Listen to your photos
They say that “movies are made in the edit”, for that’s the moment in which footage is carefully color corrected, graded, and sequenced to create the final look and feel of a film. The same methodology applies to digital photography, where photographers use tools like Photoshop, Lightroom, Capture One and other products to shape and mold their flat, unsaturated RAW files into final images which capture their original creative intent.
It’s a laborious process which brings to mind this famous quote from Michelangelo:
“The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.”
When I read this quote, I don’t visualize David lurking inside a giant block of marble. Rather, I interpret this to mean the block of marble informs the creative process. This isn’t about what the marble should be, but rather what it wants to be. And if the artist is listening closely, they will hear that intent, and mold the raw material into a finished work which appears effortless, obvious and respectful.
In the past, there have been many times when I haven’t “listened” to my photos. I’ve pushed them where they didn’t want to be pushed. Forced them to do weird things with their colors and display unnatural lighting. Applied presets which had nothing to do with the source material. All in the name of creating an attractive image.
Thankfully, in today’s digital photography world, starting over is easy. With a single click, a RAW photograph can return to its original, straight-out-of-camera state at any time. It’s then the photographer has the opportunity to revisit the past, see their work with a more critical editorial eye, and work with the tools at hand to uncover the photo lurking inside.
Here’s an example of one photo I’ve repeatedly struggled with — a RAW photo from Alpe di Siusi in Italy, captured in the fall of 2018.
I’ve edited this one photo at least six times since it was captured nearly a year ago. Ten hours of editing work, at least. Why? Because each time I’d edit the photo I’d be happy with the net result, walk away, then return a day or two later. I’d then see my edits with a fresh set of eyes, dislike what I’d done, and throw everything away for yet another spin of the wheel.
With this image, I finally gave up. I put it away and moved on.
But then recently, I went back through my 2018 Lightroom catalog and stumbled across this photo. This time, I felt “ready” to edit it. I no longer felt the pressure to quickly edit the photo for social media or my website. I would take my time with it and perhaps be more thoughtful and attentive.
This time, the photo turned out like this:
A big difference for sure, but what separates this image from all previous attempts was my attention to color. It’s hard to see underneath the magenta color cast of the original RAW file, but when I was there in the Dolomites, fall was in full effect. Vibrant colors of orange and yellow. Clusters of green pine trees. Gray peaks rising in the distance. That was the atmosphere I remembered. This time, I tried to channel that memory into the edit and work with the image instead of on it.
Today, I think it’s the best edit created thus far, but we’ll see what I think a year from now. ;)
What I’ve learned through experiences like these is to always trust and listen to your source material. Begin your edits by normalizing the RAW photo (removing any unusual color casts, correct for tint and white balance, etc), then work creatively from that corrected state. Remember why you took the photo in the first place, and enhance the qualities of the image which speak to that memory and emotive state. Work with what’s appropriate and natural to the image without applying unwanted effects or style treatments. And above all else, know when to stop when the image tells you to. If you listen closely enough, you’ll know when you’ve reached that point.