Paul Gallagher
Paul Gallagher

The phrase 'image interpretation' can hatch many thoughts in a photographer's mind. The most common will be judging what the initial adjustments will be to the image file. It's too light or too dark maybe a starting point, the first considerations of what may need fixing. This will often be followed by placing a hand on a mouse or grasping a tablet pen and embarking on the first step of your journey to getting a better image. If you have made these decisions and sliders have been moved it would appear that progress has been made from what is often a raw file that is a poor cousin to the reality of when you were standing there.


Rainstorm in the Cuillins


What the above describes is without doubt a rewarding process and the continuation of which will lead you to a finished image that is a country mile from where you began. But have you missed the point? The very word 'interpretation' relates to 'meaning' and 'explanation', but the actions described are little more than mending the inadequacies of the flat raw file and enjoying getting far from that initial image appearance. In effect what you have done is embarked on a journey when the Sat Nav has no signal at all. Where you arrive after the journey has followed much the same guidance.

I will make it clear here. Tools alone cannot make good photographs. Tools and the mind of the photographer make good photographs, and coupled with image interpretation, can make great photographs. When we are out there with our cameras, we make choices all the time. Where we place the tripod, the height of the camera, how close to the subject and lens choice etc. We actively enjoy making these choices and seeing the outcomes. Where photographers often fall through the cracks is when they get back at base and they are faced with their camera file for the first time.

Let's go back to the words 'meaning' and 'explanation', choices at our disposal. Controls in Photoshop, Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw cannot introduce a meaning in a photograph, neither can they make that photograph deliver a message or offer an explanation. They are just tools waiting to be used. The most critical factor here is for the tools to become second in command to image creation and standing at the helm should be image interpretation. So, I hear you say, 'What is image interpretation then?'. It is the process of having some semblance of what you want the image to look like and then applying adjustments to the to achieve that very outcome. All too often it is simpler to play around with sliders and filters and 'arrive' at a desirable outcome, but will the image really relate to the reason you made the exposure in the first place?

Both the problem and solution are very cumulative. If you have little or no idea what you want your finished image to look like, you will begin with adjustments and the only time you will stop is if it begins to look like a dog's dinner. If you are lucky and it goes the other way, you may end up with something looking desirable. How and why you got there you will never know. It all depends on how your adjustments cumulate over the process. If you have an intended outcome, you will embark on your image journey and stop progression when it stops looking like the picture in your mind. At which point you will step back and make sure you are on the correct trajectory, the culmination of which is an image that looks as you intended it to look.