Making Sketches

Boat and reflections on a lake

I am changing my perception of how I work. I used to view myself as going out and “making pictures”. Now I see myself more as going around making sketches.

What is a sketch?

I like words, and I like to know where they come from and what they really mean – their etymology. I know, I’m a geek. You don’t have to tell me. Here, let me prove it: “sketch” may be derived from several words from Dutch, German, Italian, or Latin, but the root seems to be Greek, σχέδιος – schedios. It means something temporary or done off hand. Wow, see. Geek but proud of it.

One of the most understood meanings of “sketch” is a “rough drawing intended to serve as the basis for a finished picture“. This had been an established process of artists for centuries.

Most painters begin their studies doing sketches and continue using sketch as an important tool the rest of their career. It is like a serious musician doing scales and simple practice every day. It continues to develop the eye/hand/muscle memory/mind. Plus, sketches are a tool for artists to capture a form or expression or gesture, to work out a plan for a piece, even to just record something they want to remember. Here is a sketch by Manet, 1878:

Even when doing a final work, artists often sketch the composition on the canvas before starting. They then have a guide to follow as they overpaint the intended image. The final product may depart from the sketch, but it was shaped by it..

Image capture as a sketch

How does this apply to photography? I am starting to think of my original captured frames as sketches. But why? I spent a career learning how to set up and perfectly execute an image capture. Why change that?

It is a concession to reality and a psychological tool. Sometimes (well, often to be honest) when I load my images into Lightroom, I am disappointed with them. They just did not capture the scene the way I saw it, or at least the way I wanted it to be.

The limitations of photography are well known. It is a process of trying to map a vibrant, dynamic, 3 dimensional world with action happening everywhere to a static 2 dimensional representation. No matter how good a camera and lens is, it is a woefully limited process.

Now I am reframing the problem. Rather than being disappointed and beating myself up for not having a portfolio image appear right out of the camera, I say “that is a good sketch of what I perceived. What do I have to do to develop the idea and complete it?”

Starting point

Giving myself permission to see my original image as a starting point rather than an end is a big deal. If I’m not happy with it, it wasn’t a failure, it was a sketch. The sketch probably captured some important aspects of the scene that attracted me. Now what do I have to do to proceed?

Maybe everything I need is there in the RAW file and it just needs to be manipulated to bring it out. After seeing the reality of the sketch on screen, maybe I think about the scene differently now. Maybe only a part of the scene I photographed is really the picture.

Sometimes the sketch can be developed into a picture. Maybe it helped me understand what I wanted and how to frame and capture it. Maybe it proved to be a dead end. In any case, it was worthwhile. I took a chance to explore an idea. If it didn’t work out, no big deal. I was not heavily invested in it. It was not a failure.

But when it does work out, what a great feeling.


I now always view any unprocessed RAW image as a sketch. It is, at best, a starting point. No unprocessed RAW image could ever make one of my portfolios. It is incomplete out of the camera. And I have a really good camera.

The camera is a piece of technology. It captures pixels. It does an incredible job of doing what it is designed to do, but it does not have my eye. The camera cannot know what is important to me. It does not know where the emphasis or interest is in the collection of pixels. I have to provide that.

I have to provide the color correction to achieve the look I want, which may not be a completely accurate version of the live scene. I have to provide the tone mapping to achieve the relationships I want between the parts of the composition. I have to provide the level of sharpening (or un-sharpening) to get the effect I want.

Even at the mechanical level of pixel-pushing there are a huge number of choices and corrections I must make. This is necessary to bring the sketch along toward becoming a picture.

Turning into art

The basic corrections and adjustments are great and fun and make a huge difference in the look of the file. But I have a problem here going forward and moving from a decently done image to art. Here, viewing it as a sketch helps me.

A sketch is obviously rough and incomplete. No one would consider it the final image. Calling my images sketches helps emphasize to me that this is true in photography, too. Don’t stop with a “nice image”. It has to go further. It has to be special, different. It has to tell a story or make a difference.

The raw material may be there, but it is probably not finished yet.

By still viewing it as a sketch, it is easier to give my creativity permission to drastically modify what is there on screen. Does the intended mood require it to be darkened to an extreme? Do it. Are there distracting elements that take away from the focus of the image? Remove them or crop the picture. Is it a tone-oriented composition that would work better in black and white? Make it so.

Sometimes the sketch can’t be developed into the intended final image. This is still good! The sketch proved valuable. It helped me discover what I wanted to do. It was not a failure. Maybe I need to go back with my vision clarified, and shoot it again. It is not always possible, but sometimes it can be done. If I can’t shoot it again I can file away the experience so I can look for similar situations in the future and do a better job of recognizing what I really want to do.

In either case, I would not have gotten to the point I did without having a sketch to work with to clarify my vision of the subject.

I shoot sketches now.

Have you tried looking at your work like this? Did it help you get to better results? Share your experience with us by commenting here.