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New Zealand Photography Workshops

Expressive Processing

Richard Young

Richard Young

When a student asks me how to process their image, I always feel a little hesitant in directing them.

I can show them what tools to use, where to set each slider, and how to crop the image—there is nothing wrong with imparting such information. But in doing so, I run the risk of imposing my own expression and vision on their work, rather than enabling them to find theirs. It’s similar to arranging someone else’s shoot in the field: if I set up their camera, show them where to point it, and advise them on what lens and settings to use, the photograph won’t express their own style and vision.

The first and most important step of processing is to define your message; processing tools only have a purpose if we know what it is we want to express. “Expressive processing” may be a more fitting title than “post-processing”, since it’s not about learning a straightforward set of skills. There are no definitive “right” or “wrong” settings for your sliders; the trick is in learning how to use the tools to express yourself. What do you want the viewer to notice about the image? About your experience? About you? What do you want them to feel when looking at it? These are the first questions we should ask ourselves when processing an image. A photograph isn’t just simply a record of what’s in front of us: it’s an expression, a piece of artwork, a way of communicating. And as such, Lightroom and Photoshop are not simply tools to process a photograph—they are tools to express ourselves, just as much as the camera is.

Of course, the journey of a photograph starts long before the processing stage—it starts when we choose a subject, compose it in the viewfinder, and capture the image.

These steps are vital to the telling of our story. But don’t let this be where personal expression stops. Enhancing (or altering) the message captured during the shoot is a powerful step in its own right if we are processing with intent to express our own personal Style & Vision.

This is not to say that you can’t seek help during the processing stage; while it’s up to you to determine your vision, it may be useful to seek input on how best to convey it in a particular image. Just be careful to avoid defaulting to someone else’s Lightroom settings. The processing stage, just like the shoot itself, should not be the product of a set of “rules” you have learned from an outside source. Every time you make a processing choice, ask yourself why you made this choice. What does it change? How will it affect other choices? Remember, your goal is to enhance your vision/message, define your style, and present the subject in the photograph, so begin with these three ideas—vision, style, and subject—in mind.

After determining your message, you can explore the many variables that will help you to express it. For any image, our vision should be the guiding factor as we decide how much processing is necessary and when we are finished.

Before processing a photograph, ask yourself some questions:

  • What mood do I wish to convey, and how can I enhance this mood in the photograph?
  • What impact do I want the photograph to have, and how can I enhance this?
  • What is the flow pattern in the photograph, and how can strengthen or alter?

The question is not, “how can I process this image?” but rather, “how can I process this image to express……..?”

What detracts from the message?

In story-writing, writers have to consider which details add to their story and which are only a distraction.

If a writer is not careful, they might leave readers lost searching for a subject. Likewise, good composition is determined by what we leave out just as much as by what we include.

Even subtle distractions, while not always immediately obvious to the photographer or viewer, can catch our eye or change the way we read a photograph. For example, a stray blade of grass poking into the bottom of the frame may not demand much attention, but it can still pull attention from the intended subject. If the colour, luminosity, or detail of an object in the frame stands out, no matter how subtly, it can draw our gaze—so once we’ve defined our message, it pays to consider what subtracts from it.

Good fieldcraft involves recognising distractions so as to remove them where possible during capture. Processing may allow us to remove or crop out that pesky blade of grass, but in most cases, it’s easier—and produces a better result—to adjust our frame or even just push the grass out of the way before taking the photograph.

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