Prototyping as a tool in post processing to help form vision – proto-editing


Vision is an often discussed topic in photography, especially in fine art photography. Depending on who discusses it, it can be either an abstract concept, or a very concrete concept. Sometimes it’s the way we, as photographers, see a specific subject or scene in our mind – driven by the emotion of the moment and a very personal view on the world he/she lives in – not with our eyes, and how it can be concretely depicted and translated onto a tangible photograph. Other times the word ‘vision’ is used to describe how the photographer thinks the end result should look like, thereby often using phrasings such as: ‘I want the sky to be dark’, or ‘I want the water to be more bright’ or ‘the leading lines should be more ‘contrasty’. In the example of the latter it sometimes looks like the photographer is more often following a trend or movement in photography, rather than his own mental visualization initiated by how the artist feels and sees the world in his own unique way, which is more my understanding of vision.

In any case, at some point this vision, whether it’s a mental image that haunts you or a mental image induced by the appreciation of a popular style, needs to be translated to a concrete photograph. This part, the translation from mental image to a concretely visible image is often the hardest part. Even though the realization of vision already starts at the point you’re picking up your camera to go out and photograph a scene, I will be focusing on the realization of vision in the post processing part in this article. And I try to give a few tips and tools that can help you realize this vision more easily.

Realization Of Vision In The Post Processing Phase

Do you recognize the following? You’re working on an image and there are various options running through your mind like: ‘what if I make this part darker and reduce the contrast in that part’ or ‘I don’t know exactly how I want it, I only have something in mind but don’t know if it’s going to work or how it will really look like when it’s finished’ or ‘I don’t know when the image is finished, should I work on it more or should I leave it like it is’ or maybe even ‘I have no clue, I’ll just start working on it and see what I’ll end up with’. Whatever the relevant issue, there are methods to make the visualization and the forming of a personal vision easier. The way I do it is with so called ‘prototyping’. A more appropriate term in the context of post processing would be ‘proto-editing’, I will use both phrases from now on. As the term implicates it’s creating a model that isn’t fully functional and finished. Just a trial or a visually concrete model instead of just having something ‘in mind’. This can help you in several ways.

Prototyping Or Proto-editing

So what exactly is prototyping in post processing and how do I do it? First I have to say that I only use prototyping if it’s not clear in my mind what I want or how to do it, because I initially identify several options that might work and for which presets in for example SEP2 or Topaz won’t suffice. Sometimes I can just use the presets in SEP2 to already get an impression. But to me first and foremost it’s a way to solve issues between vision and execution and after that it’s also a way to get additional ideas you wouldn’t have thought of before.

To show you what I mean and how prototyping could help you with solving issues I will show you my Before and After images of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York and then deconstruct the image into several problem areas that would conflict with my vision.

Brooklyn Bridge Original Colour Image

The original image in colour of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. Converting this to B&W with my generic vision towards architecture in mind would give me several issues with depth and selective contrast that I will demonstrate in the deconstructed image.

brooklyn bridge color long exposure

The original image in colour of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. Converting this to B&W with my generic vision towards architecture in mind would give me several issues with depth and selective contrast.

Brooklyn Bridge Final Result

The final version in B&W. Notice 1) the brighter sky against the darker bridge and 2) the subtle contrast between sky and buildings but 3) the hard (deliberate) selective contrast between sky and bridge. And note how I integrated my personal vision into the image.

brooklyn bridge black and white long exposure

The final version in black and white.

Deconstructing The Brooklyn Bridge

brooklyn bridge black and white long exposure with hot spots
  1. This was a crucial part in the image: the buildings in the background had to be separated from the bridge in the foreground to make the bridge stand out and to ensure that this specific area isn’t visually confusing/conflicting.
  2. If the building adjacent to the sky here is light then the sky shouldn’t be too dark (too much selective contrast) and not too bright either (building disappears into the sky).
  3. If like in my usual approach of architectural subjects, the sky was dark then the bridge would need to be lighter. That wouldn’t work. Note that it would also conflict with the buildings in the background.
  4. I chose to go with a brighter sky, but only in this area so the darker bridge would stand out from the sky.
  5. This part of the sky could be darker so I could retain the darker mood I had in mind without conflicting with the darker bridge.
  6. I was able to give the buildings ‘vertical depth’ and a slight sense of ‘presence’  by adding shadows to the base.

If you look at the hotspots in the image I have identified several items that would conflict with my initial and generic vision for architectural photographs. Usually the following style elements can be seen in my images;

  • A consistent dark and ominous mood which is often reflected in dark skies
  • Buildings that have ‘presence’, meaning they have 3 dimensional depth to stand out from the background and to reflect what I saw in reality. Refer to my tutorials Luminance and Luminosity and The Rule of Grays that have been described more extensively in the book From Basics to Fine-art that I co-wrote with Julia Anna Gospodarou to get an idea what I mean with ‘creating presence’ and how this forms a distinctive style element in my work.
  • Buildings in my photographs are usually darker at the base and brighter towards the top: vertical depth
  • Buildings in my photographs usually also have horizontal depth as a result of creating presence
  • A subject that is clearly isolated from the background
  • Usually my main subjects are lighter than the rest of my subjects

All of the above mentioned style elements were initially conflicting during execution.

But basically the main problem area was the area with the hotspots numbered 1, 2 and 3 and the issue came down to this: a lighter bridge against a darker sky would result in an effect that is in line with my generic vision. But a lighter bridge against a darker sky and against a skyline with darker buildings would create a selective contrast between buildings and bridge that would draw the eye too much to the buildings in the background. The bridge would ‘disappear’ into the skyline with buildings. At the same time a lighter Brooklyn Bridge wouldn’t look good and I would lose the depth between the bridge in the foreground and the background with sky and buildings if the buildings would be darker. Buildings in the distance should fade away to create the illusion of depth. If on the other hand I would have a lighter bridge against an even lighter skyline with buildings against a darker sky, then this would result in a selective contrast between sky and buildings that would draw the eye to the background instead of the bridge. I resolved all these issues by making the bridge the darkest element and the buildings in the background lighter towards the top. This would eventually result in a selective contrast between bridge on one hand and sky and buildings on the other hand and at the same time create the desired amount of depth if you look into the distance.

So how did I come to this solution? I did that by using prototyping so I could visually identify the issues I would encounter instead of identifying them in my head only. That’s also possible of course but prototyping makes it all more visual and clear.

Practical Use Of Prototyping

Below are 3 prototypes I created to identify by visualisation what issues I would encounter when trying to execute my generic architectural vision.

brooklyn bridge prototyping 1
  1. Dark sky as part of my initial and generic vision: this would contrast too much with the lighter buildings.
  2. A lighter bridge against a darker sky would give the desired contrast but the buildings in the background would either need to be darker/lighter to separate the bridge from buildings and sky.
  3. Lighter buildings against darker sky would create a selective contrast that would draw the eye too much.
brooklyn bridge prototyping 2
  1. Moderate sky, not too dark, not too bright.
  2. Lighter bridge to contrast with the darker background buildings.
  3. Darker buildings wouldn’t make sense if I want to create depth between bridge and buildings but in this situation the background had to be darker to contrast with the bridge.
brooklyn bridge prototyping 3
  1. Lighter sky would separate bridge from its background.
  2. The bridge needed to be darker to separate it from its background.
  3. The buildings in the background also had to be bright s. much even that they need to dissolve into the air to create the sense of depth between foreground and background.

Basically it’s nothing more than making quick and dirty rough sketches in the digital dark room to get an impression. With the emphasis on ‘quick and dirty’ and ‘rough’. Instead of starting off with for example creating very time consuming intricate selections of your photograph, if you follow my iSGM2.0 method, (please refer to previous tutorials on this website or to the book and videos that have been published) you will need to start with very rough and inaccurate selections of the most important parts in your image: sky, a specific building, any object. Don’t create more than 2 selections of the most important subjects in your photograph and don’t take more than just a minute or two minutes to create those selections. This is important, else you’re not prototyping and you’re spending too much time on it to call it prototyping. Which brings me to the other part of prototyping: create several prototypes. One prototype for example with a lighter sky, another with a darker sky, or one with a mid gray sky. Another prototype can be created with use of darker shadows or perhaps one in which a lot of detailed structures are visible. But in all cases it’s important to exaggerate the various effects per image. So whether you create the lighter sky with the use of the curves tool or with quick dodging and burning, with the exposure slider set to 10% or more and thereby losing essential details, it doesn’t matter, because it’s all about the first rough look. Again, when you create those effects: do it quick and don’t be subtle but exaggerate and don’t worry about losing details. Because the next step will be to collect all these prototypes and put them side by side on your screen. And if your prototypes are the presets from plug-ins, then obviously you can use them. Ideally I have 3 or more prototypes, it depends on the type of image. But what I’m always looking for in those prototypes are:

  • Distribution of tones in specific areas and the tonal balance in the image
  • Distribution of light and shadows: which parts can be darker/lighter and exaggerate them
  • Selective contrast: which parts should be the most contrasting parts in terms of tones/light to draw the eye to specific parts of the image? (read: article RoGor book for more info on the topic of selective contrast) Exaggerate the selective contrast

I rarely create other prototypes.

Next Steps

Now you have the prototypes and they look awful when you look at it large. But the trick is not to look at them large but put them all together side-by-side and zoom out to thumbnail sizes or squint your eyes so you only see the outlines, the contrasts and the rough light/shadow distribution in your image. I prefer to zoom out to small sizes. This way the most important elements in any photograph are highlighted: tonality, light/shadow distribution, selective contrast. And therefore also the basic shapes. In the theoretical concepts of my iSGM2.0 method I explain that any photograph in the post processing phase only consists of two elements that you need to identify, isolate to finally control it: light and shapes. There’s nothing more than that. Of course the final result will also consist of meaning and mood, but those are things that are determined by the subject matter and the light/contrast in your image as a whole. Subject matter is what you choose before the post processing phase when you’re capturing the subject, light/contrast is what can be controlled in the post processing phase. And the latter is what we’re focusing on in the prototyping phase. It gives you a very good impression of how your image can look like because it also serves as the first impression of an image and the first impression is what will make the viewer decide to have a longer look or just leave the image. While assessing the images try to identify where the eye will be drawn to first and if it supports/enhances the idea and looks you want to convey. If the first impression is that you look at something completely different or that the contrast in the sky for example distracts from the main subject then you will know you will have to try something different without spending too much time.

What you will see when you look at the prototypes side by side in small sizes can help you identify and shape your vision. But it’s not only about selecting the prototype you like the most. Very often different prototypes have individual and specific characteristics that I like. In that case you take a characteristic from prototype 1 and another characteristic from image 3 for example and integrate them into your final prototype that you put together in a very quick and rough way. It’s the impression you have of the image when looking at it in a thumbnail size or with your eyes squinted that matters in this phase. The final prototype then serves as the image you compare your final working image with the final result also in a small size viewer version! Only that way you’ll ensure that the first impression of your final image, that very important moment when a viewer first sees the image, matches the vision that you initially had in mind (or that has been created with prototyping).


Below are 4 prototypes I created while working on my new series of images of a specific building. I wasn’t sure how I could integrate my generic vision on architecture in this specific shot so I created 4 quick prototypes to see how the main elements would interact with each other and what effect could represent the mood I wanted to recreate while still maintaining my specific style.

Radio Kootwijk Prototype 1

Prototype 1: Version with dark sky/mid gray water. This is a version that isn’t attractive at all.

Radio Kootwijk Prototype 2

Prototype 2: Version with light gray sky/dark water/mid-gray building. I like the sky here.

Radio Kootwijk Prototype 3

Prototype 3: Version with dark water/very light building/mid gray sky. Part of the building that I like.

Radio Kootwijk Prototype 4

Prototype 4 is a combo of Prototype 2 and 3 which needs a few more changes for the final prototype.


Quick And Dirty

Create quick, rough and inaccurate selections with a max of two isolating the main subjects in your image

3 Or More Prototypes

Create the prototypes, 3 or more, with various effects on specific areas in your image. Focus on light/shadow and tonal distribution and selective contrasts and exaggerate the effects by using the curves tool or by dodging/burning with the exposure slider set to 10% or more for quick results. Don’t worry about losing details.

Compare Side By Side As Small Thumbnails

Put the prototypes together side-by-side and look at it together in a small thumbnail size or squint your eyes.

Assess And Identify

Assess what prototype works for you and identify what draws the eye initially and identify what distracts the eye from your main subject matter

Combine Prototypes

Combine several prototypes together if specific characteristics from specific prototypes appeal to you

Final Prototype To Guide You Through Your Workflow

The prototype that works for you, or the combined prototypes together, will serve as your final prototype and is the image you keep as your leading image when working on your final image

Compare And Evaluate Up To The Very End!

While working on the details in your final image, continuously evaluate the final image and compare it with the leading final prototype by comparing both of the images in thumbnail size up to the very end. If your final image has great details but doesn’t look in any way like the final prototype in thumbnail size, then this means that the distribution of light/shadows/contrasts and tonality are not similar and the final image is lacking in that very essential department


Prototyping will help you concretize your mental image or even help you shaping a vision that you haven’t thought of, simply by combining several prototypes to one final prototype without spending too much time. All in all prototyping should never take more than an hour to create the prototypes, putting them together side by side, evaluate them and then combine them to your preferred final prototype. The final prototype is the one you keep on your screen when working on the actual working image and recreating the light/shadow distribution, tonal distribution and contrasts that you’ve created in the final prototype to match the overall mood and first impression of that final prototype.

Good luck proto-editing or prototyping in black and white post processing or colour post-processing for which it obviously can be used as well!


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