John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Image Brainstorming

image brainstorming

I’ve heard some photographers express annoyance at post-processing images on their computer. They want to get it over with so they can go out to do what they love most: shoot.

I have a difficult time relating to that attitude. I love taking photos, but not any more than I do working on them in post-processing. For me, shaping images on the computer is as – and dare I say sometimes even more - creative, exciting, and important in producing the final image as taking the original shot.

In this article I’d like to talk about what I’ll call “brainstorming” in post-processing. It’s a creative exercise in free-form experimentation with an image, just to see what happens – to determine if you can come up with some new or interesting effects for the shots you’re working on. I’ll offer some suggestions and guidelines, but there’s really no right or wrong way to do it. Whereas I work almost exclusively within Photoshop, you might use other programs. Many of my suggestions will still apply, even though the terms for the various features of the programs might be different.

The concept of “brainstorming” was originally developed by Alex Osborn and Sidney Parnes during the 1960s in their Creative Education Foundation (CEF). They formulated a specific set of procedures for group problem-solving that has since been used around the world. Although some aspects of their brainstorming method is not necessary for the kind of image processing that I’m describing here (because I’m not talking about group problem-solving), many principles are still extremely helpful, including the three basic stages of brainstorming: objective finding, idea finding, and solution finding.


Objective Finding

In this first stage you clarify your goal or objective. I use those terms “goal” and “objective” loosely, because in fact you might not even think of your post-processing experimentation in such a way. You might simply want to explore new creative territories for your photography without any specific agenda in mind. That, then, IS your objective: to create something different than what you’ve done before, whatever that something might be.

Of course you do have to start somewhere. At random, you could pick any photo in your collection to work with. Odds are, though, that you wouldn’t find that option too satisfying. Most likely there will be some specific image that calls out to you, or perhaps some particular style of image that you want to create. Once you start thinking about why that is (and the reasons might be unconscious), you begin that process of objective finding – of discovering what underlying wish, dissatisfaction, or challenge is motivating you. Identifying the images that are on your mind, even in the back of your mind, is a good place to start.

In some cases there might be specific facts that you do need to clarify before you begin your brainstorming– such as who will see the final image, in what type of media you will present it, and what it might be used for. Sure, you can brainstorm with post-processing in a completely abandoned way with no rules, desires, or objectives whatsoever, but creativity does thrive when specific boundaries or limitations are placed on it. Realizing what they might be, or deliberately establishing them for yourself, is part of this objective finding stage. Again, remember that you might not even be fully aware of your underlying goal. The motives to create something different or creative might be unconscious.

The very fact that you want to brainstorm shows that you’re looking for something new. Perhaps you’ve grown a bit bored or frustrated with your photography. In this objective finding stage, try to figure out what you want to change and what new type of photograph inspires you. Doing so will help you find it later in the brainstorming process.

Image Finding

This is the stage that people usually associate with brainstorming. Below are some basic guidelines. Let’s assume that you’ve picked out one shot to work on.

1. Be free-wheeling without judgment

As the famous psychoanalyst Alfred Bion used to say about psychotherapy, experiment in Photoshop “without memory, desire, or understanding.” Pretend you don’t remember anything about what makes a “good” photograph. Act as if you’re not looking for or wanting anything in particular. Play with buttons, sliders, and curves for color, contrast, brightness, sharpness, blur, opacity, blending modes, and whatever other features you can find in Photoshop, even if you’ve never used them before and have no idea what they do. Cycle through presets, filters, and actions, if you have them. Go for wild, even bizarre results by pushing the manipulation of that shot to the extreme. Go for subtle effects by making gentle changes. Be fancy, be simple, and everything in between. Stretch yourself. Take risks.

This is the no-holds-barred, thinking-outside-the box stage of brainstorming. In order for it to go well, you must avoid criticizing or judging any result. No visual effect that appears on your screen is “bad.” It’s simply part of your free-associating with image manipulation. Critiquing visual ideas in this stage of brainstorming will only slow you down and limit your exploration.

You know your free-wheeling in Photoshop is going well when you find it interesting and FUN. Think of this stage as PLAY, which should always be fun.

2. Go for quantity

Generate as many variations on the same image as possible. Later on in the brainstorming process, you’ll get better results by pairing down a larger set of images than if you generated a small set which doesn’t suffice in giving you something really good. Of course, when you go for quantity, don’t push yourself to the point of total exhaustion or boredom. Trust your gut reaction as to when it’s a good time to stop.

4. Combine and build on ideas

While you're brainstorming, let your visual ideas interact with each other. Reverse as well as exaggerate an effect. Connect and combine it with another one. They will interact with each other in unexpected and sometimes delightful ways. If you know how to use layers in Photoshop, that’s one way to combine the effects you produce. Put one image on top of another and blend them together using masks and blending modes. Also remember the rule about not immediately rejecting anything. Sometimes horrible and bizarre results lead to good ideas.

7. Record techniques

This free-wheeling stage of brainstorming does pose a problem. You might stumble upon a really interesting effect, but later on not remember how you did it. To minimize this danger, do whatever you can to record the techniques that led to the interesting effect. For example, save the settings as a custom preset, use layers when building on effects, or take notes. A beautiful image might be special when it’s one-of-a-kind, but you’d probably prefer being able to recreate the effect whenever you want.

8. Record interesting possibilities

Also keep a record of the images you’re producing. It will be impossible to save every single effect because you might generate dozens. So you need to do some filtering during this image finding stage. If you come across any result that looks even remotely interesting, save it. If something looks really bad no matter how much you experiment with it, move on to other effects.

By the time you’re done with this phase of the brainstorming process, you might have collected anywhere from 5 to 20 possibilities, depending on how many effects you produced and how many you decided to save. Exactly how you save these images will depend on your computer program. For example, in both Photoshop and its companion Camera Raw program, you can record “snapshots” at any time during post-processing. I like to do my brainstorming in Camera Raw by altering an image with the various tone and color sliders, as well as playing with my collection of presets. If I see anything that looks remotely interesting, I take a snapshot of it. All the snapshots are stored in one window, where I can later compare them in the “Solution Finding” stage.


Stage 3: Solution Finding

Once you decide to end the Image Finding Stage, it’s time to narrow down the images to a few keepers, or maybe just one single image…. or perhaps none at all, which is a perfectly legitimate outcome because the brainstorming process itself serves as a valuable learning experience.

In this Solution Finding Stage you allow your faculties of critique and evaluation to kick into full gear. As you browse through the various effects you created, determine which ones look really good and which ones are so-so. At first you might not be sure, but the more you click through the different images, comparing them to each other, the more decisive your eye will become in detecting the gems and the discards. Eliminate one after another, until the list grows shorter and shorter.

If you get overwhelmed judging all the images, especially when your brainstorming generated lots of them, try this strategy: compare one image to another and decide which to discard. Then compare the one you saved to yet another image, and chose one to discard. If you can’t decide between two images, compare one of them to a third image, and chose one to discard. Keep going until the list grows shorter and shorter.

Exactly how you decide which images to save or throw away will depend on the goals you determined in the Objective Finding Stage. For example, were you looking for a new type of vintage image, something that appears like an actual photograph rather than a graphic effect, or an image that captures a particular feeling? If you just wanted to brainstorm with no particular goal in mind, then trust your intuition about what images should be saved. Even if you had a specific objective, keep your eye out for really intriguing effects that have nothing to do with that agenda. Sometimes brainstorming leads to solutions that we weren’t, at least consciously, searching for!

Remember also that the process hasn’t ended yet. Once you’ve narrowed down your effects to the one or a few images that you’ll save, you will probably need to fine-tune the effects. The Image Finding Stage produces possibilities, while the Solution Finding Stage narrows them down to the keepers that need to be refined for the final product.


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Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche