Capture to Edit: Methodolgy

Photographers each have differing methods of working, but I have elsewhere on the site considered the capture process from planning a shoot including the visualisation of image(s) on site but have not detailed working method back at base. This is the point where processing, editing and refining the image occurs.

If you refer to other articles, you will know my ethical views regarding image capture; I believe the image should be visualised at the point of capture, though the file created can then be adjusted and refined.

It is of immense concern that with the ease of altering photographs and frequent use of ‘photoshopping’ that public confidence has waned. This is ethically potentially disastrous to the profession, digital art masquerading as photography can undermine the very nature of the intent of photography as an art, so we all have a responsibility to take the high ground in order to gain the trust of the viewers of our work.

To paraphrase a number of sources, there should be no intent to mislead the intended audience by deception of the image content or construction, or indeed, with misleading captions.

I do not create composites from several images, I do not slip in new skies or alter the character of either the vegetation or lighting, but I am happy to enhance tonal values, dodge and burn, or clone out minor extraneous pieces of litter. The creation of composites becomes digital art, and am more than happy to see and admire such work, but I do not feel they constitute a ‘photograph’ because they do not fulfil the ethical notions of capture as described above. Indeed, if we see the photographer as being part of a ‘profession’, the viewer’s trust in the recording of images is dependent on the photographer declaring significant manipulation beyond usual editing. This applies equally to landscapes as to reportage and documentary, as well as fashion pictures that can inappropriately mislead the viewer.

Susan Sontag wrote that ‘a photograph [can] pass for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened’; Roland Barthes said that ‘every photograph is a certificate of presence’.

Of course, no photograph is entirely ‘truth’; the very act of placing a subject in a frame is the first stage of taking a subset of our world that we are communicating. Richard Avedon said ‘all photographs are accurate; none of them is the truth’. I think the point is made that the accomplished artist is responsible, guiding the viewer in the communication of idea and process, but never oversteps the line of misleading. Indeed, many composites can be viewed as cheating their audience by creating misunderstanding.

Following capture of the image I follow a normal sequence of decisions and processes. To describe the procedure I assume here of a shoot consisting of say, 80 images in two nearby locations. Following constitutes a summary of the process:

On site/location:

Capture (attempting to expose and compose the subject matter according to the visualisation of the image). I shoot invariably in RAW, but sometimes create in-camera JPGS as backups on the second memory card.

If time allows I shoot in either of these ways:

  1. Meter in manual mode for the most important area of the image, and keep that object/person’s exposure in the intended brightness of the range of tones to be recorded; or
  2. A shortcut to the Zone system: I meter in manual mode for the brightest part of the image that I wish to retain detail and then increase the exposure by two stops to place that bright part of the image (usually) in Zone VII; or
  3. Meter in aperture priority – meter as above, use the AE button before recomposing the image for the shot

I may make adjustments depending on the subject – do I want it high key or low key, contrasty or not, saturated or pastel, etc.

As an example take the instance of a shoot inside a cathedral where exposure is complex because choices may have to be made: do you expose to render the tones of the (bright) stained glass windows or the (dark) stone interior? When you see inside, do you appreciate the structure and architecture or do you appreciate the gradations of light?

These files (jpgs from the camera) were exposed at -0.3EV and -1.3EV respectively. The latter exposes the windows beautifully but the stonework is lost:

Without a tripod I will frequently set a higher ISO (up to 1600) AND set compensation to underexpose by between 1/3rd stop even or up to 2 stops depending on the subject intended. The result may well be under-exposure at this point, but then increasing exposure in the RAW converter at the editing stage. The effect is that the extremes of contrast can be better controlled – this is akin to Ansel Adams reducing exposure but increasing development time.

As well as modifying the verticals, the -1.3EV RAW file has here been processed to more closely replicate what I saw, but of course my own eyes adjust to the varying intensity of light in different parts of the image:


At base:

  • Copying/backing up of source files
  • Brief assessment of files prior to RAW conversion. In the current scenario I would probably group the files into the two locations and/or more if there are significant lighting changes.
  • Batch convert RAW files of the first group in DxO. (I have a saved custom process, but I may further tweak contrast and micro-contrast and overall tonal values are adjusted or If I feel colour temperature is not right. As a warning, many RAW converters offer numerous options for contrast/clarity/vibrance/contast/micro-contrast/vibrancy/et al, but it is very easy to over-do editing at this stage.
  • Batch convert the second or subsequent groups

Incidentally, I prefer to order my photographs in folders in Explorer to my liking immediately when I copy files to the computer. Some photographs I place on Alamy, but keyword those specific files using Alamy’s systems… I do not want to keyword twice!… hence I do not use Lightroom for this purpose.

  • I then edit the individual files I like the best, usually is Photoshop (I have an earlier CS than the current rented version), but am currently experimenting with Affinity and also the beta for MacPhun’s Luminar. I may copy the most promising files to another folder to work on. I always work on a copied file so that I can always return to the original in case of disaster! Various programs have various strengths
  • Consider what is most important in the photograph and consider how to emphasise or lead the eye according to your intentions. Also consider avoiding distracting elements. If I have deliberately underexposed (as in the example above) I will make an adjustment at this point, before continuing processing of the image in the following (usual) order:
    1. Crop
    2. Reduce noise
    3. Retouch – remove dust spots, distracting small objects
    4. Optional: mono conversion
    5. Global tonal adjustments – this should be done before colour changes because colour saturation can change. For example, highlights easily turn more blue in bright sunshine when darkened
    6. Global colour corrections
    7. Local adjustments – dodging, burning

For interest, this shot is another interpretation of the -1.3EV capture, this time controlling exposure values across the frame. The lens used was the Samyang 8mm, causing bent columns, not easily bent back in software:


You may well have gathered my penchant for the oeuvre of Ansel Adams. Though I personally have the control and thus did not consciously work with his methods in the days of film – I did have an awareness that when I processed the negatives, there was a subsequent impact when adjusting the positive print. In colour I knew the initial intent for exposure had to be precise – indeed, I failed in my understanding of colour negative processing and printing, but because I usually shot slides I gravitated to Cibachrome. Cibachrome prints were wonderfully vibrant and glossy, and had a greater latitude thankfully.

Adams has described his methods in great detail in his literature and undoubtedly there are equivalences in modern digital processing of RAW files. The example above includes a deliberate reduction in contrast, that may result in increased noise, but then there may be applied a new tonal curve to realise the intent at capture. Mention should be made of the open source image editor ‘Lightzone’ that maps tones into zones to help the photographer in realising his image.

If you want to explore this software, it is downloadable at . It is also important that your camera is close to ‘invariant’ – to which I have referred in another article on invariance and high ISO. My articles ‘Visualisation of the Image’ and ‘The Zone System’ also support the methods I describe here.