John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Get the Shot Right

get the shot right tree spectrum

"Don't rely on Photoshop"

In this age of digital photography many people appreciate the fact that you can take a dozen shots of the same scene, hoping that one of them will turn out perfect. If not, if the exposure is still a little off, the composition needs some fine-tuning, or something else isn’t exactly to your liking, you can probably fix it in your photo-editing program during the luxurious stage of image creation called “post-processing.” A curves adjustment here, a bit of cropping there, and voilà: the perfect image!

The retort to this reliance on post-processing is the mantra, which you have probably heard often, “Get the shot right.” Rather than depending on Photoshop to fix something that went wrong during the shoot, fine-tune your skills in nailing the exposure. It’s great to develop your image editing abilities, but if you allow yourself to become lackadaisical with your camera, you’ll miss the opportunity to understand the more subtle aspects of how it captures light. And in some cases, you won’t be able to fix the problem in Photoshop or recreate exactly what the camera could have recorded with the correct exposure.

Methinks he doth protest too much

Although I endorse the idea that we should try to improve our skills in capturing the best exposure possible, I do sometimes question the “Get the Shot Right” philosophy, especially when photographers get rigidly adamant about it. In this age when traditional photography is coming to grips with the digital generation, I wonder if some advocates of getting the shot right feel a bit unsure about their post-processing skills.

Often post-processing isn't necessarily "fixing" the photo, but rather shaping, enhancing, and improving it. That doesn't necessarily mean transforming the image with dramatically graphic, supercharged, fantastic, and surreal effects, although that's one possibility. You might improve the photo in a way that looks perfectly natural, realistic, and right.

Is "right" what we or the camera sees?

Come to think of it, what exactly does it mean when people say that we should try to get the shot "right?" Perhaps they are suggesting that the right exposure will record the scene as it actually looked, rather than, say, underexposing or overexposing the image. Unfortunately, here we run into a problem. As any knowledgeable photographer knows, a camera does not see like we humans do. Compared to our eye, a camera is quite limited in the range of light brightness (dynamic range) it can record. Our vision is much more sensitive. So if we define "right" as capturing the way the scene actually looked, what we really mean is capturing the way the scene actually looked provided its dynamic range was within the capabilities of the camera.

In many situations, that just isn't the case. For example, we might be able to see a great deal of detail in shadows and highlights, but the limited dynamic range of the camera causes these areas to clip to pure black and white. That's certainly not right. It’s not the way the scene looked. In fact, if we succeed in using Photoshop to recover some of the shadow and highlight detail, we succeed in making the image more "right" than was possible with the camera alone. Setting aside the issue of post-processing, "right" is what we decide we want when we shoot a scene that’s beyond the range of the camera. We either expose for the shadows and sacrifice the highlights, or vice versa. And we might really like the results. So "right" isn't some objective standard carved into stone. It's a choice we make.

Just for the sake of argument, let's assume that the light is perfectly compatible with what the camera can do. It's the best of circumstances resulting in our being able to capture the scene exactly as it appeared. But what if we don't particularly like that light? What if we prefer it a bit darker, or brighter, or with more contrast or color. What if we don't like the fact that the camera kept everything in focus just as our eye saw it? We want some blur. Is it wrong to adjust these things during post-processing according to our vision of what the image can be? Obviously not. There’s a tendency to think of photography as a way to capture reality, but sometimes we might not like what reality presents to us. We might prefer to use what the scene offers as a starting point to create our own version of that reality. After all, if the light had been a bit different, if the sun was a bit more or less bright or diffuse or whatever, the scene might have looked exactly the way we shaped it in Photoshop. Even if we post-process the image beyond anything that could have appeared in the real scene, our created image contains a reality of its own that is "right" in its own right.

Here's another thing to consider. The best possible exposure with one camera won't look exactly the same as the best possible exposure with another one. Each camera has its own unique character in the kind of image it produces. So you can take the shot exactly "right" with different cameras, but the results will all be different.

"Right" is your personal vision

If it isn't obvious by now, the point I'm trying to make is that the "get the shot right" philosophy is filled with elusive assumptions and rules about how a photo is suppose" to look. As I often emphasize in Photographic Psychology, "right" is what you envision for the shot. It's how you personally want it to look. Perhaps some photographers can make excellent on-the-spot decisions about how they desire to capture a scene, whatever the mood or impression it is they hope to create - and they have the technical skill to carry out that personal vision of what feels "right" to them. But that doesn't necessarily make it wrong to formulate that vision later on, during the post-processing of the image. Sometimes getting the shot right comes long after the shutter closes, when you've had time to explore your personal understanding of the image during your play and experimentation in a photo-editing program.

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If you liked this article in Photographic Psychology, you might also enjoy these:

Image Shaping (post-processing)
Artistic Voice
Breaking Rules

Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche