One of the most common questions I get from students is how do I know when I’m finished processing an image?” A related question is how do I distinguish between processing and excessive manipulation? Of course these are questions that are difficult to answer in a general sense, and often depend upon the photographer, his experience, his goals, and ultimately his commitment to creating work that is worthwhile.
One of my favorite books, Art & Fear written by Ted Orland, puts it more succinctly –
“Simply put, art that deals with ideas is more interesting than art that deals with technique.”
This has been my guiding principle as long as I can remember, even when I was producing and arranging music. The toys always fascinated me, and still do to this day, but the ideas were always more important. The following is a real world example from a recent shoot in my hometown of Beacon, NY.
To say that I have photographed this location on many occasions would be an understatement. Yet there are images in my mind that I have not made, and so there is always something new to learn from re-visiting familiar landscapes. On this particular morning, I knew there was something special brewing in the sky, and with a strong wind, conditions were changing very rapidly.
Inspired by many Hudson River School painters, I have wanted to try and capture the feel and mood of a stormy Hudson, and this seemed like a good opportunity. I positioned the camera as low as possible and used a wide angle lens to accentuate the size of the waves and push the very dramatic clouds into the distance. Now it was just a matter of waiting for the right waves and cloud formations to line up in a pleasing composition (to me).
The strange thing was that though I wanted to capture the “moment” and all of its drama, it didn’t feel foreboding or dark, but rather positive and inviting. I realized I might be able to make a different interpretation of the same scene, a long exposure, so I added a polarizer plus a 6 stop ND filter to the lens (a total of 8 stops), then adjusted the exposure to match the reduction in light – 15 sec @ f/18 ISO 100.
Both images were processed in Lightroom, with some minor dodging to bring out some of the foreground details, and burning down some very hot highlights in the sky using the local brush tool. The conversion to black and white for the second image helps to simplify the message and really emphasize the textures and shapes. I never considered HDR or double exposures due to the high movement of water and clouds in both images.
How did I know when I was finished processing the images? I guess when what I saw on screen matched both how I felt being there, and also the images I envisioned in my mind. Of course with two different interpretations, I needed to shift my mindset for each image. But the principle remained the same – nature provided the ingredients that I look for in any image: light, color, drama and mood. The rest is composition, which ultimately determines the final result.
My point here is that having a very basic idea and visualization of what I wanted to capture helped tremendously, and allowed me to focus on translating the scene before me in creative ways. Of course being proficient with the technical side of things also helps, but this is mostly a matter of practice and experience. The processing is done when the image feels right, conveys your feelings as effectively and simply as possible, and most importantly draws the viewer into the scene. A tall order for sure, and one I continue to pursue (with many failures) on each image I make.
I hope these examples serve as inspiration for you to focus on ideas and vision, and not worry too much about the prefect location. Your comments and feedback are always welcome!