Shooting with Your Final Image in Mind

Bruce Percy

I’ve learned that highly magnetic images—those that shout out to be part of my selection process in the digital darkroom—often contain three basic components: beautiful light, simplified compositional shapes, and dramatic colour. I respond to these kinds of images by getting very excited during the selection phase of my initial edits. This is no different from how I operate out in the field. I shot this location because I knew the simplified shapes and beautiful tones would work well during editing. I also understood how far I could take the image in the digital darkroom. Photographing a scene and editing it later are really one and the same thing.

Laguna Colorada, Bolivian Altiplano

I’ve been thinking for a while that I’ve never really gotten on well with the term “post-processing.” In fact, I feel that the types of words we adopt and use in our language have too much power. If we’re not careful, they can make a detrimental impact on how we approach things in our everyday lives as photographers.

To examine what “post-processing” means, l think you have to ask yourself what it really says. To me, it suggests that the activity at hand is done as an afterthought. The word “post” suggests that any processing I do to my images is done after the event. But surely I am always making an image, regardless of whether I have a camera to my eye or I'm behind my computer: there is no “post” anything.

I don’t believe we should make a distinction between our time in the field and our time behind our computers. And I think “post-processing” is an accomplice in helping foster a divide in our attitude between both activities.

For some, “post-processing” instills the attitude that their approach out in the field is different from their approach behind their computer. But most importantly, I feel it encourages us to think differently when photographing compared to how we think when editing.

I see no distinction between photographing and editing, and here’s why: the birth of an image is often a process with no defined beginning or ending. The conception of an image may start the moment I set foot out of my car, put my boots on, and begin that hike into the moors. It may have begun much earlier, perhaps while I was dreaming the night before the eagerly-anticipated shoot.

And when is an image complete? This step is also ambiguous at best; I’ve never really known when my work is done. I just think that I get to a point where I am happy with how it looks, but I’ve learned over the years that there is always room for improvement, and I may notice some further adjustments weeks or months later. Sometimes when I think I'm done, I realize much later that the work still had a long journey ahead before it really was completed.

So I don’t really have a fixed point at which I can say that an image begins and where it ends. If we accept this, we can also see that the entire process is fluid and that anything goes. This means that I shouldn’t really put boundaries around tasks because that prevents the work from flowing where it may want—or need—to go.

Pehoe Curve, Torres del Paine, Chilean Patagonia

Although I feel that “post-processing” encourages us to become emotionally distant to our work and it makes us think of photography and editing as two distinct activities, I find we treat these processes differently when we shouldn’t. I believe a lot of photographers think about “scenery” while out in the field and think about “images” when editing. There is an unhealthy contextual shift in attitude to one’s work the moment we move from location to computer. Our approach and attitude to our work should not change if we wish to be better photographers, regardless of where we are or what we are doing.

If we look at the thought processes we apply while making photographs and compare them to the ones we have while editing, we see that there is little difference: image creation and manipulation are one and the same.

The act of composition happens both in the field and during the editing stage; I compose in the field, and I recompose (by cropping) with my software. If I were to consider the shapes and tonal relationships I encounter in my digital darkroom, I’m doing nothing differently than when I was thinking about tones and shapes while out in the field. And perhaps most importantly, when I think about the scene in 2D when editing, I’ve taught myself to look at a scene in 2D while out in the field. These processes are at the cornerstone of all photographs and we need to acknowledge that there is no separation between our time outside and our time inside. There is a symbiotic relationship between the two. What I learn out in the field aids my editing work, while my editing work feeds into how I approach composition, shapes, and tones out in the field.

When photographing, I’ve learned that what looks simple to the eye makes for a highly magnetic photograph to work with in my darkroom. Because of this, I now go in search of simplified compositions with abstract curves and pleasing shapes, because I know that these are the images that stand out on my light table during the selection process in my digital darkroom.

I've learned to abstract scenery into a photograph while I'm on location because I realized many years ago that the thought processes I use while editing my work should also be employed while photographing. I’ve discovered that my compositional technique has improved because I now look around my scene the same way I do while I'm considering an image on my computer screen, checking to see if the objects in the frame are balanced and that none of the objects hit or touch each other. It’s difficult to master this aspect at first because we naturally think in terms of 3D. I’ve often found myself being attracted to a potential image because of the 3D nature of the subject, but by thinking in 2D, I’m able to notice that two objects with the same tonal values often merge or become inseparable from each other. And because I've learned this in my digital darkroom, I now look for this out in the landscape while composing my photographs.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivian Altiplano

Through my editing experience, I’ve learned over the years how far I can push certain types of skies in my work. This has fed back into how I see and what I look for when out in the field. For the image above, I knew when I pressed the shutter how much contrast I could add to the sky in the digital darkroom.

While out in the field, I use the experiences I’ve gained in the darkroom. For instance, I've learned what I can get away with regarding contrast, so while in the field, I can often see low contrast textures in skies and I know how far I can enhance them with my editing software. I’ve also learned that high contrast light at the point of capture does not look great in my digital darkroom and that no amount of manipulation can make it look anywhere as good as soft, diffused light. My darkroom work has taught me what kind of light works, and I now go looking for it with my camera. There is symbiosis at play here, but the major breakthrough for me has been an awareness of it, which I use it to my advantage.

Because I’ve married field work and darkroom work together, I find that I'm now attracted to subjects simply because I know they'll work well in my digital darkroom. I’ve learned what works on my computer monitor because I’ve acknowledged the relationship between my time in the field and my time in the digital domain. And because I’m always thinking about the final image and translating scenery into images while on location, there’s never any “post-” anything to be done: it’s just a continuous flow of creativity.

There should never be any dividing lines in art because images evolve. To assume that our time in the field is one of two clearly defined steps encourages us to put limits on what each of those stages involves—it’s a form of creative pigeonholing. Images are born and grow in the most surprising ways, and by keeping an open mind, we let them go where they want to go.

Let your creativity flow. By removing confining terms such as “post-processing” from your artistic vocabulary and being more aware of the types of words you allow into your language, you can set your mind free. And freedom is the key to being fluid with your work.

This article originally appeared in Issue 5 of PHOTOGRAPH magazine.  

Bruce Percy is one of Scotland’s most notable landscape and travel photographers. His work has been published throughout the world in numerous travel and literature publications. His client list includes the Sir Edmund Hilary Foundation, National Geographic Traveler magazine, American Express, and Fujifilm UK.

His first monograph, The Art of Adventure – 40 Photographic Examples, was prefaced by Michael Kenna. His second monograph, A Journal of Nocturnes, was published in 2012. Click here to find out more about his books.

Bruce is a keen photographic instructor and regularly conducts landscape workshops in Scotland, Iceland, Norway, Patagonia and Bolivia through his own photographic workshop company. For more information and news about Bruce, visit his website


Brucy Percy Craft & Technique Natural Light

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