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To Process now......or later...

Just some random thoughts on the way I usually process an image later rather than as soon as I have captured it.


I guess for me it might well stem from the fact that the first 15 years of my photography "journey" were exclusively using film cameras ranging from a plethora of 35mm SLR cameras to my current two 4x5 cameras. (And yes I want an Intrepid 8x10 and would already have one if my 4x5 lenses had 8x10 coverage !!)

This means I am well used to making images and them being in the camera for a while before sending them off to get processed and more recently, having enough sheets exposed to justify the time it takes to mix chemicals , get the temperatures right , set-up the bathroom/ darkroom and then carry out the amazing process that brings the image to life.....on top of all that, I detest the scanning bit of the process and often delay that by .....years. I recently went through a box of 4x5 sheets and found about 300 sheets that I have tagged for scanning ....and never did.

I think also, for me there is a "state of mind" thing in some ways as I need to be in the mood for the image I am going to create when I start processing a file. There are days when the light I have photographed in the forest just doesn't inspire me to finish the image and other days where I wonder why I haven't finished it but ultimately I will get round to them all. This is why I may consider an image taken in 2019 to be in the "latest image gallery" now as I have only just completed it.

One of my biggest influences, certainly when I started was Ansel Adams and he of course has some very famous quotes that are commonly seen. The most important one to me in my recent work, and I will paraphrase, says that the negative is the score ( or the digital file straight from the camera ) and the print ( or the final image you show digitally ) is the performance. There is a lot of meaning within these simple words and I will describe what they mean to me.

When I go and make images using a large format camera and black and white film, I am in control of the entire process from exposure to print. Using the zone system for me is not a method to get the final image on film, it is a process (along with the way the negative will be developed ) that enables me to get the best possible negative from which to make the final image. It may seem obvious but has depth. On a negative with the correct processing you may get 9+ stops possibly of tonal detail , compressed or expanded depending on the processing and this enables a scan with more structure in the shadows and highlights. Once scanned this is your starting point and the print is the "performance" that you make from that negative. Obviously for digital the raw file (preferably) once out of the RAW processor and into for example Photoshop, this is the starting point, the score. I approach the exposure of the image with a digital camera in the same way I would a negative (up to a point) in that I am looking for the best possible starting point, rather than a file that is my intended finishing point. Rather than the zone system though I use "expose to the right" / occasionally bracket and never use "HDR" , but may bring shadow detail into an image using a blend from a lighter exposure. I suppose in a way that is HDR but not in the generally accepted way.

This means I am often faced with a file in Photoshop that I sometimes wonder why I exposed. What did I see? What was my final goal? I have started keeping notes of course to remind me of the final image I perhaps visualised but there are times where I just cant see where to get that final image, out of the starting point image. I think that maybe in the same way a sculptor may say that the figure was within the rock and he "merely" revealed it that sometimes that final image is in there and the mood needs to be right within me to attempt to reveal it.

I do consider my images to be true to the subject in that I don't add or take away things in the digital darkroom, but they are departures from reality without a doubt ! For a start they are black and white and 2D, they are not the subject they are images and in very many cases, and I am only really starting to recognise now, they have a lot of me in them in that they look the way I want them to and I want you to see the world the way I saw it , or rather the way I felt it. There are of course images in the galleries at this site that took very little work to be the way I wanted them but others that I have had to work quite hard to get them looking the way I want them to look. And I think the key here is to make them look the way you perceived things in the field.

By now you have probably realised I may start a blog on one subject and wander off the path a bit!

I find I create better finished images by leaving them a while, maybe this is to separate the subject from the image subconsciously? That is not to say that the subject is not vital, of course it is as that is what made me respond and need to make an image. Without that initial response to the subject then the making of an image becomes almost sterile for me. I have tried many forms of photography and all but the ones where I really respond and want to capture and show others what I saw and felt just don't bring me anything. I have a long dormant account at Alamy with a few images in it but have no real interest in making "stock" images. I try colour every now again, but the final result rarely moves me. (That is not to say that colour photography doesn't move me , there are many photographers I respect and revere who's images move me incredibly). But my colour images just don't convey what I am trying to say.

So, to summarise I generally leave the processing because it is almost ingrained from my film use to be doing so even when I am using digital. I find that the time allows me to look at the image I am creating and allows me to think of it as the image or the performance and not the subject. The response to the subject for me is vital and also automatic, it works for me or it doesn't and sometimes I am lucky. There are times where I stand and wait for the light I want because I know what it will do to the subject and other times where I am in the right place at the right time. I need to be in the mood for creating the finished , lets call it print because that ultimately is what I am thinking about when I press the shutter release.

The process is in my mind complex, because I want what I saw and felt to be conveyed in the performance !

Sometimes this can be a daunting and difficult job to attempt.

(A few years ago I found a blog or an article that showed the amazing difference between the "straight" print and the "performance" using Ansel Adams' - Moonrise over Hernandez image. Unfortunately I cant find that anymore but will link to a really nice article by Tim Mulcahy that looks at a similar subject. - I hope he won't mind ! )

Thanks for reading !


Future Blogs - (in no particular order)


Approaching a scene

4x5 developing

4x5 scanning

The books that gave me the most powerful insights (review)

The Ashness Bridge story and how I learned to turn the other way


86 views5 comments


Jun 08, 2021

Interesting reading all about your process John. This is especially so for me as someone who isn't trained in film photography (and like yourself and other landscape photographers is also deeply inspired by Ansel Adams).

I love how you explain how this medium permits control in a way that doesn't seem viable with digital cameras, though I could be wrong?

Can really relate your points about letting images sit awhile before returning to edits/images. Such practise really affords extra insight when seeing in new ways after a little time.

Thanks for sharing John!

Jun 08, 2021
Replying to

Hi Devina, Glad you enjoyed it and glad to hear the AA appreciation club is still prospering ! I once went to an exhibition in Oxford where his daughter I think had curated about 40 original prints printed by Ansel in his darkroom and no matter how you see them there is nothing like an up close look at the real things.

I think there is a parallel in what you can do with film wrt control and use of the zone system for exposure and development of film. I like the whole process of getting a really nice negative ( and I think I mentioned the scanning is a chore, but essential to get it right as well.) Exposin…


Jun 06, 2021

Interesting read John that had me nodding throughout. I often leave long periods between exposure and post-processing, particularly digital! That said I do regularly load a roll of film, expose, develop and scan it and then post an image or two online all on the same day, especially images for my ongoing picture-a-day challenge; I like to use as many film images as possible in my 365.

Back in 2018, I was using mainly digital then, I set up a filing system on my computer. On one drive were all my RAW files, and some scans, arranged in monthly folders with images going into the folder corresponding to the month they were originally taken/created. On another drive were folders fo…

Jun 06, 2021
Replying to

Hi Dave, it is interesting that you have a similar outlook ( at times anyway re "leaving it a while " ) and yes I guess it is true to say that the way the image eventually looks may be different to the initial thinking. For me it is very much a mood thing as well as a skill thing. Sometimes no matter how I try I can't get the greys to "sing" together and have to try again another day.

My turn to nod as my filing system is very similar with a major difference no doubt ( its current extreme clutteredness ( if that is a word )) . I have a similar system RAW FILES / WORK…


Jun 06, 2021

Interesting read John


(if this posts OK I will come back and rewrite what I originally tried posting!)

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