Predator: One orchid’s descent into hell

Every picture tells two or three stories. At least.

If you aren’t a photographer, you may not think about processing. But I have learned, over the past two and a half years, just how important those decisions can be. Everything from the basic choice of how to crop all the way to what kinds of heinous digital fuckery to employ – trust me when I say that it isn’t the picture that tells the story, it’s the decisions that get made once the picture has been taken.

Let me illustrate. I took a pleasant little shot of an orchid not long ago. Here’s the raw photo, edited a tad for balance. It’s underexposed because that’s what I needed in the raw for what I had in mind.

Orchids, I’m learning, are just incredible plants. So I decided that I wanted to explore that interior – the lips and callus, which can be powerfully sexual and just a tad sinister, depending on the light and your personal psychopathology. I cropped in really tight, aligning to the top right intersection in the standard law of thirds grid. Then I did some heavy processing, aiming (as is often the case with me) for high contrast, stark shadow and heavily saturated bold colors. I used Dfine to take out a slight bit of noise, Viveza to illuminate the interior, then a touch of Pro Contrast, followed by another Color Efex Pro filter to focus on the center and dramatically darken the border and then a bit more fuckery to explode that red/purple and deepen the greens.

Check it. Fun, huh?

This got me exactly what I wanted – an image that suggests something utterly alien and probably evil. Beautiful, but deadly. Also, PRETTY COLORS! All kinds of tension and inner conflict and ambivalence.

But then, I got to thinking. What happens if I drain the color and process to a high contrast black and white? Aha. This, which I find positively terrifying.

Moral of the story: there’s a big difference between taking pictures and doing photography. Even beyond the technique associated with the actual pointing and clicking, there are strategic decisions that get made at every point of the process – starting well before you even grab the camera bag and continuing on through what is a damn near infinite number of choices that you might make in processing.

As I learn and grow as a shooter, I can’t tell you how gratifying moments like this one really are.


  • The eye comes first, then the photo….if all goes well on the front end very little needs to be processed on the back end. Learning the ins and outs of FStops and ISO’s has been my biggest adventure over the last few months. While the up front learning takes a lot of time and experimentation it means I spend a trivial amount of time processing. At the most some cropping and only experiment if I feel like it.

  • Interesting choices with this pic, I do like macro and being an orchid grower I certainly appreciate them. I like the bolder, alien-like color edit most.

    I’m also learning and practicing more photography and I know just what you mean. There’s so many things to take into consideration when taking and processing a photo, and it’s not always easy to make the decisions. Plus I’ve found that with Orchids it can be hard to capture their colors accurately. With that goal in mind post-processing is a must, even after you’ve fiddled with camera settings to try and get it right in the first place!

    • Getting to this place of wanting to get it “right” on the front end by fiddling with the camera settings has been a long journey. I began taking photographs, in earnest, when I received my first Nikon camera (a 4004S which I still have) in 1990. Because I was finishing my undergraduate degree and working full time I had no time to devote to my painting and drawing. Using that camera I amassed a ‘library’ of photographs to use as basis for paintings that I still refer back to today. But I was content in those years to let the auto functions (except focusing) drive the results.

      Perhaps my desire to learn to do the front end work with less post-processing is simply a matter of efficiency. I have utilized technology to drastically alter photographs and I’ve sold two copies of one that I manipulated into an impressionist painting look. But I don’t want to spend hours on a computer doing what I can do at an easel. And perhaps after so many years – in a corporate career – of reliance on and development of technological solutions I just want to do the work in the most straightforward fashion.

      Neither approach is wrong – it comes down to preferences much of the time. It reminds a lot of the many approaches to painting. Some people prefer very detailed, almost photographic work while others want the brush strokes and textures to be visible. I know some well known artists that utilize projectors to create their drawings and that has become somewhat of an accepted practice. It feels like paint-by-numbers to me but that’s the purist part of me and is not a critique of their final outcome.

      This post of Sam’s is much like what I’ve been doing on my website/blog by showing photographs of paintings as they progress from start (sometimes from the graphite sketch) to the final painting. And there is perhaps where my up-front fiddling has paid off most. I don’t want to spend a lot of time creating photographs of the paintings I’ve already created – I want to get them out there as soon as possible. The pieces I’ve examined in this blog series so far are from years ago and I can really see my progress as a photographer by looking at these older photos.

      It is, in the end, a matter of personal style. But it is always about enjoying what you do and I just don’t enjoy the post-processing.

      • it is indeed which bits one has patience for. i dont have the patience to learn the shortcuts for Word, but i am willing to spend three hours fiddling with the word structure of a single sentence. my guess is that i’d like post more than pre

      • I certainly feel that ‘fiddling on the front end’ as you say has improved as have my photos. Whenever I do use auto I feel sort of like I’m cheating myself; if the image is accurate then I tell myself [to remember] to see what settings made it perfect. If it’s not an accurate shot then I’ve just gotta go back and fiddle anyways. I find I get more satisfying photos using manual. Auto’s good when you’ve gotta quick hurry and get the shot before the little creature runs/flies off!

        Sometimes it’s fun to mess around with photos for hours, thus my joining photo challenges like the One Four Challenge. It’s great to see what you can do, what emotions you can bring about, what stories you can tell, etc. But, for instance, when it comes to my orchids I usually like to portray them in real time because they’re already fascinating. I really learned this using a Phal shot for my challenge image. I thought it’d be good but now I think it was perfect as it was.

        I think it’s amazing how subjective not only art is but the process of creating. I wish I could paint/draw so props to you. My photography practices are my form of visual art instead. I’m not entirely sure how I feel either about projecting images and filling in the projection, no offense to those but it sort of feels like cheating! I’m sure it’s beautiful but hey…

        Good job and luck with your own art and going through all your shots from the past. I’ll have to come back by and see what you’ve been working on. 🙂

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