Gaining Freedom from Restriction
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the greater our constraints, the greater the potential for creativity. We're tyrannized by endless options, so we need to begin eliminating them. If color within the frame doesn't add to the image, eliminate itallow form and tone to take the stage and tell the story. If too many elements in focus cause distraction, eliminate them with a shallower depth of field or a tighter angle of view. Change your position to change the perspective. Photography is an art of exclusion, so be happily ruthless about it.
Once you've eliminated the distractions, begin building up the strengths. Do you want to exaggerate a particular mood in the image? What mood is it? Write it down. Say it out loud. What does that mood look like? What does "happy" look like? What does "retro" look like? Moody? Grungy? Write it down in visual terms: Happy looks like bright colors and sharp focus and great contrast. It might not look like those terms for you; it might look different for you. That's not the point. Whatever it means to you, write it down. Then ask yourself, "What do I need to do to this image to make the colors brighter, the focus sharp, and the contrasts solid?"
The same approach works for visual mass in an image. Where do you want viewers to look? Where do you want them not to look? Using your knowledge of what pulls and pushes the eye, subtly lead it around the image. For example, knowing that the eye is drawn to sharper areas, versus areas that are less sharp, allows us to pull the eye with increased sharpness and to push it with areas that are less sharp. Selective sharpness works for this approach, but so does increased clarity, because clarity gives the illusion of sharpness. But the inverse is also true: Painting in negative clarity, or drawing a graduated filter across a corner of an image and lowering the clarity, will push the eye from that area into a different place where you want the eye to linger. Figures 1, 2, and 3 walk through an example of my process, using Blacksmith, a photograph I made in Old Delhi in 2009.
Figure 1 An image from Vision & Voice. In the book, I detail the exact aesthetic changes I made to this image and why. I begin with not only a RAW file, but one that's completely zeroed (Develop Presets > General - Zeroed), in order to begin with fewer biases. Not much to look at, but a great raw canvas on which to build.
Figure 2 You may or may not actually make notes on the image, but I find this technique helpful to at least make a list of changes I want to see happen. I do maps like this in my mind, with notes on paper to define where I want to head with the image. The danger with Lightroom or Photoshop is having endless possibilities and no idea how to know when you're done. Make a map, describe your intention, and you'll know when you've arrived.
Figure 3 The image after I've processed it. This sounds like a long, drawn-out process, but most of my images take five minutes to work through to the final product. I couldn't say that when I was using Photoshop for all my images! Lightroom and this vision-driven workflow have shortened my working time and given me greater clarity on how I want my images to lookand how I need to get there.