Autumn lake – interpreting after the fact

Autumn lake, Balderton Lakes, Newark

One of the joys of photography for me lies in the post-processing.  I know lots of people hate that part, but I often get into ‘flow’ while doing it and hours can go by.  I like trying out different ways of processing to see how many versions I can get of one photo, and how they compare and differ in terms of their emotional and visual impact.  I don’t do it with every image, but some seem to lend themselves to different interpretations.

This view of the lake is one example.  It was one of those perfect, soft autumn days with hazy golden light, when pictures just hand themselves to you and it’s hard to go completely wrong whatever you do because the light is so damn perfect.  I took a lot of shots, many of which only had the perfect light to recommend them, but there were a few others I was quite pleased with.

My first processing of this lake view was a straightforward one, with some sharpening and a small crop to improve the proportions.  I also slightly enhanced the cyan of the sky and lake, as it was a little weak compared to the strong oranges of the trees.  The result is at the top of the post.

I was fairly happy with this, but with some reservations.  First off, it didn’t really capture for me the way the day felt.  Probably because of that, it also seemed to me like a pretty, but generic, postcard-style view.  I started playing with it to see what I could do to bring out more of the feeling I had when I shot it, and ended up moving the RAW converter Clarity slider in the ‘wrong’ direction to give a very soft focus effect, as you can see below.

Autumn lake, Balderton Lakes, Newark, soft focus

This feels much better to me, as the day had a very soft, quiet feel to it and the image now matched that more accurately.  However,  I started wondering about the composition – it’s a little unbalanced, with the dominant orange trees and reflections on the right.  I tried cropping it to a square to see what that would do.  This puts the emphasis on the birds, placing them at the centre and giving more of a focal point, and losing some of the background trees seems to produce a better balance overall.

Autumn Lake, Balderton Lakes, Newark, square crop

Another choice of crop – perhaps a more obvious one – would be a letterbox format like this:

Autumn lake, Balderton Lakes, Newark, letterbox crop

While I think this works OK, it somehow doesn’t give me the same feeling that the square crop does and I prefer that one.

In the end it always comes down to personal choice – some will loathe the soft-focus effect, some will think the rectangular or letterbox format works better.  However, what I’m always trying to do is to get the image to express what I felt when I took it, and so the first person I have to satisfy is me.  I’d like to think that at least some people will get the same feeling from it that I do, but this is more of a lottery.  We all bring our personal preferences and pre-conceptions to the viewing of photographs, and the filters you look through will be different to the ones I have in place.

There are other things I sometimes experiment with – converting to black and white is one of them, but the colours and warm light were important to me in this shot so I wouldn’t normally have considered that.  However, I thought I’d give it a go for the purposes of this post and I got a pleasant surprise.  The shot below is a black and white conversion of the ‘straight’ version of the image at the top of the post, and has little to recommend it – it’s pleasant, that’s all, and otherwise unremarkable.

Autumn lake, Balderton Lakes, Newark, black and white version

But look what happened when I converted the soft focus, square-cropped version:

Autumn lake, Balderton Lakes, Newark, black and white soft focus version

Now this I really like, and I never would have tried it had I not been writing this post.  The black and white conversion has a look of infra-red photography about it, and I like the dreamy, ethereal effect.  I still prefer the colour version, but I think this one is interesting and it’s encouraged me to try this again in the future.  (Oddly enough, the black and white conversion of the letterbox shape didn’t work at all well – strange!)

I know there are a lot of purists out there who disapprove of extensive manipulation and post-processing.  I’m not one of them, and I don’t really care what route people take to get the result they want.  I could have done at least some of this in-camera – I could have used a soft-focus filter, a camera that would shoot in square format, and if I’d really wanted to I could have shot the whole thing on black and white film.   But I can’t see the difference between manipulating in-camera or afterwards, and if I’d done everything in-camera I wouldn’t have the same options open to me afterwards to create variations on a theme.

By shooting in RAW format, it seems to me you get the best of all worlds and the greatest variety of options.  I often feel I learn more from the processing I do after the fact than I do while photographing, and that that learning carries over and informs my subsequent practice.  A lot of the finished images that most please me are ones where I’ve visualised what could be done with the raw material that’s actually in front of me.  I’ve never been interested in simply reproducing what’s there, but more in creating the world as I’d like it to be or imagine that it could be.  Sometimes that involves straightforward representation of something that’s not obvious to the casual viewer; sometimes it involves changing what’s there into something that more closely matches an inner vision or feeling.