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Ice Patterns, Hudson River / Olympus OM-D E-M1 , f/4 @1/60 sec, ISO 200, 40mm (effective)

This past weekend I gave a presentation to the New York Botanical and Zoological Photographic Society, had a great time and met lots of passionate photographers. My talk was titled “The Making of a Print – From Capture to Final Vision” which I’ve presented several times in the past few months, yet it’s always very enjoyable because of the different reactions and questions I receive from the audience.

This talk explores the relationship between the vision and mindset you have in the field as you capture an image and the approach you take when you sit down to interpret that image in the computer. My firm belief is that they should be intrinsically connected, meaning that there needs to be a connection between the two so that your processing is guided by the feelings you had when you pressed the shutter. Put another way, making an image should be thought of as a single act of creativity with several steps.

When it comes to making prints, this concept become even more critical and one I address in my upcoming ebook Digital Fine Art Printing – A Field Guide for Photographers, which I’m happy to announce is very close to being released!

Here’s another preview from the book about this very issue…

“Great photography is about depth of feeling, not depth of field.” – Peter Adams

Processing Images With Vision

A great print relies on proper processing and interpretation to achieve good tonal separation, rich gradations, sharpness, and what I like to call emotional impact. Every photograph you capture needs your interpretation, otherwise they just become a record of what you saw, not what you felt.

For instance let’s imagine you’re enjoying a serene moment at Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The light is soft and magical and the forest floor is carpeted with beautiful wildflowers of all shapes and colors, all wet with a rain shower that has saturated their colors and created a great opportunity for photography. And most importantly, you feel like this is where you want to be—you’re inspired and in the flow, distracting thoughts all but non-existent.

The camera will capture the light that hits the sensor, but that doesn’t contain your feelings and opinions about the subject. Without proper interpretation of the Raw file, how do we know what inspired you? The rain, the setting, the colors of the flower or flowers, or something else that makes you who you are? Was this just a walk through the woods and you snapped what you saw, or did you study each flower, appreciate its beauty, enjoying the wonderful gift of nature? That’s what interpretation is all about, and every great photographer from the past to the present has interpreted his/her images in a similar way.

Think Processing Instead of Post-Processing

Developing your images in Lightroom or other Raw developer is part of the creative workflow, and should not be detached or separated from the original inspiration. When we think of this as “post-processing”, I think it detaches it from the creative side of our brains, and puts the focus on the tools—in this case the software—and whether or not we’re making adjustments that are correct and/or routine. This is the main reason why I avoid presets and formulaic approaches to editing. Plus it becomes all too easy to reach for that preset and get predictable results instead of letting the image guide you intuitively.

We should really be looking at each photograph as a unique expression, and then deciding how the tools can best help us to achieve our overall vision for the image. This means learning the tools so we know what we can and can’t do with them, and then using that to guide the editing process.

In other words, using our example from the Smoky Mountains, how can Lightroom help you convey the feelings you had on the trail? What can we do to the image to make the developing as creative and organic as possible? I don’t think of this as post-processing, but rather as a necessary step in the making of the image. The closer you associate the two, the more your processing will align with your vision as a photographer.

Examples from the Field

Each of these examples helps to illustrate how the processing should work to continue the vision – in this case my vision of what the image meant to me and what I wanted to convey. Controlling the viewers eye, simplifying the composition, and eliminating what doesn’t add were key to each of these.




The print should convey the message of the photographer’s vision without the medium or technique getting in the way. How you process and prepare your digital file can make all the difference in achieving this impact, and it’s often the subtle details that matter most. Here are the key areas that I focus on when processing and preparing my images for printing.

  • Expanding tonal values
  • Enhancing mid-tone contrast
  • Color saturation
  • Using dodging and burning to lead the viewers eye

I go into each of these areas in much more detail in the book, but hopefully this gives you a good basis for a sound approach to processing your images, whether for screen or print.

Do you feel like the processing gets in the way of your creative goals? Is there too much emphasis on “post-processing”? As always I enjoy your feedback and questions – leave them below.

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. “…it becomes all too easy to reach for that preset and get predictable results instead of letting the image guide you intuitively.” Yes. I try to start with an idea of what I want and then select (and manipulate) the presets accordingly (I have some of the Nik apps and two Topaz ones) when I choose to use one of those tools. Other times I experiment and save different versions. Just churning out cookie-cutter results, there’s no point in that. Anyhow, Robert, I think this is the most valuable and helpful post you’ve ever written. I’m going to print it out to save in my file of Important Things. And I look forward to your e-book.

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