In last week’s article, Questioning Your Craft Pt I: In The Field, I went through some of the questions I ask myself while out photographing that I think play a big role in helping me achieve my best work possible. Whether we’re out with our cameras, at the computer editing, or anywhere else, I don’t think it’s necessarily the questions themselves that are important, but the fact that there is some thought and intention behind our actions.
We’re all capable of walking around with our cameras and snapping away, we might even get some decent photos if we find ourselves in the right circumstances or locations. To consistently produce images at our peak capacity however, we need to act with meaning and purpose at every stage of the image-making process.
Today I’m going to go through some of the questions that go through my mind when I sit down to edit an image or a group of images, and how those questions help me get the most out of my raw files.
Questions To Ask While Editing
1. What mood do I want my final image to convey?
To me, this is always the first question that should be asked of an image. It’s hard to make many well informed editing decisions if you don’t even know what exactly you’re trying to achieve with the photo. Often, the mood will already be established by how you shot it (at least ideally), although there are certainly times where a single image is open to a variety of interpretations.
The decision of what I want a photo to convey, and what mood I want to evoke will affect pretty much all of my editing decisions going forward, including contrast, colour (including black and white conversion or not), tone, cropping, and any other creative adjustments that you can come up with. This is why it’s crucial to ask this question at the beginning if you want consistent results from your editing. Sure you can get some cool results just by playing around with the sliders and filters, but if you never intend to make any of the adjustments, how will you ever be able to reproduce them on demand in the future?
2. What are my image’s strengths and weaknesses?
After I know what my goal for an image is, the next question I’ll ask myself is what in my image helps it achieve my vision, and what is standing in the way of that vision. I’ve yet to find an image where there were no weaknesses to be found after importing from my camera and loading it on my computer.
Critical, unbiased thinking is essential here, no matter how much you are in love with your image. It’s best to find the faults that exist so that you can work with them and think about how best to handle them. If I’m really struggling with dissecting an image and finding things that could be improved, I like to show it to someone else, especially someone who knows photography. I find that generally, I don’t even need to hear their opinion on the photo, but the moment I show it off, I myself will notice all the little details that I am instantly defensive about, and that is that.
Just as important as your photos weaknesses are it’s strengths. Knowing what to build upon can be just as crucial as knowing what to try and mitigate, so spend some time early in the editing process of each image and study it, taking note of both ends of the spectrum.
Once I’ve taken stock of the images strengths and weaknesses I’ll think about how to handle them, often by accentuating certain aspects, and masking or hiding others. Generally I’ll do this through dodging and burning, bringing more attention to the strong points (or aspects I want to make stronger), and darkening and diverting attention from areas I deem to be weaker, or less worthy of attention.
3. Is there anything that should be altered or removed?
I like to do any cloning, perspective control and any other alterations fairly early on in my editing process so that afterwards, when I’m making other adjustments, I feel like I’m working on the final image.
When asking myself about what needs to be altered or removed a lot of my answer has to do with what my intention is for the image, as discussed in point #1. Certain types of images just call for perfection, whereas others may actually benefit from a little bit of clutter. Each image is it’s own case, so I’ll never remove all distractions or imperfections without first asking what their removal will accomplish.
If you’ve read my post Are Flawless Images Really Better? you’ll know that I’ve actually been trending towards less cloning and alteration lately, especially when it comes to removing human elements from photos such as landscapes. As I argue in the article, I’m not for or against the altering of images, I just think we need to ask ourselves “why” before cleansing our images out of habit.
4. What draws my eye immediately when looking at it?
Understanding where a viewer’s eye is first drawn when looking at your photo is a crucial step in creating an impactful image. Equally important is knowing where we want the viewers eye to go, because they might not be the same element of the image. At least not yet.
Try to view your image as neutrally as possible when asking yourself where your eye naturally travels to, and determine if this is in fact the part of the image you want to make the first impression. Our eyes naturally travel to brighter spots, so be intentional with your dodging and burning, as well as when blending exposures or creating HDRs.
5. Where does my gaze travel next?
After you’ve determined (and hopefully dictated) where a viewer’s gaze will travel to first, the next question is to determine what pattern your eye naturally takes through the image as you soak it in.
Composition plays a large role in directing the eye through the frame, but you can still make adjustments in post production that can help break up a monotonous or convoluted scene and direct a viewer to the most important parts of the image. Dodging, burning, selective sharpening, colour saturation and contrast are your friends here in calling attention to certain aspects of an image.
Keep in mind that our eyes naturally travel from left to right, and from foreground to background and they progress through an image. Not that all your images must follow this pattern, but nevertheless it’s good to keep that fact in the back of your mind during this step.
6. How will different croppings affect the image?
I usually leave my cropping decisions until the end of my editing process, unless I know from the beginning that I want a drastic crop and only want to focus on a small portion of the original frame (I often do this with wildlife photos).
The way you crop your image can change the viewer’s reaction tremendously and the power of cropping when editing should not be overlooked. Sometimes I’ll have taken a wide shot in landscape orientation, but after importing and editing the image, I’ll realize I like it better as a close cropped portrait orientation. Often for landscapes, I like to crop a little bit off of the top, bottom, or both, giving the image a wide-screen, expansive feel to it.
For me it generally comes down to first cropping out everything that isn’t adding to the image. Any distractions or negative space that isn’t helping the composition I crop out immediately. Once those elements are removed I’ll look at any creative cropping options including rotating the image for creative effect.
7. How does this image relate to others in the series?
This last question only applies to images that are meant to be viewed in series, but in that case, this is one of the most important questions to ask yourself and one you cannot afford to overlook. Think of this as the concept, or motif of your gallery of images, the theme that ties everything together and makes the set feel cohesive. I would even go so far as to say that the overall theme and cohesion are more important than the edits of the individual photos, as long as they are technically sufficient. Generally the theme is set through similar toning of the images in the set, often starting all of them from a preset (or making a preset) and then tweaking each image individually from that starting point.
Another aspect aspect to consider how your images relate to each other is when editing your shoot down into the final images which you will deliver to your client, display in your gallery, etc. You don’t want to include similar or duplicate shots, each image should say something unique that none of the others do. Fill in the holes in the story your images tell, but don’t overdo it, let your audience make inferences from time to time rather than spelling everything out for them.
Wedding and event shoots are common circumstances in which you might find yourself asking yourself how each image relates to the group, where the cohesion of the story is key.
That’s it for the questions that I generally find myself asking during post production. I’d love to hear the considerations that run through your head while you’re at your editing desk bringing your images to life. Let me know in the comments and check back next week for the third and final part of this series on Questioning Your Craft as I look at some of the questions you can ask yourself when critiquing your own work or the work of others in the hopes of improving your photography.
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