Today I thought I’d share something personal with you. Photographically personal at any rate. ‘Workflow’ is a word I see used a lot in various photographic circles and is obviously of interest to many people, so I thought I share how I create a photograph; starting from before I leave the house all the way up to the ‘finished product’, whatever form that might take. This is how my way of working has developed over the years and, whilst I’m not claiming that it is perfect or that it is what you should do, it does work for me, so please feel free to incorporate any of it that you find interesting or useful.
The one thing I like to decide on before I leave the house is where I’m going. I know others set off and end up where their instincts take them and although I do some of this later in my process, I like to know where I’m going to start. There are a whole host of reasons influencing this decision, and each could be the deciding factor on any given day; a location may have come up in a conversation, I might have seen a photograph, been looking at a map, be working on a specific project or have a special interest in something connected to an area. I may just decide on a whim.
Once at my chosen location, I like to wander around with no particular ideas in mind and see what the place has to offer. At this point my camera is usually in my bag as I like to spend time getting a feeling for a place and seeing what grabs my attention. I also like to take time to look at the things that don’t immediately draw attention to themselves as I find this is often where hidden delights are to be had. I look for things that might make images on different scales from broad, sweeping views to intimate details. I look to see where the light is, where it will go and how it might be affected by cloud cover, all of which might alter what I will be able to photograph. I also consider what the light might be like at other times of the day or year. I like to build a mental inventory of what’s around me; shapes, patterns, colours and tones, anything that might be useful. When I was starting out in photography, I used to write these things down on a checklist-type form and I found this helped me a great deal, even if it did bring a few inquisitive looks from passers-by. Alongside this information I also like to note how the place makes me feel and how I might say something about this with my camera.
This is where I start to visualise what I’m going to create; what is it that I want to say and which elements of my surroundings can I use to do so. I try to build a mental picture of what I would like the finished photograph to look like and then work backwards from there to decide which techniques I will have to use to achieve that. It’s worth noting here that as this visualisation is about the end result, these considerations also take into account the editing required to achieve my aim, and make sure that the way the photograph is taken will provide me with the full range of information on the memory card to allow that. I’ll mention this visualisation again later when I talk about editing my work.
This is usually when I get my camera out. Obviously, if there are circumstances that dictate it (such as a passing shaft of light in the perfect position etc), I will react to that as needed, but usually, my camera work starts now. There’s lots to consider at this point such as what to include in the viewfinder and where to position it all, where to stand, what height to place the camera at, which format to adopt and which lens to use (I only have zoom lenses, so also have to choose what level of magnification to use). This takes time, but for me is the most satisfying part of photography, so is time well spent in my opinion. My opinion here extends to the fact that the time spent also makes it more likely that my visualised image will come to life. Once I have settled upon my composition (and I usually use a tripod to make sure this stays as I want it) I consider the settings I will use on the camera. What depth of field do I want, is there any motion within the frame to consider and where shall I focus? These last considerations are not made in complete isolation from the time spent composing and there are certainly lots of crossovers where one influences the other. As I use a tripod most of the time and so don’t need to worry about the length of the exposure, I set the camera to aperture priority with the ISO as low as possible.
The reason my son no longer accompanies me on any photographic trips is that, once I’ve got to this point with my preparations, I wait. He likes to press the shutter and move on; I like to watch the light and see what happens. Sometimes, there are wonderful changes in how the scene in front of me changes and I press the shutter button as often as needed when this happens. In these situations all my preparations have proven to be valuable and, I feel, this is when my best images are taken. More often than not, though, nothing happens and there can be a very long wait, sometimes without an end result. I used to find this frustrating but now enjoy the fact that I am outside and in a beautiful place. I like that. Once the shutter has been pressed, I check the histogram to see if I have the data I need for my visualised image and, if necessary, make the appropriate adjustments and retake the shot. Then I wait some more to see if further, significant changes are likely and either wait to take more photographs or move on to another position.
Back home I import the files onto my hard drive. I do this using Lightroom Classic and convert all of the files to DNG format. What is DNG? The letters stand for Digital Negative and it is a way of making any RAW file non-brand specific. Adobe, who created the format, says, “With an abundance of different cameras and editing software on the market, file compatibility has proved a challenge for photographers when sharing and developing their work.” They function, for my purposes, as a future-proofed RAW file and, once they have been converted, I make a few adjustments while still in Lightroom. I will make any corrections for the lens I used, remove chromatic aberration (both just a click of a button) and make sure that the white balance is as I want it.
The chosen file is them imported into Photoshop where I do most of my processing. I start by making any global adjustments using new layers for Levels (which can move and stretch the brightness levels), Curves (to fine tune the contrast), Hue/Saturation and Vibrance (both of which control the colour) as required. At this point I sometimes have an “ooh, that’s interesting,” moment at which point I have to decide if I will stick to my original visualised idea or move to something else. Sometimes I do both. Following this I work on local areas of the image that I feel need adjusting. This might include dodging and burning, the outcomes of which have been with us since the dark(room) ages or the use of masks to make a variety of alterations to specific parts of the image. I’d like to say that once I’ve completed these changes it’s all over and I can relax, but, as Leonardo de Vinci said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” I often ponder on this when I am working in Photoshop and have to decide when I should abandon the editing, only doing so when I am completely happy with the result.
Once I get to this stage I make a master file which I save as a TIFF and keep all of the editing layers layers intact (just incase I come back to my ‘abandoned image at some point). This is then imported back into Lightroom, is labelled blue (which I use to denote all of my edited files) and sits alongside the DNG file. Depending upon the intended output of the image, separate files may be made to suit specific needs. At this point the size of the image and amount of sharpening are decided and a watermark added depending on if the photograph is destined for the web or for printing. I may make a number of copies for differing reasons, but these files are temporary and aren’t saved once they have gone to their chosen output.
So there you have a list of my complete workflow, from setting off from home to the completed image. This workflow is by no means set in concrete and I often adapt it as I go along, but here is what forms the basis of how I like to work. I hope you find it helpful.