For some reason the job details between photographers and scientific researchers are dramatically different, but from my perspective the motivation and work-flows are almost indistinguishable. Maybe it’s just my will to be weird, but when I sketch out a photo concept or think up a new research project, the exact same centers of my brain are working at peak capacity. This was the inspiration in developing this article on the creative workflow from concept to realization as applied to photography.
The generic view of artists is that they’re filled with an abundance of talent and drive and create through pure inspiration – bubbling from a magical fountain in their soul. The generic view of a scientist/engineer is one of a logically cold calculating individual slaving for days and nights and eventually years with a sort of mad-scientist personality detached from reality – characterizing the world in theories and mathematics that normal folks just don’t understand.
The more I started actually doing photography I began to realize some things would go faster and come out better if I actually thought about them – laid them out beforehand you see. It’s not like I need to define the process in a textbook. After all, photography is Art, the result of intuitive inspiration and amazing talent…blah, blah, blah. But the fact is, as an engineer I acutely appreciate the poetry in a well executed project. An elegant well-thought out project map is as beautiful as a fleeting mountain vista or abstract impression. The link between art and science/engineering/design is indistinguishable, so why not integrate them all? Take the analytical themes of science and fuse them with the free out-of-the-box thinking of art and photography.
I like to take the analysis aspects of science, combine with the project management aspects of engineering, mix with the artistic element of design and cap it off with the fool-proof ease of digital photography and computer imaging. We end up with a total process for the concept develop though image execution and output.
I’m not defining the creative process because I feel a need to before producing an image. Yes I can pick up a camera, set up lights, or not use any lights and produce great images. Sure art is supposed to be free-wheeling and off the cuff and pure inspiration and guess what – so is engineering. Even if you don’t think there’s a process going on inside the nicely packaged computer inside your skull, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. So why not exploit it? Why not explore the creative production process and learn how to improve it?
So, for clarity let’s quickly define the photo production process as:
Concept – Production – Shooting – Processing – Deliverables
This stage probably doesn’t need to include a camera or computer or anything more complicated than a pen and paper and your thoughts. You just think up what you want to do and start putting it down so it doesn’t get erased in your short-term memory banks. Sure this can be done inside your head, visualize a subject with lights and angles and photoshop layers and then try to produce it directly with a camera. Alternatively setting things down on paper usually brings up more questions. Like, what color should the pants of the model be, will I need a grid to highlight the face or will two soft boxes suffice. Of course, all of this can be worked out on the fly as you’re shooting, but if you can visualize everything before you start, you will naturally get more accomplished and probably get closer to realizing of your vision faster than doing it all on the fly. Essentially the concept stage is there for brainstorming: subject, location, colors, lighting, message, mood, etc. These are realized as sketches, mock-ups, whatever you need. Figuring these things out early means not having to screw around with them later.
Once everything is set up in your head, you just need to go through the actual process of producing the work. How will lights be set up, what equipment and wardrobe is needed? Do we need to buy a purple velvet jacket? How about some clear makeup to reduce glare on the nose? Where will the shoot will take place, and how do we get equipment and the models together in production. You could even include a subsection purely for logistics. Screwing things up here means you forgot to bring batteries and your cool new flash doesn’t work or that awesome Octabox is useless because you didn’t pack the speedring. And that means not having the elements necessary to get the image you wanted. Developing equipment lists, maintaining an organized lighting kit which can be taken when needed, and knowing how to set everything up and execute the shooting session efficiently means it could take 10 minutes instead of 60 to get the images you originally wanted.
With the concept in your head, and all the logistics worked out and the various elements of the production set up, all you have to do now is press the shutter and head to the next step (in theory). We could also call this the execution stage, but that sounds a tad morbid. Probably it won’t go so smoothly as simply depressing the shutter button, but the point is that if you work out the concept and logistics before you actually start shooting, you won’t have to run around looking for random flashes or light modifiers or – trying to come up with a totally new concept on the fly and not have the resources to see it realized. Many people will say they’re in their “element” when running around fiddling with flash position and making models wait because they didn’t prepare beforehand. I’d rather take the least amount of time as needed to do the actual shooting and move on to Processing the images moving on to the Deliverables. The idea is, get the shot and make great exposures that can be successfully processed into the final image you want.
In the golden ages of darkrooms and chemicals the main essence of your image was produced in-camera, unless you were a real wiz who lived in the darkroom. I now more or less consider the image from a camera to be a nice starting point – or a possible end point. Processing can be as easy as tweaking the levels or a bit more complicated, leading to various layers, filters, and electronic brush strokes in Photoshop. Processing can mean compositing multiple images together or working exclusively on one from the camera. Processing can make an angry man look approachable or a little girl look like a devil. The colors, shadows, image sharpness, it can all be defined and/or modified at this point to realize the final interpretation of your original concept/vision. How you do it is up to you. My processing work-flow starts by loading images in Adobe Lightroom, editing those images to focus on the images I want, the ones which best communicate the original concept I had. Those are further edited down and the finalists are exported to Photoshop for editing and compositing (if needed), whatever is needed before finishing and moving on to Deliverables. The final images are generally exported from Lightroom (even if heavily modified in Photoshop), primarily because last minute exposure tweaks, cropping, and adding watermarks is far easier in Lightroom than in Photoshop. Depending on your output destination color management is either irrelevant (like to the web) or essential (like for printing).
Website, Flickr, print, Flash movie, printed tattoo, however the image gets from your computer to your audience/client is the Deliverable. Here, beyond sizes, formats, and possibly printer and color profiles there’s not much to enhance or to dilute the vision conceived in the Concept stage. If the Concept-Production-Shooting-Processing stages were done well then the output will look great in any media. If you got lost somewhere between Concept and Processing and forgot to pack an extra flash, then the Deliverable might be lacking, it’s the culmination of everything which came before.
Here it was and now it’s not, a guide to conceptualizing and producing the fantastic images you want out of your digital life. You can be an engineer, naturally untalented Artist or a librarian, or anything else you can imagine to classify yourself, but if you recognize and follow a process or develop your own and stay true to the vision in your head (and pay attention to the details) the images will come out fantastic. Getting down to Brass Tacs, any project, whether scientific or artist can be thought of as the effective management of resources. You have models, locations, lighting equipment, etc. The job is simply to communicate a message/concept based off of those resources in the least painful way.