We have all heard that “real photographers get it right in camera.” Whether it is attached to some asinine argument about shooting RAW vs JPEG or a preachy lecture about the pitfalls of using anything but manual mode, there can be a lot of pressure to get perfect images right out of the camera. There can also be an apathetic tendency to just “fix it in post”. Both extremes have their downfalls and I have found that a balanced approach is essential for personal development and happiness.
I am just old enough to have survived the digital revolution, and there are certainly things that I remember quite fondly from the film age. Before I am branded as some neo-Luddite, I want to be clear that I do not envision myself ever returning to film for commercial work – the cost and convenience factor makes this implausible. But, I really love shooting film!
In many ways, shooting film was a much more streamlined workflow. Assuming that your film was being developed at a quality lab, much of the post-processing that now falls on the photographer was done by one of the minilab operators perched behind a Noritsu or Frontier. Even if you scanned and edited images in Photoshop as I did, I knew what film stock I liked – it had a native look close to what I wanted.
That really isn’t the case anymore. There have certainly been incredible advancements in the quality of images produced by modern digital cameras compared to my first D70, but I have yet to find the magic combination that mimics the simplicity of film’s workflow.
In the early days of my digital switch, I felt like I was starting over in photography. The foundational concepts still applied, but I found myself very frustrated that I could not get the same “look”. And out of that frustration, I developed an approach to help bridge the transition.
Frustration can kill creativity. My problem was not that I somehow forgot the fundamentals of photography, it was that I needed to grow into a better understanding of the current technological changes. I needed a system that would allow me room to screw up and figure things out – to grow. This approach has not only helped me, but for well over a decade I have used this same approach with my students to help them navigate their development.
Much like my students, I found that when I was growing as a photographer, I was much happier in my journey which encouraged further growth. It was cyclical.
My hope is that this may help reduce some of the pressure and stigma to allow the photographer to focus on creating substantive work, not whether they are “doing it right”. I have called this approach the 75, 85, 100 Rule, but “guideline” is probably a more appropriate term. Your numbers may look a little differently depending on how far along in your journey you are, but in my experience, these are a good starting point.
Get Your Photo 75% Right In Camera
Rangefinder and WPPI released a report in May of 2021 outlining several key metrics for the professional wedding market. While I recognize that not every reader is a professional photographer, is a professional wedding photographer, or wants to be a professional photographer at all, there was one key statistic that I believe holds true for our artform: we as photographers spend a lot of time behind the computer. In fact, this report found that 58% of respondents spend more time behind the computer than behind the camera with only 19% spending more time photographing.
Truthfully, I find the computer to be a soul-sucking mass of capacitors, integrated circuits, and black magic. I don’t really like editing, but the reality is that shy of farming it out and hoping the editor understands your vision, it’s part of our workflow.
The good news is that we do have some say in this! We get to choose how much editing needs to be done. I teach my students that every minute saved behind the computer is a minute freed to work with a new client or go sit under a tree – both are totally valid. My advice to them is to focus on a few simple things to get the image 75% right in camera.
1. Coverage is Everything
If you think you have shot enough, shoot more. Explore all angles of the subject – change the camera’s perspective. Try a different focal length and depth of field, check for dirty frame edges, and make sure your exposure, white balance, and critical focus are as close as possible. I know we have all looked at the collective images from a shoot and thought “if only I had…”. The best advice I might offer is to first ensure that you are shooting enough.
I don’t want anyone to hear the spray and pray approach being advocated here, you are working a camera, not a machine gun, but an extra 10 thoughtful frames might save a lot of time in the edit. Slow down, assess the subject and your shooting; look for the shots you’ve missed.
2. Learn to Love a Color Checker
Yes, it is an additional step to create and apply color profiles. But! An extra fifteen seconds to grab a shot of a color chart might pay off big down the road when you get to editing. It doesn’t have to be from Calibrite, but invest in a good IT8 chart, it’s worth your time and money.
3. Be OK with “Close”
The goal is always growth and personal betterment. I want my images to be as close to client-ready as possible, especially when the client is me. However, I firmly believe that there is a tie between the quality of the work produced and the enjoyment of producing the work. When we become so focused on everything being perfect, it can lead to self-doubt and procrastination – it often stunts our ability to be creative.
I am not promoting the “meh, I’ll fix it in post” mentality, get it as close as you can to your vision. If the closest you can get to your vision is 75% right now, give yourself permission to be happy with that.
Get Final Images Selected and 85% Completed
It can always be a little overwhelming when I first look at a group of images that need to be edited, so in this stage, my hope is to not focus on the final, envisioned product, but rather on the bones of the image. Getting the final images selected and 85% completed is the end goal at this point. In whatever digital asset manager that you love; Lightroom, Bridge, Darktable, ACDSee, Capture One, whatever – approach these files in as detached of a form as possible.
Detached is hard. This can be the biggest struggle for artists. We were there, we know what we saw, we want to love what we shot and share that with others – we want them to feel what we felt. Those moving moments are the thing that keeps me picking up the camera. The problem comes when we lose objectivity. We need to assess the images for what they are, not how we felt in the moment.
1. Scan for Impactful Images
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 monitor, that might be different for you – find a size that lets you get an idea of each image without getting distracted by the details.
My approach is pretty simple, if I don’t like the thumbnail, I probably won’t like the full-size image. Look for the images that make an impact, that jump out to you. You won’t love all of the images that you shot, and that’s ok. Mark the images that catch your attention in whatever way works. I use the rating stars where one star indicates an image worth looking at further. Work quickly, if you have multiple images of the same composition, mark them all.
2. Look for Batch Edit Opportunities
Once I have made my rough selections, I start looking for opportunities to batch edit. Maybe there are 10 shots in a row that are a little under-exposed, or the white balance is off. This is the stage where the color checker comes in handy. Whether applying a camera profile or pulling the correct color temperature this tool can make quick work of baseline problems. If you work with presets, this is a good time to apply them. Whatever you do, remember, we aren’t going for perfect, just picking the low-hanging fruit.
3. Make Final Selections
At this point, I typically have a decent idea of which images I want to proceed with and will rate them with a 3 or 4. Now is a good time to compare similar shots for critical focus or compositional differences and do individualized edits. I may also go back and look at surrounding images that did not make the first round to ensure that there isn’t something that I missed. Remember, we are still not doing final edits, just looking for a rough 85% completed.
Reflect and Make Final Edits to 100%
Why stop at 85%? Once I have culled the images, I like to take some time to think about what I have shot, be honest with myself, and write down areas that I need to work on improving. It is also important to make note of things that worked well and might be worth doing again. There is always something that I find to make note of, constantly re-evaluating is the best way to grow.
2. Final Edits
In whatever software you feel most comfortable with, this is the time to make your final edits. I am a firm believer in the role environment plays in productivity. For me, I typically work at home with plenty of coffee listening to music from brain.fm. The “music” can be a little weird at first, but I have really found this to be helpful over the last few years, give it a shot if you haven’t tried it!
Some of my work is just for me, some work might be for clients. Whatever the case may be, keep in mind the end product and try and work in one final push. I have found that my edits are more consistent, and I can edit much more efficiently this way.
3. Reflect… Again
Once you are done, sit back, take a deep breath, and think about what lessons can be taken away. Give kudos where due, but do not be afraid to be honest with yourself. Look for patterns both good and bad and work on growing.
What if you can’t get your images to 100%? That’s ok! What if it takes you five hours to get an image even close to 100%? That’s also ok! Every photographer has room to grow, to expand their understanding, to branch out creatively.
If you need to edit a little more than other photographers at this stage, fine! Be kind to yourself, and don’t allow the expectations of others to decide how you work. I love when steps two and three are short, I enjoy shooting more than editing. Maybe you are on the opposite end of the spectrum, that is also ok. We should allow room for each artist to pursue photography in the way that works for them. To focus on the joy of photography, not the dogma of some photographers.
You may not use the same weightings, the same number of steps, or any of this. The thing I hope you take from this is that you should develop a system that works for where you are and encourages you as you reach for where you want to be.
Image credits: Stock photo from Depositphotos