus liberates you to fulfil your creative vision.
Personally, I can make a few quick selects after a field shoot (I call it cherry picking), but I find I really need that passage of time to go past before my vision is clear and I can be sure I have selected the very best photographs to subsequently process. That passage of time that has dulled my memory somehow lets me take the RAW file and better fulfil my creative vision. Its a fascinating phenomena that I admit I do not fully understand. Part of this process is certainly letting the RAW file speak to me about what ‘it’ needs in terms of post production but a larger part is about my brain recognising the story I am trying to tell whilst being free of the immediate memory of actually being there. And remember telling a story is the key to the creation of an evocative photograph.