Vision-Driven Workflow – Horses Before Carts.

In Workflow & Technical Issues by David13 Comments


As I continue to develop the concept of Vision Driven Workflow (VDW) – it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that the ability to describe the desired mood of a photograph is key to being able to create or refine that mood in processing. I think developing/refining mood is one of those things that post-production is very good at. Getting it right in-camera is still critical, but the way you develop an image in the digital darkroom can also make or break the mood.

Here’s what I do. I wish it were more complicated, but it’s not. I ask myself to describe the desired mood in one word. Examples: Soft. Intimate. Creepy. Ancient. Earthy. Mechanical. Luminous. In the image below I chose Luminous. It was not just a random choice, it was my reaction to the scene as I shot it. The undeveloped RAW file doesn’t reveal this but it was the light in the scene that captured my eye – gorgeous light, and as it bounced of this Nepali gentleman’s book and into his face, I knew luminosity was important to this scene. It was the mood I wanted. (Below, the before and after view in Develop module, Keyboard shortcut – Y)


So. Armed not with the question “how can I make this image suck less?” but with the question “how can I return the luminosity to this image?” I began my development. This, in essence, is VDW – following an informed process that is led by your vision for the finished image. Knowing what I am aiming for allows me to better chose my tools and processes.

In this case I had a couple things I needed to do.

panelvdw11. I needed to make my whites white and my blacks black. I do this first, usually with the Exposure slider and the black slider. In this case I also needed to pull in some burned out highlights, so I bumped the Exposure slider up but I also cranked the Recovery slider until the highlights I was losing were limited to spectral highlights and there’s no detail in those anyways.

2. I bumped the Fill slider up to bring some light into the shadows. Bumping the Brightness slider also does this – pulling the midtones up and effectively making a more luminous image.

3. Contrast was low, I wanted it higher, so I used a Strong Contrast preset in the Tone Curve and bumped overall contrast to +50 with the Contrast slider

4. I bumped the Clarity slider up, because he’s an old guy and Clarity does cool things to texutres like wrinkles and stubble. And by “cool things” I mean it accentuates, draws the eye in to it.

5. Finally, I pulled the Lens Correction – Amount and Midpoint sliders left in darken the corners and pull the eye in even more.

This was not done as guess work but knowing exactly what I wanted the image to feel like, and that determined what I wanted it to LOOK like, and in turn determined which processes I put the image through.

Next time you open Lightroom or Aperture to process an image, don’t touch a thing. Instead take out a piece of paper and write one word on it – the mood or feel that you want to imbue the image with. You should know this already because you should have been thinking it or feeling it when you captured the image. Now you’re just revisiting that, focusing yourself before you start playing with the unlimited tools before you. Resist the urge, at least for this exercise, to mess with them all until it “looks better.” For now just ask three questions:

What do I want this image to feel like? Write it down. Then ask the next two questions.

How does that translate to the aesthetics of the image?

Which tools will get me there with the least amount of pixel-pushing?

Now go to it. You’ve given yourself a destination and a rough road map – both of which get muddled if you start messing with sliders before you know where you’re going. There’s value in just playing and seeing what sliders do what, don’t get me wrong. In fact doing that allows you to better answer the third question above – but it’s still just playing and learning the tools. When you have somewhere particular to go, playing with the tools is less helpful than wielding them well.


  1. Great post, David! I hear a lot about subject-driven, or vision-driven (or purpose-driven…), but this is the practical explanation that has been missing.

    I know I’m not looking at the original file here, but judging by the compressed jpg, I prefer something at about 1/2 the level of post-processing. (I overlayed one version at half-opacity over the other.) The final version above has lost some of the detail in the highlights, and that’s unfortunate given the good exposure in the original.

    This is a great exercise — one I’m going to do with a few pics that I have bouncing around.

  2. Author

    Brad – Thanks.

    Re. the exposure – in point of fact there are much fewer lost highlights in the processed version and where they are lost it’s in the spectral areas only.

    But we all have our tastes! 🙂

  3. Great post, and great picture! I like your one-word depiction of the mood. I think I’ll create a keyword set of possible desired moods.

    I’d add a third question to your list: Is this image part of a series, and do I have a preset I’ve created for the series as a starting point?

  4. Such a great post.
    You said… “how can I return the luminosity to this image?” and I think that’s a massive thing: asking the right questions.

  5. David,

    “Vision Driven Workflow” Well said!

    Are you freezing in BC yet? It’s going to be 80 and sunny in Houston tomorrow and I have a few pints on ice.



  6. Thank you David.

    Quick question, I think. How did you make the layered effect of the final image that is shown at the beginning of the article? It is very effective.


  7. Lisa – Piece of cake!

    Put the image on a separate layer and give it a stroke via the layer styles. I use the inside stroke. Outside stroke give you roundy corners.

    Then, while in the layer styles check the drop shadow and make that look just the way you like it.

    Now duplicate that whole layer, styles and all. And then duplicate it again.

    Now you just chose the layer you want, rotate it with the free transform tool, and do the same for the next layer until the whole stack looks just right.

    See? Piece of cake!

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