When Do You Make a Picture?

When do you make a picture? Have you thought about that? On the surface, it seems an ambiguous or simplistic question. I have been asking myself this, though.

Time, place?

I could be flippant and say I make pictures Tuesdays in the canyons west of my home. That is not true, though. I capture images at least 5 days a week, in general. And I make pictures most places I go. There is no special place for making images.

Looking for things to satisfy my curiosity is not about a time or place. Even traveling to an “exceptional” destination is a special case of just making images wherever I am, of whatever interests me, whenever I have a chance.

The click

OK, so you could say I make a picture whenever I click the shutter of the camera. While it is true that the shutter release is the event that causes the recording of the data in front of the lens, I have written before about sometimes needing to think about and process the data before I am done.

When I go out shooting and come back with 200 images on my memory card, does that mean I have made 200 “pictures”? No, but it is a subtle semantic distinction. My answer would be that I have 200 new possible pictures at this point. However, I am going to go through them, cull out the defective ones, decide which of the duplicates I want to keep, and then try to decide if there is any merit in the ones that are left.

When all is done, maybe I would end up with 0-10 that are worth doing something with. Your mileage may vary. Mine does, too, depending on time and place and my mood. Note that I still have to do things with them. In my mind, they are not “pictures” yet, since I am not ready to show them to anyone.

Post processing

So, of course I have to post process the ones I have kept so far. This may only involve simple exposure processing, especially corralling highlights and shadows, color correction, and contrast adjustment. Typically there may be some spotting and minor blemish removal.

At this point I “may” have a picture. For straightforward scenes, this may be enough. I am done. It may be beautiful or interesting and no more than the literal scene before the camera. A lot of pictures are just that.

Deciding what it is and it is going to be

But not always. Sometimes an image is trying to tell me that it is something more. It may take a while for me to hear it. This often manifests as a discomfort I can’t quite identify. A suspicion that I am missing something.

When this happens during the initial culling process, I usually keep the frames I am struggling with. I might not be able to articulate why, but I know I’m not ready to eliminate them yet.

Even after the image is processed and is a nice picture on its own, sometimes it keeps trying to talk to me. Deep down inside, I know I have not understood or brought out all it means to me.

Sometimes I realize I have been capturing images of a certain subject or mood. I may recognize a theme that is emerging. Recognizing it helps me identify and clarify a truth I was not consciously aware of. This could put me on track to follow the idea for a while as a project. With these nagging images in context, I learn more about why they were talking to me. All seems different. Sometimes I don’t even need to modify the images more. Just understanding what I was feeling may be enough.


And sometimes I recognize an image is an interesting piece, but not complete in itself. I will often file these away as raw material, expecting to revisit it is the future and decide what it needs to say what it wants to say.

There are times when it comes to me and I know that these pieces have to fit together in a certain way to create a new image. This can be satisfying, fulfilling, exciting. It is a true creative journey.

It is time consuming but often very rewarding to spend sessions in Photoshop playing with various combinations of pieces and parts, doing “what if?” games. These often end up in “failure”. Failure in the sense that I did not create a new picture. But it is seldom actually failure because I explored ideas and tested new things. It often sparks new ideas for the future.

Disconnected from capture

This comes around to an idea I have presented before. Sometimes I have to let an image age before it becomes whole. It can take me an indeterminate time to recognize what the image wants or needs to be.

Images are raw material until I become comfortable with how they should be expressed and presented. This is a separate creative process from image capture and a necessary part of how I make a picture. It is not until the end of this journey that I feel I have a picture to share with the world.

Today’s image

The image with this article is a minor example of what I describe. I was fortunate to find this scene late one winter afternoon in what I considered an unlikely place in the back country of northern Oklahoma. I’m a sucker for lone bare trees silhouetted against the sky.

I liked it, but I know it was not “done”. A few months later I added the birds, because I felt they built and reinforced the mood of the image and added some dynamic interest. Just today when I came back to it again after about another 6 months, I saw I wanted to eliminate some distracting foreground elements, crop it to emphasize the sky, and make it overall higher contrast and more saturated. I’m good with it – for now. 🙂

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