Photo Editing: Respecting Context

If you are not interested in photography, you can safely skip this post. I have many drafts forthcoming on other topics, if only one of them would ripen in my mind.

I have written more generally: On the Usefulness of Photography, and some notes about my Photography Workflow.

There is no clever formula for photo editing. Like most things in life, the harder you look for absolutes, the less likely you are to find them. Instead, the important skill is that you cultivate a sensitivity for the context.

How do you gain such a sensitivity? First by example, then by simply blundering through. Many crafts can only be codified by practical experience, and photography is no different. I will give some examples here from my own eye, but ultimately it is up to you to try things, and come back to them. See what you like and still like.

As always, if you’re new to photography, you should resist the urge to edit too obsessively. Instead, focus on finding interesting subject matter (and understanding just what that is), developing your eye for composition, and (if you like) getting into a workflow for sharing your work. Editing has always been a major component of photography, but these skills are more important than producing the best possible edits.


Now let’s see.

In Malta:

Weathered cliffs over the Mediterranean have a feeling that you can respect by weathering the photo itself. It feels sensible to lower the saturation of everything but blue, and the photo will accept a significant amount of grain on its surface. Instead of very crisp clouds, this gives a sensation of movement, enhancing the feeling that the photo is not only a scene but a certain time of day that is going by. The result is, I think, something more dreamlike than the original photograph. It is closer to the feeling of being there.


Saint-Sulpice, Paris:

It would be a mistake to add grain on almost any photo that contained paintings. The glory of detail, and handiwork if your photo is close enough, belongs to the artist you are photographing. This photo needs no lowering of contrast, maybe it calls for a slight increase: The strict light made from the windows adds to the environment.

In thinking hard about our subject matter, we should think about why we took the photo at all. It is a very different reason than our coastline photo. Here we want to be careful to respect what the painters and architects of this cathedral wished to convey, and how they wanted us to feel. This is also apparent in my composition: The angle should feel like you are looking up, just like the artists wanted you to do in person.

In general you should try to respect the artist’s or subject’s intentions and nature. Art Nouveau should feel a little playful. Brutalism should feel brutal. Stone churches have some of their austerity reflected in the picture.


Looking over Lake Hallstatt (Hallstätter See), Austria. Let’s see a before/after:

Post editing:

I probably overdid this, but it’s a good example of where you might want to really increase contrast.

Here, the camera has not done enough to match the feeling of being there (misty, mysterious, imposing, lonely). In trying to capture the range of light, the digital camera has perhaps washed out the scene, so the first thing I want to do is add more darkness back in, perhaps well past reality, until only the lightness of the clouds and the mansion are preserved. This gives both a more powerful presence, and the added contrast gives the scene more dimension. I have additionally fussed with the colors, making the greens more myrtle-hued. Even if this is overdoing it, the scene felt imposing to look upon, and I wished to grant the viewer the same mood.

Since the cloud, tree tops, and mansion details are a significant part of the presence, we probably shouldn’t add any grain.

Here in the mountains north of Thaur, Austria:

There are so many details in the mist, and the mist itself quite pregnant with its own mood, that it is best to leave it alone. I increase the contrast and shadows only to make the foreground details easier to ignore, to draw the viewer forward.


One final before/after. To get the real effect, it is probably best to let each fill your screen for a moment:

And side by side:

A photo is already striking to me when it has such a reduced color palette. As I took the photo I was reminded of an Italo Calvino passage, “On high white rocks, an adventure for the eye, sat two, three, perhaps four young ladies in their bathing costumes. Red and yellow costumes -- blue too most likely, but this I don't remember: my eyes were in need only of red and yellow.”

I wanted to preserve the feeling of staring up into the sunlight at a beautiful lady, so my first thought was to make the bright photo brighter, to reduce the shadows on the left side. Then I wanted to push these colors, almost to the point of ridiculousness, brightening blues and reds and giving them paler and more neon hues. The goal is to see it and feel what midsummer feels like, with the blinding sun and the beautiful form, canvassed almost in her own unreality.

Do my edits work on others? Am I making any sense at all? I have no idea. I find them compelling. I also know that I cannot tell you how to edit with any precision, I can only urge you to think hard about what you really want to show. Are you trying to capture some mood? Or are you capturing a time of day, like the great impressionist painters, or are you trying to suggest something about a time of year, like haiku writers? Or something else? Sometimes it is only long after you have taken a picture that you can decide why it really speaks to you. Simi and I sometimes talk of taking photos and then not looking at them for a while, letting them marinate.

Do not be afraid especially to modify colors. I recall Nietzsche saying, I think only in passing. that artists should not strive to see the world as it is, but as something fuller, simpler, stronger. Rarely are we taking photos to merely reproduce reality. Instead we create something to recall how it felt when we were there, to transfer a mood itself to the viewer. In this way we must let our memories falter. This is perhaps the most sensitive context of all to master, and the one that all good storytellers know the best.

Well, that’s all for now. I apollo for any misspellings or unfinished thoughts, the waves of sleep reach my shore.

s s

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Right this second some architecture student is writing me an email that says “well actually it’s called Brutalism because of the French ‘béton brut’, meaning raw concrete, not because it’s brutal.”