Esquisses and Raw files

Ansel Adams said that the negative is the score and the print the performance. Adams used film, but if we make a parallel with digital photography, the raw file would be the score, and the converted and optimized image the performance.

The problem with comparing a raw file to a musical score is that by nature, a musical score should be inspiring and invite interpretation. I find raw files quite uninspiring and hard to interpret. On top of that, some of my photographs are warped to remove curvature created by fisheye lenses while others are collages of multiple captures used to create a wider view than a single capture can create. In this context, what is the score? What is the original image? Is it the original capture, is it the warped image with the distortions removed, is it the collage? Hard to say. One thing is sure; there is no original score, nothing set in stone or written down. There is nothing to interpret. Instead, there is everything to create. This is raw material, not score material.

Unnamed
Raw file and the final image

For these reasons, I prefer to refer to a raw file as an esquisse rather than a score. An esquisse is a quick sketch or a rough drawing of the general composition of a picture or a painting. It is a term used in painting and drawing, a term I learned and used at the Beaux Arts where I studied painting and drawing. The goal of an esquisse is to nail down the main elements: their shapes, their proportions, and their location in the composition. An esquisse is indicative of the final painting in a very loose manner. It is understood that it is meant to be seen by the artist only and used as a guideline. It is intended to be the first step of a long process. It is understood that the final painting will cover the esquisse completely, that eventually, the esquisse will be invisible and that it will be changed over time as the artist progresses towards completing the finished painting.

2 CF028039+CF028040 Collage 3000
Sunrise in Western Navajoland
Raw files, raw file collage, and the final image

If we make a second parallel, this time between film photography and painting, the negative would be the esquisse and the print the finished painting. However, as we have seen, unlike a musical score, an esquisse is not meant as a source of inspiration. Instead, it is intended as the beginning of the work, as a first ‘jest’ so to speak, a first idea, a guideline. The inspiration, when referring to the process of painting, is not the esquisse. The inspiration is the subject itself, be it a human figure, a model, a still life, a landscape, a building, an animal, or any other subject.

In that sense, painting differs from music in that the painter finds his inspiration in the subject itself while the musician finds his inspiration in a subject from which he writes a score, which he later interprets. The painter, therefore, experiences a more direct connection to the subject, the inspiration being the subject itself and the esquisse being only a temporary step between subject and painting, a step intended only as a guideline and not meant to be kept, preserved or shared in any way. An esquisse never goes beyond the stage of being rough, and is usually only understandable to the artist who created it. This is the opposite of a score which, being intended for public sharing, is inevitably polished and made understandable to all through the careful and deliberate use of musical notation.

Because the esquisse is meant only as a temporary step in the creation of a process, only on rare occasions is it seen by anyone else besides the artist. It remains a private representation, not meant for public display. As such, the same esquisse cannot be used more than once, and neither can it be used by other artists. This is fundamentally different from a score which, once written, is meant to be used each time a musical piece is played and is meant to be used by whatever musician wishes to perform the specific musical composition described by the score.

As such a score is intended for interpretation, and as such, it is open to each musician’s idea of how it should be played. The esquisse, on the other hand, is not meant for interpretation and is only intended only for a specific artist’s eyes.

3 IMG 5232 Before & After Duo AB 3000
An afternoon at the Confluence
Raw file and the final image

Let’s return to photography. My point is that I see more parallels between a raw file and an esquisse than between a raw file and a musical score. The comparison between a black and white negative and a musical score made sense because the photographer had altered the negative in the darkroom by developing it with a specific goal in mind. Using the zone system together with a variety of development processes, the photographer could develop the negative to reduce or increase the contrast as well as set this contrast to precise density values. This controlled processing cannot be done with a raw file. All we can do is control the exposure and set the color balance, and color space, and that is about it. Furthermore, all these parameters will be reset during optimization because most raw files are overexposed to maximize digital data recording and because color space and color balance are ‘soft’ settings that can be changed at will during optimization.

All this makes letting someone else than the photographer interpret the raw file challenging. It has little in common with the way a musician interprets a score. Certainly letting another photographer process the raw file would result in a different version of the image. However, I doubt this version would have much in common with the original photographer’s intent. There is just too much left to choice, too many variables to adjust, too many important decisions to be made. In the end, rather than seeing an interpretation of the original image capture, we would witness the creation of a new image, one most likely, unlike the one the original photographer created.

4 IMG 4959 Before & After Duo AB 3000
Sun Star in Blue Canyon
Raw file and final image

About my work

I construct images; this is what I do. I don’t just capture raw photographs, process them, and convert them. I alter them, warp them, and reformat them. I change their color palette, I dramatically modify their contrast, and I use every digital means available to me to make them look the way I want them to look. I like to joke that I do unspeakable things to them; except I am not joking. For me, these things are not unspeakable. They are enjoyable, liberating even. But for those who continue to follow a strict film paradigm, a rigid way of processing images that is limited to adjusting color and contrast, the things I do -are- unspeakable. However for me, for someone who was never happy with the limitations that film imposed on my creativity, for someone who was trained as a painter and did not understand why shapes and colors couldn’t be molded to my desire instead of being fixed by the film they were recorded on, these things are a dream come true. A godsend. A response to my prayers. A medium that opens the doors to a full set of creative tools. I make no secret that if it were not for digital capture and processing, I would have quit photography long ago. I may have gone back to painting, since this is the medium I was first trained in, or I may have done something completely different, but I would not have pursued using a medium that had so many limiting and frustrating aspects.

5 IMG 6168 Before And After 3000
Sunrise in the Clay Hills
Raw file and final image

About the illustrations

This essay focuses on explaining the thinking process I go through when I create digital images. This thinking is non-verbal. It takes place in my mind, and I am not necessarily aware of it when I work. Neither do I need to be. Only the result counts. If the image turns out to be what I want it to be, I am pleased. However, to write an essay like the one you are reading, I have to make this process conscious. So I started taking notes when I work on my images, and I began saving photographs of the process I follow as it goes through its different stages. It is these notes that are behind this essay, and it is these photographs, both the original and the final versions, that illustrate it.

As you can see, the changes are radical, and the differences between the original raw capture and the final image are dramatic. If presented alone, the final image gives no indication about the look of the original raw file. This is why I featured both the before and the after versions next to each other in this essay.

About the Author
Alain Briot creates fine art photographs, teaches workshops and offers DVD tutorials on composition, raw conversion, optimization, printing and marketing. Alain is the author of Mastering Landscape Photography, Mastering Photographic Composition and Marketing Fine Art Photography. All 3 books are available from Alain’s website as well as from most bookstores. You can find more information about Alain’s work, writings and tutorials as well as subscribe to Alain’s Free Monthly Newsletter on his website. You will receive over 40 essays in PDF format, including chapters from Alain’s books, when you subscribe.