Photographing the arts: how do I choose which images a client sees?

Photo Mechanic Thumbnails.jpg

In all my photographic estimates, I include a short list of what happens after the actual photography takes place - it always surprises me how many people believe the images are finished the moment they're taken, so I want to outline how much more goes into making something better than an in-camera .jpg.

Those are fine some of the time, don't get me wrong; but when you're working in the performing arts, most often you're working in low light, at the ragged edge of what cameras are capable of; and the images often need a little help to look their best, after the fact.

Here's a short list of what I do:

  • Downloading the images from memory cards;

  • Selecting the best images from the shoot;

  • Optimising, colour correcting, and sharpening the 'A-List' images, and converting corrected images from RAW files to jpgs as follows:

    • correcting the white balance in images, where possible;

    • compensating for blur inherent in all digital images, created by the anti-aliasing filter in front of the camera's sensor, to make the images sharper in print;

    • compensating for fringing created by the lenses, to eliminate or reduce red/green/purple edges in high-contrast areas;

    • reducing or removing digital noise or grain from the camera;

    • adjusting contrast as needed, to pull detail out of the shadows and / or put detail back into the highlights where possible;

    • minor retouching as needed to remove sensor or lens dust, if present.

Now, that's not actually that much, in terms of what retouchers can (and regularly do) achieve with images; but it's a lot more than the camera does on its own! Plus, there's the small matter of the second item on the list - choosing which images to process - which is what I'll talk about first.

I often explain that I use my camera like a sketch pad, and have about a 10:1 shooting ratio; by which I mean, for every ten images I capture, on average, one gets processed and delivered to the client. When I photograph a dress rehearsal, for example, it's not unusual for me to come back after 2h with 1500-2000 images - which means ultimately there are 150 or 200 that are potentially useful. 

There are a few reasons for this - often, I'll take something, then someone will move (or I will), someone will enter, or lighting will change, and a new, better image will come along; so the first image becomes redundant. Actors speaking lines (or singing) will land on a consonant quite regularly, rather than a vowel, so there will be a number of images that are visually less appealing than the option before or after them. Also, people blink.

And of course there will be technical differences as well - I'll use different focal points or depth of field, different lenses (or zoom the same lens), even different cameras; and sometimes, an image will just not be technically good enough, due to focus, exposure, contrast, and so on.  So, there are a lot of images that don't make the cut. 

But, I have to look at all of them, to see which ones those are! And, as I mentioned previously, there are a lot of different purposes that an image might be needed for; so I've got to keep all of those in mind while choosing them.

The IPTC Notepad feature in Photo Mechanic [click to embiggen]

I've used Photo Mechanic for a long time for my initial selection process; it has a lot of amazing features, but best of all, it's incredibly FAST at rendering images, which can often be the slowest part. When it was created, it was aimed at sports photographers in the US, for situations like the Superbowl - where a photographer might take thousands of images in a few hours, and need to label them accurately and send them as quickly as possible to the news desk.

As a result, it also has incredible power with metadata - the information about an image that can be embedded into the file - so when I'm downloading images, that gets automatically embedded in each of them. Things like my name and contact information, the venue, the date, the event, the cast list, the designers and crew, the original file name of the image (so I can retrieve the original later, even if the name is changed by the client), the model of camera I used, and the original dimensions of the image at full size: all of that goes into the images as they go into my laptop.

It also has the option to import them to two locations at the same time, so the files I'm going to work on can go to my desktop, and a backup straight to an external hard drive, in case anything happens to the first copy while I'm working on them.

Good, better, best: rating RAW files from three to five stars - with green to show the client's choice.

From there actually, the process is actually fairly straightforward - look at every image, decide if it's better than the previous one(s), and rank them from 1 to 5 stars; 1-2 stars get deleted (mostly these are the ones that are unusable for technical reasons), 3 stars get kept as backup options, and 4-5 stars go through to the next round. 4 means could be useful later, 5 means they're definitely going to be sent through if the client needs some images right away, for social media or press.

The choices I'm making can be based on the client's brief, as well as my own eye and instinct for what makes an image work; sometimes it's a question of knowing what the end use is, whether that's a square crop, a landscape page or a magazine cover, but most of the time it's for any and all of those.

No client wants to be given a single image and told 'this is the one' that's theirs to use - so having options available, in terms of page layout, visual impact, and emotion, is certainly part of the job. Sometimes a client will want to see ALL the images from a shoot, but to be honest, that's usually a waste of their time and mine; my feeling is, if you trust your photographer to decide when to capture an image, then really, you can trust them to decide when they shouldn't have, and to save you the effort of seeing those.

So all this has happened before I even start to work on the images themselves - which is what I'll look at in my next essay!  

Keep an eye on this page for more updates to my series on photographing the arts, or to catch up on previous instalments - and follow me on Twitter or Facebook to hear about them immediately.