I took the best photo of my life today. I came down from the mountain and loaded it up on my computer. When I brought the photos up on my screen, they were just trees. Bummer. But it felt so good; looked so good on my camera’s LCD. What’s the deal with that?

This is why processing is the key to a great image. This is why revision is the key to great writing. Polish your gemstones. A great thought, a great idea, a great RAW is only just the beginning of something better. It is a seed. Without nurturing and pruning, it really is nothing special.

Lots of people have great ideas. Lots of people witness great moments. But there is an art to the witnessing, an art to seeing. And with art, the more you perfect your process the better you are. So take this to photography. See, capture and then refine. What is your image really about? Graphically, what elements of your image focus things and what elements muddle things? This is where you enhance the focusing aspects and mitigate the muddling. That is what processing is. You are tuning your vision.

When you see with your eyes, your brain does this. When you shoot staight to jpeg, your camera’s firmware does this. It happens no matter what, it is an element of seeing. Simplification and processing must happen to see an image. There is truly no way to capture an image without some kind of refinement happening whether you like it or not. Pinhole camera? Guess what, the physics of the pinhole are simplifying the scene — hell even the availability of light simplify the scene. Reality is incredibly complex. To record it, you must simplify.

Too, you must maintain control over that simplification. To be an artist, you should be the one at the helm of the process. Don’t let the engineers that designed your camera’s firmware make your images — make them yourself. The beauty you saw, you were the one who saw it and you know best what exactly you were seeing. So make sure others see it, and highlight it.

Your sensor is a data collection tool. Just because Lightroom takes my camera’s RAW and runs it through its own color profiles and default settings doesn’t mean that is what my image is–the changes I make are not lies to make it look good. An unmodified JPG output from a raw isn’t the last word — it’s an average of what the camera recorded. My image is what I saw when I was there and more so what I felt when I was there. It is important to remember that seeing and that feeling and use the data your sensor collected to recreate it. This is the art of photography.

So this is that disconnect you will sometimes get when you load your photos onto your computer. Once they are large in Lightroom or Capture One or Photoshop RAW and zeroed, you might think that you were crazy when you felt what you did. But you are not. This is just the feeling of being at the beginning of a pile of work. Get your waders on, time to get wet.

This is what a random person with an iPhone can’t reproduce. This is what takes love and loss and commitment to create. This is photography; this is being a photographer. It is being there with the equipment and seeing. It is then knowing that you’re still hours from a final product, even with mastery of the mechanical end of things. It is knowing still that you can do it, that you can reproduce the true seeing and feeling of being there, in that moment, even if straight from your camera there’s a disconnect.

Time to put your head down and use your memory. Time to make some artistic decisions and feel what you felt when you were there in that moment. Time to get to work. And whenever someone uses the hashtag #nofilter, ignore them and move on in your life. Because when you think about it, even #nofilter is a filter.

Here’s the before and after of an image to keep you thinking.

A straight out of camera version of the forest path image.

A straight out of camera version of the forest path image.


Pacific Crest Trail along the Suiattle River

The Pacific Crest Trail in deep forest, Glacier Peak Wilderness.