If you’ve attended one of my workshops in recent years, or sat in on one of my presentations on photography and postproduction, chances are you will have seen this image. It’s a shot of Barnhill, a house on the northernmost tip of the Isle of Jura (Scotland), and it’s one I often use to make a specific point about the role of postproduction in photography.
Specifically, that postproduction should be seen an integral part of the photographic process, not just something tacked on at the end, only to be used when strictly necessary.
This can be a hard point to get across. First there’s a practical argument – surely it’s better to nail the shot in camera? I agree. When possible, it’s much better to get things right – exposure, white balance, focus and so on – rather than have to mess around fixing stuff later. The logic here is something like, “get it right in camera and you won’t need any postproduction”. Sound advice.
The second argument is more philosophical: photography is the process of capturing reality, recording what’s there, and providing a visually accurate record of the scene. There’s truth in a photograph, or at least there should be. A good photograph is a good photograph. Mess around in Photoshop and it becomes something else.
I’m simplifying, but I’m sure you’ve heard variants of both these arguments at one point or another.
So what’s my own take?
Let’s face it, this is a dull image. There’s nothing wrong with the composition, but the content isn’t eye-catching and the light is flat. A typical dull day in Scotland.
At this stage the obvious question to ask is “what can I do to this image to make it better?” To answer it you might, for example, open the image in Silver Efex Pro and work through the presets until you find one that makes the image look better. You could do the same with other plugins, and again, you’ll end up with something that works better than this dull, flat original.
Alternatively, you could just play around in Photoshop or Lightroom and see where you end up. Inevitably, assuming you’re not totally hopeless, you’ll end up somewhere better than you started.
But that’s exactly the wrong way to start.
The problem here is that postproduction shouldn’t be a rudderless search for something that looks better than a less than ideal starting point. Instead, it should be something that’s in your head as you view the scene or, if not, you should have a clear idea about the story you want to tell. Without either the net result will be accidental rather than the intentional outcome of creative decision making.
For example, imagine that you’re staying in this house for your honeymoon. You’ve been there for a couple of weeks, at the end of the eight mile track for the town, enjoying the splendid isolation, the crates of champagne, and the company of your beautiful spouse. One afternoon, as you’re strolling along the shore, a fisherman comes into view, sailing up the coast in a small boat. You beckon him over and ask him to take you out into the bay so you can photograph the house for your wedding album.
As we’ve already seen, it’s not a great day for photography, but this will be your only chance to get the shot so you sail out into the bay and grab the shot. When you get home, how will you process it? Possibly it will look something like the following …
Warm, brighter … it almost looks like the sun is shining. And that’s the way you want to remember this scene, because that’s how it felt to be there at the start of your married journey with your new spouse.
But, truth be told, this is quite a different story.
I was on the Isle of Jura running a landscape photography workshop, and while I knew about this house I didn’t expect to see it as it’s at the end of an eight mile track, close to the northernmost end of the island. We didn’t have a 4×4, nor did I fancy a 16 mile walk. On one of the days we took a boat trip from the jetty across the way from the Jura Lodge up to the Corryvreckan whirlpool, and much to my delight we passed the house on the way.
So what’s the story? This is where George Orwell wrote 1984. He was there in 1946 (to 1947), and stayed at Barnhill (owned by David Astor, the editor of the Observer). Orwell was in ill health – he died just a few years later – was recently bereaved, and struggled through one of the harshest winters of the century: but he finished a first draft of the book while he was there.
As I pressed the shutter, this is what I imagined …
Cold, forbidding, isolated, with a dark brooding sky, surrounded by a harsh and uninviting landscape. A fitting environment for the birth of one of the most dystopian novels of the 20th century.
If you’re interested, the image was edited as illustrated below: a black and white conversion, followed by six masked curves to alter the tonal range and contrast of different sections of the image, followed by a final curve to tone it. If you’re interested it taking a closer look, you can download a low res’ version of the .psd file here.
Throwback Thursday is our excuse to trawl back through some of our favourite images on chromasia, but if you have any images you want to see in a future Throwback Thursday, or would like to comment on this one, please let us know in the comments below.