A cabbage moth drinking nectar from a lavender flower on a stalk of lavender against a black background, and surrounded by other out-of-focus stalks of lavender.

A Writing Lesson from Photography on Surfacing Truth

When I make a photograph, it’s always a two-phase process.

Phase one is making the image in the camera. This is usually a multi-step process, and may have quite a lot of steps depending on the type of photograph. If my subject is wildlife, I may plan a hike and travel to the location, or find a good seat in the backyard and wait so that animals can be comfortable with my being there. For food or still life, I may need to do camera and lighting setup. I choose the right lens for what I want to photograph. I make sure my battery is charged.

Then I make the image. I choose my camera settings and take the shot, or maybe several, adjusting my focal point or various other camera settings on the fly so that I have options. When I can, I review the shots “in the can”––I imagine younger photographers refer to these as “on the card” which is what they actually are––to see if I’ve gotten what I want.

What I want depends on the subject. Is the lighting good? Is the subject in focus in the way that I wanted? Do I have the right depth of field? If my subject has eyes, are they looking at the camera or in a desirable location? Does the subject fall into my desired place in the frame? Does it feel like the picture I wanted to take?

That last one is the big one, because it sums up all the others and also adds this undefinable aspect that takes into account the emotion of the situation, my desire in making the image, and what I want to evoke in the viewer when they see it. If I feel awe at seeing a moose up close, I want the viewer to feel awe when they see my photograph of it. If I snap an image of friends having a good time, I want that happiness to be present in the image. Ultimately I want the viewer to feel something when they look at an image. If they don’t, the photo is forgettable.

Before and After in Lightroom showing the same image of sun rays shining from behind a cloud over the Wasatch Back and Heber Valley. The "Before" image is darker and more blue. The "After" image has the yellow light of a sunset and the valley is visible.
These sun rays struck me with awe, but the RAW image is unimpressive. I adjusted the white balance and brought up the shadows so that the finished image better reflected what I saw and felt that day.

It’s the same with writing. We want the reader to feel. While it’s nice for someone to read our writing and think, “that’s pretty,” or “that’s well written,” we really want more than that. We want a connection––to our characters, in the case of fiction, and in non-fiction, to ourselves. We don’t want our work to be forgettable.

With writing, we have the same setup work––we choose the subject and make our plan to tackle it. Maybe that plan is simply to sit down and write whatever comes to mind, in which case the setup is ensuring you have the chair and the writing tools. Maybe you’re a planner and the bulk of your story development happens in the “prep” stages of figuring out exactly what happens and how it plays out. Or you may be like me, straddling the line between the two, bouncing back and forth between discovery and planning––you have specific needs before you set out, and you adjust on the fly as you work.

Then, you make your images. You write your scenes, telling the stories of your characters. Maybe you stick to your plan, but even the most ardent of planners often adjusts on the fly as characters evolve and unexpected events develop on the page. I find I write exactly as I shoot, looking at what I have “in the can” and deciding if I’ve gotten what I wanted. If not, I keep writing until I get there. Fortunately I usually have fewer “takes” when drafting and don’t need to write something a dozen different ways to get something workable, I can make adjustments to what I have. And in both photography and writing, often when I think I’m only going to need one “take” to get it right, it doesn’t turn out the way I thought it would in my mind, and I have to make changes.

Once the images are in the camera, or the draft is complete, phase two begins.

On my camera, I shoot in RAW format, which means that the image contains all the data that it was able to capture when I pressed the shutter, but it hasn’t been processed to look like a good photo. It has some basic processing, but that’s all. These images are usually missing the spark that I saw when I pressed the shutter. With my phone, I shoot JPGs, which come with algorithmic processing that’s pretty good, but usually these also can use improvement. I put all my photos into Lightroom, a photo processing application, so that I can “develop” them into the finished images. You might say this is where I “revise.”

Before and After from Lightroom showing the same image of a tabby and white cat looking at the camera. The "Before" image is dark and the color of the cat's eyes is lost in shadow. In the "After" image, the cat is brighter, the colors of his fur are more visible, and his eyes are amber-green. His eyes also have more depth and shading.
RAW files, like first drafts, are often missing the finer details that can make them pop.

When I process a photo, I adjust the white balance of the image so that it resembles what my brain saw when I pressed the shutter. I may adjust the shadows and highlight areas to reveal more detail, or adjust the overall exposure (make the entire photo darker or lighter). I may darken the background so the subject pops more, or create highlights to draw the viewer’s eye where I want it to go. I make all of these adjustments with the mood in mind––a lighter, brighter image feels happier, and a darker image may evoke sadness or fear. A less saturated image could evoke emptiness or the passage of time, depending on how dark or light the image is.

Processing images makes them more appealing to the viewer, but that’s not my ultimate goal. The goal is to allow the viewer to see and feel what I saw and felt when I pressed the shutter. I’m not editing the image to improve it as much as I’m editing it to reflect the truth of my experience. To show what I saw when the sunlight hit the the autumn leaves, or the stillness of the morning in that early dawn where the sky is lavender and pink and the moon hadn’t quite set yet, and I was awed.

Before and After in Lightroom showing the same image of a horse standing behind a fence in a grassy field under partly cloudy skies. The "Before" image has a darker foreground and it's hard to see the horse and grass. The "After" image has the brown horse visible and more contrast in the sky.
In the “Before” photo, it’s the sky that draws the eye. Editing lets the horse take center stage. I kept the vignetting to create mood.

Sometimes I don’t remember exactly how something looked when I shot it, but I remember how it made me feel, what made me choose to press the shutter, and I edit to that. There’s a truth in representing exactly what I saw, but there’s a deeper truth in representing how it felt.

In writing, it’s much the same. We often think of edit passes as making our work better, but what does better mean? Sure, it can mean adding in the words you missed in your rush of drafting, making description shine, adding missed beats, making the dialogue feel real. Or it can mean sweeping rewrites to sort out plot and character arcs. On the scene level, I propose adding another goal: bringing the truth to the surface.

A few questions to ask:

  • What is your character’s emotional truth?
  • What’s the true tension on the scene?
  • How can you convey that truth to the reader?
  • Can you amplify the highlights to draw the reader’s attention exactly where you want it?
  • What’s getting in the way of what you want the reader to feel, and how can you downplay or remove it?
  • Are you conveying mood?
  • What does the reader need on the page to feel the experience of the character’s truth?

This is by no means the be-all-end-all of revision techniques, but it can help to take a scene from good to great solely by shifting your perspective and letting you consider the scene in a new way. You can use your answers to these questions combined with your craft skills to target where you want to draw the reader’s attention, and to deepen their experience.

A side note:

When I sat down to write this, I was thinking on the parallels of the editing process, and how I could use the things I looked at in photo editing to improve my fiction editing. I didn’t realize until I wrote it that my photo shooting process is exactly the same as my drafting process, with a mix of planning and experimentation. If you write and pursue other creative hobbies, do you find your personal processes are similar? What have your other creative pursuits taught you?


Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

March 8, 2023 at 5:57 pm

I like this analogy. I’ve been learning to draw lately. I like that the drawing process feels a bit different because I don’t have to put the feelings and emotions into words, Instead I use color, line, etc. to convey emotion. Sometimes it’s nice to get out of my head and be in the physical world instead. Do you feel that when you’re taking photos?

Wander Girl
March 21, 2023 at 2:48 pm
– In reply to: Robin

I do! I find it soothing, because with nature and wildlife stuff, I have to be really patient and wait for the animals to come to me. I can’t force anything, or really control anything other than time and place. It’s nice to be able to relax into the experience.