What Are the Principles of a Vision-Driven Workflow?
VDW is the continuation of the creation of an image that began the moment you thought, “Aha!” and captured a moment. It is the acknowledgment that your vision for this photograph informs the tools you use to refine it in the digital darkroom. Your vision determines your voice. But how well you use your voice determines how well you can express that vision.
VDW is a process that begins not with the question “How do I make my image look better?” but with the following groups of questions as guides.
What do I want my image to communicate? What is this image about? What mood, thought, or emotion do I want my image to carry? Intention is where you begin with the image, and it’s the place from which you decide where you are going with the image (aesthetics) and how you are getting there (process). Intention is your vision for this image made conscious.
What does that mood or emotion look like? What does my image need to look like in order to communicate that mood, thought, or emotion? What do I want my viewers to look at, to see? What am I pointing at with this image? I don’t mean this pedantically or in broad strokes; I mean it very specifically. Really, what do you want them to look at? Write it down if you have to. Draw circles and arrows on the image if that works for you. Moving from your intention to its expression through the aesthetics of the photograph is an act of interpretation and is by no means a simple process. Between the act of seeing and the act of expressing that vision is a world of your own unique preferences and the growing expertise required to communicate that vision to others in an understandable way. It’s a topic for a book of its own, but here’s what’s important. Every aesthetic change within the image will change the way the image is read and experienced in much the same way as changing words and sentences in a novel will change the sense of it. Be conscious that you are playing with elements of visual language and communication. This is no trivial thing if you’re hoping to create images that resonate with others. But it must first resonate with you.
What digital darkroom tools are at my disposal? Which processes (sliders, curves, global and local adjustments) can best make my image look the way I want it to?
VDW is an intentional and somewhat introspective process. It is not a magic wand. You must keep in mind that the digital darkroom is not a set of tools for fixing a photograph that was poorly imagined or created in the first place. It is, in a perfect world, a smooth transition from seeing, to capturing, and finally to refining. From eye, heart, and mind to the camera and through the digital darkroom to the print.
Remember, this is not a canonical process. This craft, digital photography, is too young to have things set in anything but wet cement. What matters is that you pursue a process that works best for you. Here’s how I approach it.
I begin with a conscious understanding of what drew my eye and my attention at the moment of capture. You should know what your image is about, how you feel about it—and, therefore, how you want others to feel about it—and where you want to direct the eyes of the reader. You should know this before you touch a single slider, and I mean “you should” in the sense that this is something you should on some level already have understood at the moment you pressed the shutter. How, without knowing this already, will you have made decisions about your optics, your point of view, your aperture, your shutter? When you get to the darkroom you’re already well into the process; the tracks have been laid and your work is one of refinement. Now is not the time to question your intention; it’s the time to recognize the intention you’ve already burned into the RAW file, and to make decisions about how to best reveal that intention, how to interpret it and present it to your audience. It’s not easy, and sometimes we create images so instinctively and subconsciously that uncovering our own intention is difficult, but it’s something we need to be in touch with on some level before we can hope to communicate it.
As we discuss this process, it might be helpful to walk and talk at the same time, so to speak. I shot the image we’ll use for this example in Kathmandu in January 2009; it appeared in Within the Frame and is still one of my favorite photographs. Several things drew my eye and moved me in this image, and it’s those things I want to draw out as I develop this shot. The first was the gesture of the image: the gaze of the girl toward the butter lamp. The second was the color depth of this image: the warm yellows leaping out of the surrounding darkness, and the bluish background.
It’s important to remember that I’m presenting a simple example here. It’s not meant to walk you through how I do things but to familiarize you with my process—and that’s more about thinking, not how many tools you use to get the job done. Less is usually better. Here is the initial image once it’s been zeroed.
I look for and fix any weaknesses present in the image: dust spots, misaligned horizons, and other issues that distract. I fix them from the beginning so I’m not distracted from the look and feel of the image as I develop it. Of course, the great benefit of doing all this work in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom is that the nondestructive nature of the fixes means I can undo them or tweak them later. If a change or refinement in the crop is obviously needed at the beginning, I do it here as well, knowing I can undo or redo it later. My goal at this point is not refinement but the removal of elements that will distract me from the process—a dust spot in the sky will continue to pull my eye and frustrate me if I don’t deal with it first. Few of us do our best creative work when we’re distracted or frustrated.
The flaws in this image, aside from a little noise that has never bothered me, are few. What I want to do is crop the image to bring the girl to the right of center and make the diagonal gaze of her eye to the candle more prominent. So I’ve cropped this as my first adjustment in order to bring balance to the frame.
Once I’ve gotten in touch with the intention of the image and fixed the obvious weaknesses, I turn my attention to the biggest possible adjustments. In my own mind it seems that the global adjustments made to an image affect the mood of the image, whereas the local adjustments, which I deal with last, are about where the eye is drawn and in what order. So I refine the mood or feel of the image first. Color temperature (how warm or cool the image is), exposure (how dark or light it is), and whether the image is presented in bright saturated colors or in cool-toned black and white—these are all decisions made at this point.
In the case of Prayers at Boudhanath, the first thing I did was make the blacks black by pushing the Blacks slider to 10. That darkened the background, which I further pulled in with a vignette (Amount: 100, Midpoint: 50). Finally, I pushed the Brightness slider to +40 to bring back the glow and warmth of the candles, and set the Clarity value to +30 to pop the details a little.
Draw the Eye
Finally, I turn my attention from the macro to the micro. By this point I have an image that feels the way I want it to feel. Sometimes I get there in very few steps—a tweak here and a tweak there. Sometimes getting there takes longer and requires a few variations. But moving from global to local gives me a process that my brain can work with—a continued refining that gets closer and closer to the intention I identified at the beginning. Here is where I make the small tweaks that draw the eye to one area with greater pull in order to say, “Look at this,” or to draw the eye away from certain areas by downplaying them in order to give other areas greater pull. If it’s a portrait, I will often dodge (lighten) the eyes a little, or burn (darken) peripheral areas with the Adjustment Brush and a little negative Exposure and Brightness. If it’s a landscape where I want the eye to follow a particular path through the image, I might do the same. I’ll delve more into this topic in the next chapter, but for now just know that brightness pulls the eye and darkness pushes it. Saturation pulls, desaturation pushes away. Sharpness pulls, less sharpness pushes. Being familiar with these principles and using them allows the photographer to manage the attention of the viewer. We achieve this at capture with our choice of lens, angle, and depth of field, and other decisions. We achieve this in the darkroom with dodging and burning, or the equivalent subtle push and pull with saturation or sharpness.
Returning to our image, I did two final things. I pulled a Graduated Filter with a –1 Exposure setting up from the bottom (to pull back the exposure on the table and lamps themselves) and in from the left side (to darken the shadows where a vignette couldn’t really reach). Then I used the Adjustment Brush with a little bump in the Exposure and the Brightness to add some spark to the girl’s face.
FIGURE 2 Canon EOS 5D, 85mm, 1/125 @ f/1.2, ISO 400 Boudhanath, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2009.
Prepare for Output
I then size and sharpen my image. I leave this process for last and it’s done specifically for the image’s final output. A large print on one medium requires different sharpening than a small image being uploaded to a Web site. Output-specific sharpening is a subject well covered in other books and videos. For now, just understand the sharpening process is dependent on your output and is a task best left to last. I sharpen my prints in Photoshop because it allows me to sharpen the image on a duplicated layer so that, using a layer mask, I can paint away areas of sharpness. Sharpness draws the eye and since I don’t want the eye drawn with the same strength of pull to all areas, I prefer to do it a) in Photoshop; b) selectively; c) last; and d) based on my output. For those reasons, we won’t be talking about sharpness much.
What’s important to remember about this process—particularly the way I describe it here—is that a) I knew what I wanted the image to feel like and what I wanted the viewer to look at before I started, and b) it’s not always that simple. This is an organic process—for some of us much more than others. What I’ve described here makes it sound like I know the numbers going into it, but I don’t. I push the sliders I think will give me the aesthetic I want, I see what it looks like, then I pull them back, undo them, try something else. Intention, as far as the end result, is important, but so is remaining open to surprises and doing this work with a light touch and an open mind.