We’ve all heard that “real photographers get it right on camera”. Whether it’s related to some serious debate about shooting RAW versus JPEG or a sermon about the dangers of using anything but manual mode, there can be a lot of pressure to get perfect photos straight from the camera. There can also be a careless tendency to just “fix it later”. Both extremes have flaws and I have found that a balanced approach is essential to personal development and happiness.
I’m only old enough to survive the digital revolution, and there are definitely things I remember very fondly from the movie era. Before being described as a new Luddite, I want to be clear that I never imagine myself going back to the movies for the business – the cost and convenience factor makes this unreasonable. But I really love shooting movies!
In many ways, shooting the movie was a much more streamlined workflow. Assuming your movie was developed in a quality lab, much of the post-processing that now falls on the photographer was done by one of the minilab operators perched behind Noritsu or Frontier. Even if I scanned and edited images in Photoshop as I did, I knew what movie stock I liked – it had an original look that was close to what I wanted.
This is no longer the case. There have certainly been incredible improvements in image quality produced by modern digital cameras compared to the first D70, but I have yet to find the magical blend that mimics the simplicity of a film workflow.
In the early days of digital switching, I felt like I was starting over in photography. The basic concepts still apply, but I found myself very frustrated that I couldn’t get the same “look”. Out of this frustration, I developed an approach to help bridge the transition.
Frustration can kill creativity. My problem wasn’t that I somehow forgot the basics of photography, it was that I needed to develop a better understanding of current technological changes. I needed a system that would allow me room to fail and figure things out – to improve. Not only has this approach helped me, but for over a decade I have used the same approach with my students to help them navigate their development.
Much like my students, I found that as I was growing up as a photographer, I was much happier with my journey which encouraged more growth. It was periodic.
I hope this helps reduce some of the pressure and stigma of allowing the photographer to focus on creating objective work, not whether they are “doing it right”. I’ve called this approach the 75, 85, and 100 rule, but “guideline” is perhaps a more appropriate term. Your numbers may look a little different depending on how far you’ve traveled, but in my experience, this is a good starting point.
Get your photo 75% right in the camera
rangefinder And the WPPI A report released in May of 2021 identifies several key metrics for the professional wedding market. While I realize that not every reader is a professional photographer, professional wedding photographer, or ever wants to be a professional photographer, there was one key statistic that I think holds true for our art form: We as photographers spend a lot of time behind a computer. In fact, this report found that 58% of respondents spend more time behind a computer than behind a camera with only 19% spending more time photographing.
Truthfully, I find the computer to be a condensed block of capacitors, integrated circuits, and soul-sucking black magic. I don’t really like editing, but the fact is that I’m shy about extracting it and I hope the editor understands your vision, that’s part of our workflow.
The good news is that we have some say in this! We have to choose how much editing to do. I teach my students that every minute saved behind the computer is a free minute to work with a new client or sit under a tree – both are perfectly valid. My advice to them is to focus on a few simple things to get a 75% picture in the camera.
1. Coverage is everything
If you think you fired enough, shoot more. Explore all angles of the target – change the camera’s perspective. Try a different focal length and depth of field, check dirty frame edges, and make sure exposure, white balance, and accurate focus are as close as possible. I know we all looked at group photos from the shoot and thought “If only I had…”. The best advice I can give is to first make sure that you are shooting adequately.
I don’t want anyone to hear the spray-and-pray technique being defended here, you’re working with the camera, not a sprinkler, but an extra thoughtful 10 frames that might save a lot of time in editing. Slow down, rate the subject and your photography; Find the shots you missed.
2. Learn to love color checker
Yes, it is an extra step to create and apply color profiles. But! Adding fifteen seconds to take a shot of a color scheme can get big down the road when you start editing. You don’t have to be a Calibrite, but invest in a good IT8 scheme, it is worth your time and money.
3. Be Agree to “Close”
The goal is always growth and character improvement. I want my photos to be as close to the customer’s readiness as possible, especially when the customer is me. However, I firmly believe that there is a correlation between the quality of productive work and the enjoyment of its production. When we focus too heavily on everything being perfect, it can lead to self-doubt and procrastination—often hampering our ability to be creative.
I’m not promoting the “meh, I’ll fix it post” mentality, keep it as close to your vision as possible. If the closest you can get to your vision is 75% right now, give yourself permission to be happy about it.
Select the final images and 85% complete
It can be a little confusing when I first look at a bunch of photos that need editing, so at this point I hope to focus not on the envisioned final product, but on the bones of the photo. The ultimate goal at this point is to get the final images set and 85% complete. In any digital asset manager you like; Lightroom, Bridge, Darktable, ACDSee, Capture One, whatever – treat these files as separate as possible.
Separation is difficult. This can be the biggest struggle for artists. We were there, we know what we saw, we want to love what we filmed and share with others – we want them to feel how we felt. Those touching moments are the thing that makes me pick up the camera. The problem comes when we lose objectivity. We need to evaluate the images for what they are, not how we felt at the moment.
1. Scan effect photos
My approach is to view images in grid view in Lightroom with the thumbnail size set to half. Depending on your prescription and the size of your screen, this may be different for you – find the size that allows you to get an idea of each image without getting distracted by the details.
My style is very simple, if I don’t like the thumbnail, I probably won’t like the full size image. Look for pictures that make an impact, and that jump out at you. You won’t love all the photos you take, and that’s okay. Select the images that catch your attention in whatever way it works. I use star rating where 1 star indicates an image that deserves further research. Work fast, if you have multiple images of the same composition, tag them all.
2. Look for bulk editing opportunities
Once I make my rough choices, I start looking for batch editing opportunities. Maybe 10 consecutive shots are underexposed, or the white balance is off. This is the stage where a color checker comes in handy. Whether you’re applying a camera profile or pulling the right color temperature, this tool can do a quick job of baseline problems. If you are working with presets, now is the time to apply them. Whatever you do, remember that we’re not going to be perfect, just picking out the hanging fruit.
3. Make the final selections
At this point, I usually have a pretty good idea of the photos I want to proceed with and will rate them 3 or 4. Now is the time to compare similar shots for critical focus or compositional differences and make individual adjustments. I might as well go back and look at the surrounding photos that weren’t made in the first round to make sure there was nothing I missed. Remember, we’re still not making final edits, just looking at ~85% complete.
Think and make final adjustments up to 100%
Why stop at 85%? Once I have selected the photos, I like to take some time to reflect on what I captured, be honest with myself, and write down the areas I need to work on improving. It’s also important to write down the things that worked well and that might be worth doing again. There is always something that I find noticeable, and constant re-evaluation is the best way to grow.
2. Final Adjustments
In whatever program you feel most comfortable with, this is the time to make your final adjustments. I am a firm believer in the role that the environment plays in productivity. As for me, I usually work at home with lots of coffee and listen to music from brain.fm. The ‘music’ can be a little weird at first, but I’ve found this really useful for the past few years, give it a try if you haven’t tried it!
Some of my work is just for me, some of it may be for clients. Whatever the case, consider the end product and try to work in one last batch. I’ve found that my edits are more consistent, and I can edit more effectively this way.
3. Reflect… again
Once you’re done, relax, take a deep breath, and think of lessons that can be taken away. Give glory when it’s due, but don’t be afraid to be true to yourself. Look for the good and the bad and work to grow.
What if you can’t get your photos 100%? That’s good! What if it takes five hours to get an image close to 100%? This is good too! Every photographer has room to grow, to expand his understanding, to branch out creatively.
If you need a little more editing than other photographers at this point, that’s fine! Be kind to yourself, and don’t allow the expectations of others to decide how you work. I like when steps two and three are short, I enjoy shooting more than editing. You’re probably on the other end of the spectrum, that’s fine too. We must allow each artist to pursue photography in their own way. To focus on the fun of photography and not the dogma of some photographers.
You may not use the same weights, the same number of steps, or any of this. The thing I hope you take away from this is that you should develop a system that works for where you are and encourages you when you get to where you want to be.
Image credits: Stock photos from Depositphotos