The Importance of Shooting and Editing With Intent in Photography

As we all know, there are many things that can make or break a photograph. While technical aspects might immediately jump to mind and the light may grab our attention, one word that tends to pop up a lot in my feedback is “intent”.

There are countless rules in photography, all of which can either be followed, bent, or even broken to various degrees. To me, the difference between an image that “works” and one that “doesn’t work”, is how clearly the intent behind each decision is conveyed by the photographer through their image.

In my opinion, just about any location, any subject, and any style has the potential to work, so long as the image has been executed with a clear intent. Now, I know, I’ve said the word “intent” about 300 times without explaining what I mean, so allow me to break it down a little more below.

Shooting With Intent

For me, this is one of the most notable differences between an experienced photographer and an inexperienced one. If you talk to experienced photographers, I’m almost certain most of them will tell you they rarely press the shutter without a general idea of what the final image is going to look like. When I’m out with my camera, I always have the same mentality. I can’t recall the last time I pressed the shutter without some idea of what I intended the final image to look like.

For example, if I’m shooting an image with a black-and-white conversion in mind, I’ll consider the contrast within the scene and try to use it in the most effective way. Rather than shooting an image and just converting it later, I visualize the scene in black and white as I’m shooting it. However, that isn’t to say I’m married to my original vision til death do us part. Sometimes my final image turns out completely different, because of an adjustment I made in the editing software that suddenly helps me see the scene in a different way or discover an entirely new photograph.

Regardless, having an idea of what you want your final image to look like can both increase the odds of getting a keeper and reduce the number of purposeless photos you have to filter through. So, why is shooting with intent so important? Well, a few reasons, which means it’s time for a list within a list.

It helps you frame the image appropriately: One of the biggest mistakes I used to make in my earlier years was not considering the crop I was going to use for the final image. This meant that I would often shoot the image with no breathing room, which often resulted in awkward cropping challenges, especially when adjusting the lines. Now, I always shoot a little bit wider than I need, which gives me more freedom to make any minor changes I might come across along the creative process. This also comes in handy, when adjusting the lines and leveling the image. Often, if you shoot too tight, adjusting the angles/lines or leveling the image can result in a loss of some elements, or it can throw off the composition/framing. Shooting wider ensures you can make these adjustments and still end up with the image you envisioned.

It helps you use the elements within your frame appropriately: One of the most common mistakes I see from new photographers are images that have multiple elements that don’t seem to have any kind of cohesion within the frame. It’s not uncommon for me to pop online and quickly stumble upon a single image that looks like 3 separate images stitched together, as the elements within the frame have no connection to one another. Taking a moment to visualize the scene as a finished image can help you break it down into its components and realize what is or is not adding to the image as a whole. Furthermore, actively thinking about each element as a cohesive unit and how they interact with each other will help you seek out things to use as leading lines and foreground elements while shooting in the field.

It helps you clean up the frame: Another frequent mistake I see is photographers not putting themselves in the right position to get a clean frame. I can’t count the number of times my feedback has included something to the effect of “If you had taken one step to the left/right…” Scenes can be overwhelming, but it’s important to avoid needless distractions which could have been easily removed by taking a single step in any direction. The easiest way to avoid this is to take a picture and check it on your back screen. This means checking the details within the image, such as the edges of the frame. I always recommend using your back screen, because the human eye tends to overlook these small elements in real time. On the other hand, if you shoot the scene with the knowledge that you will clone something out in Photoshop, you can shoot the image with that element already erased in your mind. Sometimes it’s impossible to get an angle without branches or poles popping into the frame, so understanding that you intend to remove them in post is an advantage of visualizing the scene as a finished image.

It helps you consider the light: As the saying goes ‘photography is light’. Every so often I see an interesting scene, that lacks the necessary light to make it pop. Sometimes, the light is there, but the photographer didn’t consider the contrast, which results in blown highlights. Understanding what you want your image to look like will help you consider things like exposure blending. Additionally, if you are going for a specific look, such as a high-key image, you may want to overexpose specific parts of the image. This will allow you to ensure you have the exact setting you need for each and every image. Knowing what your final image is going to look like before you shoot is not only imperative to creating unique images but it can save you a lot of time fixing up mistakes in post.

It helps you consider the settings: It’s not uncommon for me to ask a newer photographer about the decision process behind their settings choices, only to be told that there wasn’t any. From slightly blurry subjects to questionable depth of field choices, I’ve seen just about every mistake one can make when not shooting with a clear intent. It’s one thing to understand things like shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, but it’s a whole other thing to understand how to use them to achieve different effects. Whether you want your scene to be sharp or blurry to convey motion; your scene overexposed or underexposed; or you want your background in focus or a bokeh, achieving your desired effect requires a combination of understanding your settings and when to use them. Shooting with a clear intent will help you choose those settings, so you can get those effects in-camera rather than trying to fake them in post.

It helps you with the editing process: At one point or another, just about every photographer has uttered those five infamous words: “I’ll save it in post”. While editing software and cameras have come a long way, if you shoot with a clear intent, you don’t have to go around saving images in post, rather you can spend more time enhancing them in post. I can count the number of photos in my portfolio that were ‘saved in post’ on one hand, even if that hand has no fingers, because that number is zero. Every photograph in my portfolio was shot and edited with a clear intent. When you shoot with intent, it increases your odds of getting a photo that has no technical flaws. This will help ensure that you use your editing software to bring your photos to their full potential, rather than a first-aid kit.

It’s required for advanced editing techniques: It won’t, I hope, come as a shock that no photograph requiring advanced editing techniques has happened by accident. For anyone looking to take their photography to the next level by using advanced editing techniques, it’s imperative that you know which techniques you’re planning to use before pressing the shutter. Whether you’re creating panoramic images, blending exposures, or focus stacking, you need to know you intend to use those techniques so that you can take the photos required for the editing process. The first step to using advanced editing techniques is shooting with intent.

Editing With Intent

The second part of photography, which I already mentioned above, is post-processing. Without a doubt, the biggest issue I see with people learning to edit is a lack of intent behind their choices. There’s no bigger offender of this than what I consider to be my least-liked editing choice: the teal sky. I don’t know who started this trend, but I don’t think we can be friends.

I’m not going to be hyperbolic and say “This is the death of good editing”, but it does often ruin an image for me, regardless of the other elements. That’s not to say I hate all images with teal skies, but much like a “Dutch Angle”, there’s a time and place for everything. However, the teal sky isn’t the only offender of the shoot now, worry about the edits later style (looking at you “Cyberpunk Tokyo”).

While teal skies and cyberpunk cities could be considered trend-chasing edits, sometimes longstanding editing choices fall victim to this same issue. I often see images converted to black and white, for no other reason than it’s what people do to make it look artistic. When it comes to editing an image for black and white, it usually helps if the picture was originally shot with that edit in mind. All of this is to say, when you make edits to your photograph, you should be doing so with some clear idea of why you’re making each particular edit. So, what do I mean by editing with intent, and how can it help?

It helps you express or emphasize a feeling/atmosphere within your image: I just finished talking about how I dislike teal skies, but the full truth is that I only really dislike teal skies that are purposelessly added to landscape or cityscape images. If the effect is used to enhance the atmosphere of an image, for example a dystopian theme or a surreal image, then there is a chance I’ll actually like it. However, slapping a teal sky on your image of some mountains and a lake doesn’t make it surreal, it makes it some mountains and lake with a teal sky. I often use my editing software to enhance the color the scene provided to me since RAW images tend to lose a bit of the punch. This means, for example, I make editing choices to enhance the elements that come with a sunset, such as adding a touch of orange/yellow to help the viewer feel the warmth of the setting sun. That’s not to say all of your edits are required to look realistic — go as wild as you like — but be sure that each choice leads towards the image you intend to make.

It can help you guide the viewer: I typically do this by using local adjustments to make points of interest brighter or to add depth to an image. If you have an idea of where you want the viewer to be looking, then you can use your tools to assist them. All too often, I see an image and my first thought is “What am I supposed to be looking at?” or “What’s the focus?” While a lot of this begins with shooting the image with intent, a well-shot image can be enhanced when accompanied by a complementary edit.

It can help you make more deliberate editing choices: When we first dive into editing our images, it can be overwhelming. As such, many newer photographers resort to using pre-sets. I was no different. When I first started editing my photos, I’d simply clicked on the ‘pre-sets’ tab of Lightroom and it let take the wheel. After eventually moving on from essentially outsourcing my editing process to Lightroom, I moved into the next logical step: slapping vignettes on every single one of my photos for no discernible reason. Needless to say, a lot of my early work was unpalatable. However, now that I shoot and edit in a more deliberate way, each and every one of my choices is made with a clear intent. Deliberate editing choices can make all the difference between images that stand the test of time and ones that don’t.

It enhances the image: I know this one is about as simple as they come, but when you edit an image with a clear intent, it’s the easiest way to bring a RAW image to its full potential. As I mentioned above, when you both shoot and edit an image with intent, you can use the powerful tools at your disposal to enhance your images. Whether you’re using global editing tools, local editing tools, or advanced editing techniques, the editing process is one that should be spent creating the images you envisioned, rather than attempting to take them off life-support.

The Wrap-Up

While shooting and editing with intent is important, it’s not a magic wand. There’s no way to guarantee that every image you envision, shoot, and edit will turn out exactly as you imagined it, or even all that good. However, if you do everything with a clear intent, the chances of ending up with portfolio-grade or wall-worthy photographs are much greater.

To help newer photographers, here are a few questions you could ask yourself when shooting and editing.

Questions to Ask Yourself While Shooting

What is the focus of this image? Ask yourself what you intend your viewer to look at and use that to help you with the composition.

Why am I shooting this image? Ask yourself what about the scene interests you and what you consider photo-worthy about the scene.

What settings work best for this scene? Ask yourself if the scene would look better with a short exposure or a long one; a shallow depth of field or a wider one.

How do the elements within my frame enhance the focus or scene? Ask yourself if all the elements work together to form a cohesive image.

How do I intend to edit this photo? Are you planning to convert it to black and white? Do you need to exposure blend?

What crop am I going with for this shot? Consider how wide you need to shoot the image and what it will look like with your intended crop and adjustments

Does this location benefit from a vertical or horizontal shot? If all else fails, take both.

Do the conditions work? Consider if the scene would look better with different weather or at a different time of day.

Are there any distractions? Check the image on your back screen before you pack up.

Questions to Ask Yourself While Editing

What sort of look am I going for? Do you want to create a true-to-life image or a stylized one?

Why am I making these editing choices? Ask yourself why you’re making certain edits to the image (ex: I need to raise the shadows to show more of the detail)

How do these edits enhance the image? Ask yourself if the stylistic choices you’ve made enhance the image (ex: if you reduced the saturation in the image, why do you feel that was the best choice?)

How can I guide the viewer’s eyes with local edits? Ask where you can increase or reduce things like exposure or color to draw the eye of the viewer to particular areas of the image.

Does the crop I envisioned actually work? See if there are alternative crops that might better suit the scene now that you’re in the editing software.

Of course, there are a lot more questions you could ask, but start with these and you’ll start to think more critically about how and what you shoot. Just remember that shooting with intent and editing intent go hand-in-hand to enhance your images in perfect harmony, much like pineapple on a pepperoni pizza – and that is a hill I’m willing to die on.

About the author: Jordan McChesney is a landscape, cityscape, and abstract Canadian photographer living in Chigasaki, Japan. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of McChesney’s work on his website, Facebook, and Instagram.