The Image Making Process

The idea of this blog post was to discuss the importance of the images the public don’t see, but which make up part of the process for the photographer. Inspired by a recent visit to a Willy Ronis exhibition in Venice and with a little example of my own, I also consider how shooting digitally may affect the process…

Who was Willy Ronis?

Willy Ronis was a French photographer well known for his street & social documentary photography. His work was chosen by Edward Steichen to be displayed in the 1953 ‘Work of Five French Photographers’ exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MOMA). Not long after, in 1957, he was awarded a Gold Medal at the Venice Biennale, this is one of the reasons his work is currently on display at the Casa dei Tre Oci in Guidecca. Amongst the 120 images on display there are also some of his contact print sheets & negatives which inspired this blog.

The Working Process

It’s always fascinating (I think!) to see the images that didn’t ‘make the cut’ so to speak. Looking at a set of negatives can start to reveal some of the working processes of the photographer and indeed the route to construction of certain images. Take this famous example below, in the text at the exhibition Ronis explains that he was alerted to the Gondolieri as their voices became audible to his left, he knew he would have one chance to make the image as they walked across the scene and ‘click’ there it was.

Image: Willy Ronis (1910-2009)

What’s clear in the contact sheet prints is that he’d been waiting here for at least a number of minutes watching various potential scenes unfold. This is one of six images made at that location, each one no doubt building to the ‘decisive moment’ which he chose as the ‘winning’ image from this scene. You see in the contact prints a change in exposure and also how the image needs some action on the right hand side to balance and impart energy, it changed the dynamic totally from just the ladies chatting with the child. He knew this of course and it was a matter of waiting for the characters to enter the scene accordingly.

There are however also examples of images where the moment was so fleeting that just one or two images were made, these are times where it’s now or never. In the image below (also in Venice) there were just two versions on the contact prints, the first with the girl heading out (as shown below) and the second with her returning.

Image: Willy Ronis (1910-2009)

In the second image, the girl is returning towards the street and her body is directly in line with the wooden support on the gangway. This is just one of the reasons why the first image (as shown) is stronger, because of the separation and balance of elements, but also perhaps because here she is heading somewhere, but we’re not sure where. It’s an extra element of intrigue, the beginning of a journey into a relative unknown, however brief.

Modern Relevance?

So, what does all of this have to do with anything we may be thinking about in our photography today? Well, firstly many of us now shoot digitally which has an affect on our ‘in-field’ processes. The ability to immediately assess an image on the live view or viewfinder review screen helps inform our aesthetic choices. For the film photographer it’s an expensive habit to shoot and re-shoot scenes without being able to quickly see the results. It does also depend what style of photography we might be shooting though.

For example, the street photographer is often waiting for a scene to unfold, for characters out of his/her control to enter the scene and to react accordingly. It’s a situation that may also apply to landscape photographers, we may be waiting for a change in weather or the flow of an incoming tide for example. All genres excel in the ‘optimal light’ for the scene and of course the craft is to make compositional sense and order out of whatever the elements in front of us may be.

My Approach

I wanted to try and show an example of how I approached a certain simple scene, with a bold graphical element, and how the images that I wouldn’t normally show contributed and brought clarity to the final image choice from that scene.

I know some photographers find they start wider and work in to find the detail, others (Bruce Percy being one I believe) start closer and gradually work wider if required. The idea of this second approach is that perhaps you have already identified the core essence of what attracted you to the scene and then you build upon it, as opposed to having to distil down to what you originally were attracted by. The ability to make the visual connection from eye to composition in camera will affect your approach here and I find that sometimes I go both ways.

The final image: A balance of extraction, colour and shape

The final image: A balance of extraction, colour and shape

The above image was made in Napier, NZ. There is an interesting modern sculpture that extends from the beach into the sea. I knew there were shapes, colours and flow to play with when I saw the structure and I’ve tried to retrospectively review my approach below, in the order the images were made.

The Process - In Order

As mentioned above, I often work closer in, further out, or indeed just throw around visual ideas as I’m exploring a scene. Some may argue this shows a lack of clarity in my approach or assessment of a scene, perhaps that I’m unclear on my purpose. However, I would argue that there are multiple ways to successfully interpret a scene or element and this working process is no different to a chef experimenting with flavours, seasoning or indeed presentation.

The images are displayed below in the order they were shot. One quick note: Yes, they are processed differently. At the time I was bouncing between colour or black and white and the camera I now use allowed me to explore that ‘live’ (which is something I’ve enjoyed adding to my process) but more on that later.

Image by Image - Developing Ideas

Image 1

IMAGE 1: This is the first image I shot of the structure. There were certain things going though my mind immediately that led me this way:

  • Part of the attraction was the shapes of the structure. I wanted to emphasise these by extracting and abstracting them from the overall construction.

  • There were various people stood under the structure, one way to cope with that is to simply remove them from the scenario.

  • The structure had a clean white colour and the high-key black and white treatment helped add something to the graphic design.

  • By extracting this segment there is some ambiguity about what we’re actually looking at and that forces us to look more at the shape and flow rather than tying it to an objective structure.

Image 2

IMAGE 2:

  • Stepping back I wanted to show the structure a little more clearly, essentially making it more obvious.

  • I chose to do this partly because of the cloud above which I thought added balance. Arguably it could work without but because the ‘legs’ of the structure are cut-off, I felt it needed a similarity in the sky (i.e. something else light) to potentially distract from the fact those legs don’t finish.

  • It doesn't really work. The clouds on the right hand side are a bit distracting and there’s not getting around the cut-off legs issue. What you can’t see is that there are still people there so I was compromising by framing higher into the structure.

Image 3

IMAGE 3:

  • Moving back in helps create a stronger image.

  • It’s let down by the small clouds near a couple of the lower legs, and perhaps the whole composition is too bottom right heavy.

  • Direct sunlight and blue skies vs white structures can work very well in B&W and it was good to preview this live using the viewfinder on the Nikon Z6.

  • Undoubtedly this closer approach leads to the next image (my preferred choice). The cogs are turning…

Image 4 (My Preferred Choice)

IMAGE 4:

  • You can see this is perhaps a result of the previous images where I’ve been trying to find the right balance between extraction and compositional flow.

  • In my opinion this is the best balanced compositionally because the visual ‘weight’ of the structure is evenly dispersed across the frame, with room to breathe in that bottom left corner.

  • In terms of colour vs B&W, although it was potentially B&W inspired you just can’t beat a clean blue and white combination. The contrast allows the structure to ‘pop’ out of the background.

  • The lack of any pesky clouds helps and I stood for a moment waiting for them to clear accordingly.

Image 5

IMAGE 5:

  • The postcard shot! This is more of a record shot for me. Finally everyone cleared away and so I took the chance to shoot the structure in its entirity.

  • The strong foreground shadow adds some depth and interest but fundamentally I find the extraction shots more visually interesting. This is because of the focus on flow, curves, lines and the semi-abstraction which adds some ambiguity.

The Process - Retrospectively Deconstructed

You may ask: Are you really thinking these things as you shoot? The answer is yes to some degree, and perhaps some is happening in my sub-conscious. It may seem indulgent to retrospectively project a thought process onto the images afterwards but I find that de-constructing your own images and shooting patterns is a helpful way to self assess and improve.

New Nikon Z6

New Nikon Z6

I mentioned earlier that shooting digitally informs my process. I’m happy shooting film sometimes but I do find that one major advantage of digital is the chance to immediately review and tweak compositions. Part of me is heavily influenced by the Precisionist style of work that I love to see, and that side fights with the looser, exploratory style I often employ when trying to unlock the compositional essence of a subject or scene.

The chance to not only see the composition in the required aspect ratio through the viewfinder, but also to see it in potential edited form (i.e. choose from multiple processed versions) on the new Nikon Z6 that I use has been a really helpful creative tool. It allows me to get as close as possible to the finished article at the moment of capture. This post is not about gear (although there will be a Z6 review coming soon), but gear here is relevant, it affects how I approach a subject and thus the final outcome.

In Summary

If you’ve made it this far then hopefully you’ve found some of this interesting. I would certainly recommend looking back at your shooting patterns. Perhaps start with your chosen ‘winner’ from one scene or another and then look at how you shot before and after that at the same scene/location. There could be some points to learn from and you may start to see common threads to how you approach things. Were you waiting for a different light? Did you change the composition? If so, why? Did you get stuck in one place? Could you have moved around more, explored a different angle? Were you thinking about the finished image? This de-construction may help you think about a new way, or indeed it may simply help you become more efficient in your shooting approach.

Pan Fried or Slow Roasted?

Forgive the slightly off the wall title of this blog, but I want to just mull over an observation about the different speeds at which photographers process and share their images. I wonder if you fall into the pan fried or slow-roasted variety?

After sharing both my Dolomiti Winter series across my various social media pages from April-June I got a couple of messages and comments about how they weren't quite 'in season'! It was all light hearted jest and perfectly fair to say but it reminded me how many of us operate at different speeds not just in the field, but with relevance to this blog, in our post processing, curation and publishing of images. 

Image from DOLOMITI II Collection

Pan Fried

On the one hand I see images processed and posted from photographers within minutes or hours of shooting. The weekly competitions run by various companies and social groups on Twitter/FB etc no doubt encourage this quick turnaround but I know plenty of photographers at all levels who actually prefer to work this way.

My good friend and colleague Paul Sanders generally prefers this 'quick release', and it's not just about the processing and sharing but it reflects how he shoots generally. The focus is very much on him reacting and responding to the landscape around him emotionally, as such he wants the edits to be as fresh as possible to really capture the spirit of the moment. There are exceptions where he's worked on longer series of work but that has tended to be a rarer approach for him.

Paul posted this at the time with the following text: "Just because something or someone looks ruined it doesn’t mean they aren’t beautiful"

I was with Paul at the time of this image and know he released it later that day. It got me thinking about this topic generally and realising that it's perfectly ok for each photographer to have their own approach - you have to work in the way that best suits you, as long as you can explain why it best suits you ;)

There can be commercial requirements to share images in a timely manner, for example you may be leading a workshop during that week and as such it's relevant to put something out at the time. However, it's commonly not about that and Paul is by no means the only highly respected professional who works in this way. It creates a sense of raw energy, spontaneity and truth in images for the viewer and for the artist. It doesn't mean you can't go back and re-assess images for later prints or books etc but it does perhaps free your mind of carrying around what I'm going to call 'image baggage'.

Slow Roasted

I must admit I'm firmly a slow roasted kind of guy. The Dolimiti Winter series were shot over a 3 year period and I decided to wait until they were curated into a couple of sets before letting any of them 'out' into the big wide world. I'm currently working on a series that has been 12 months in the making and this is both good and bad. I lie awake at night thinking of how the series may be curated, mulling over images and the meanings, and I'll go through ups and downs of really liking the work and other days wanting to delete it all! It can also make producing other work difficult because you have that aforementioned 'image baggage' getting in the way.

The argument is that if you tend to think more in collections or projects then this slow roasting is perhaps a better idea for many. It does sometimes mean that many images never see the light of day publicly though because they become non-starters, but I'll be covering that in another blog coming soon :)

Image from upcoming new work

Image from upcoming new work

In Summary

A mental distance from the image created by time away from it can perhaps let you have a more critical eye on the composition and processing. I like others often do this over two or three passes over the work. The time away may also let you shake off some of the personal background that was associated with making the image...if indeed you want to! Perhaps some photographers don't want to loose that immediate connection that helps them process it in the most truthful way to their freshly experienced moment.

There is no right or wrong, only different approaches that suit different personalities. I'd be interested to hear from you in the comments below if you're one way or the other, or perhaps a bit of both and why. 

There can sometimes be commercial reasons for me to speed up my 'digesting time' - If a client is waiting for an image, or set of images there can be deadlines but in my personal work I try as much as possible to give the work space to breathe, time for me to re-check processing and pull it all together slowly. I'll often print images and leave them around my home office for a few weeks for me to let them seep in. 

The short answer is that however the proverbial image is 'cooked', the main thing is that it tastes great and the chef enjoyed 'cooking' it...the method and journey to the diner is of secondary importance.

Aspect Ratios - Overview

In this blog I use one image and demonstrate its interpretation through a variety of aspect ratios. You can even place your vote on which you prefer at the bottom of the blog! 

At a later date I'm going to write a more detailed blog on each aspect ratio with various examples...

I was recently out leading a workshop with my friend and colleague Paul Sanders on the Dorset coast. We had a lovely group of clients with us who'd got in touch originally through 'The Togcast Podcast' that we host and we ended up running a small weekend event for them (ps If you'd like to do this as well please do get in touch). As ever it was a mix of helping to inspire people with different locations, varying conditions and also talking them through different ways to approach a scene based on our experiences. 

On this occasion we spent some time discussing different aspect ratios. It was quite interesting that although some of the clients had tried different aspect ratios in the post-processing stage, usually it was actually more about cropping to remove distracting elements than setting an aspect ratio specifically. None of them had really used their in-camera live view aspect ratios when out in the field with a view to interpreting and composing a scene differently at the point of capture. I would reflect that 99% of my landscape shooting is not done at 3:2. I've found this is just what suits me and each to their own (all the usual caveats etc) but I think there are various reasons why I've gone this way:

  • I have used a couple of film cameras for a number of years that offer a 1:1 view through the glass, part of me is simply used to 'seeing' in that way
  • Undoubtedly I've been influenced by some of the photographers whose work I have admired (and still do!) over the years
  • With my compulsive search for order in compositions I've found certain aspect ratios lend themselves more easily to balance (for my eye)
  • I strongly believe that there are certain visual elements and shapes that are commonly more suited to different aspect ratios
  • It's a creative and effective way to accentuate certain themes within a scene

The Scene & Motivation

It was a muted day on the Jurassic Coast and there were lovely pastel colours in the sky and the clouds were blending into the horizon nicely. Looking out to sea there was a sense of just drifting out to infinity and so my initial inspirations were to create an ordered, tonally muted, simple composition to complement the peaceful view we were experiencing and to highlight the interesting (and fairly delicate) textures in the cloud and use the loan boat as a source of scale.

The image is neither here nor there for me but I did think it made for a good example...

1:1 Aspect Ratio (As Shot)

Commonly I walk round with my camera set to 1:1 and use it in Live View mode. It has become my 'go-to' and that brings it's own dangers. It's easy to become reliant on something and use it as a safety blanket, this can lead to your images becoming repetitive and also it can limit (or at least stifle) your creative eye. However, on this occasion I was quite sure that a 1:1 square would complement the scene nicely. When shooting in a very minimalist style the square aspect ratio can be a good option as it's equally balanced shape brings a natural sense of order. Also the story in this image is not a front to back, or left to right narrative - more on this later in the other aspect ratios! In the square you can leave a good amount of space and it can work well with straight horizontal or vertical lines such as the horizon here.

I find that a rough 80/20 rule can work well for horizon placement in a square if it's an image that has a simple horizon and not much else. This can work both ways; you may have a more interesting foreground that you wish to highlight and a flat sky in which case you can push that horizon way up on a square without it feeling cramped like it would in 3:2 or many other aspect ratios.

5:4 Aspect Ratio 

I really love 5:4 in many situations (although perhaps not here). If you're a square fan generally then you'll find that 5:4 is a great addition to your arsenal. It is generally much better at coping with scenes where a more vertical story needs to be told. For example if you have an element that people are used to seeing in an up/down state visually: high waterfalls, trees, certain buildings, people etc. It can also be a better way of letting the eye 'travel' through an image if you're using a foreground element to guide the viewer into the scene, think about a path into a woodland or a rock into a seascape etc. The slightly more vertical shape of 5:4 vs 1:1 is often more complementary to those scenarios. It comes down to how you want the viewer to travel through the image.

In this situation for me it doesn't add anything to the square. We're just seeing more sky and it's making the boat seem too tiny (it's probably too tiny in all of these but that's all the more reason not to exacerbate things!). 

One minor annoyance is that Canon don't offer this aspect ratio in their live view options, the closest is 4:3 so if you're looking to use 5:4 start with 4:3 and either get used to knowing how much it will crop to at 5:4 or just embrace 4:3, it's pretty nice as well ;)

16:9 Aspect Ratio 

This is one of my more commonly used aspect ratios. If we refer back to my comment about the directional narrative of a scene then I would say that 16:9 often works really well for scenes where there is a left to right flow (or perhaps right to left - thats a blog for another day!). For example a distant set of peaks with fluctuating heights where the story is about the line of peaks not the foreground. Or perhaps a longer lens compression of a rolling countryside scene. Anything where you want to show lines, flow, rhythm from a left to right point of view. Obviously because this aspect ratio is very short and wide it doesn't tend to be great if you're wanting to lead the viewer in from the bottom of the scene as discussed in the 5:4 section.

It can also work well with minimalist scenes if you're trying to show a wide expanse, think of some of the great cinematic uses of 16:9 as a format at the movies. I particularly enjoyed a scene in the latest James Bond film 'Spectre' where they had a train snaking in left to right across the scene, or think of the classic American mid-west shots of the impressive rock stacks and the sense of grandeur and open space it brings.

In our example scene on the Jurassic Coast above I would say this 16:9 is an option, it does add a certain obvious width which can create a feeling of space and expanse but perhaps due to the simplicity of the elements I actually prefer our next option if we were looking to go wide...

16:7 Aspect Ratio 

If you're going to go wide, go really wide ;) Sometimes (just sometimes) the 16:7 is a great option. Obviously it has a very panoramic feel and the same suggestions apply about it suiting left to right compositions. Often it can feel a little too compressed though if you have any jagged peaks or elements too close to the top and bottom. In fact this is true of 16:9 as well, I find that leaving a little room top and bottom is beneficial to let the scene breathe, otherwise it will feel crammed in. If there is a fair amount going on in a scene I usually find 16:9 works better but it's worth experimenting with yourself. Use the 16:9 in live view and cover over the top and bottom to see if the scene can take stretching even further. Bear in mind that 16:7 images when shared on the web (especially via social media) can loose impact because they just feel small. They're best shown large, and/or printed large.

In this scene I actually prefer the 16:7 to 16:9, perhaps because it's so simple and when we think of a horizon it is of course naturally a horizontal element, as such giving it an aspect ratio that enhances that element tends to work. It adds to the sense of scale of the boat being out at sea alone, more than the vertical aspect ratios which just gave us more sky, which whilst you could argue that also gives scale, it's worth remembering it's a boat not a plane! It belongs on the water and as such that is the element we perhaps need to highlight more with this elongated horizontal aspect ratio.

3:2 Aspect Ratio 

I'll be completely honest and say that putting the image into 3:2 was the reason for this blog being created. Imagine the horror, shock and surprise when I found I actually quite liked it! There is a good balance between sky, sea, the use of the boat, a sense of space and expanse. 

It reminded me that we can all too easily fall into our 'routine' when out shooting. Using the same ideas, techniques and visual strategies can be comfortable for us but commonly it can limit our creativity. This applies to people who only ever shoot in 3:2 and it applies to others like myself who have maybe found another safety blanket.

In Summary

This blog is not about which aspect ratio is best for you, for any one scene or indeed necessarily even for this scene. I wanted to try and give some pointers about when you could consider using certain aspect ratios to enhance your compositions. Be it to introduce more flow from bottom to top, or left to right. Perhaps you want to really simplify and emphasise graphic lines and shape, whatever the scene the point is to consider WHY you're attracted to it and HOW you can use your composition to accentuate and highlight the spirit and flow of the image. It's far more beneficial to use these aspect ratios at the point of capture than to apply them after the fact.

ps - I was going to go into the use of that boat and show you some with boat and without boat, but that's another blog for another day! In the meantime just cover it with your thumb and see what you think!

Your Choice

Which aspect ratio do you prefer for this image?
1:1
5:4
16:9
16:7
3:2
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