The Photographic Composer’s Score and Performance

Spring storm

A storm o the prairie


Wind power


October Infrared

October walk in Infrared

Trans Canada trucking

Trans Canada Highway – Infrared

River bluffs

Infrared of Thompson River


I taught photography in the 1980s and 90s for the University College of the Cariboo (now Thompson River University) when the only way to make a photograph was using film.

In my lectures I informed students that as well as learning about their cameras, they must become proficient in negative development and printmaking. I would emphasize that those serious about the medium of photography would come to realize that what they did with the camera and the negative it produced was only the beginning, and that it was their final print that would set them apart as a photographer. And I would quote famous photographer Ansel Adams, “The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print…its performance…”

Film has now been discarded by most serious photographers, although I expect artists will use film creatively for years to come, nevertheless, even with advancing photographic digital technology Adams’ words from the past are still significant.

The digital camera isn’t making a picture in the sense of light permanently imprinting itself with different intensities on a chemically sensitized surface like film. Instead there are sensors and in-camera computers processing light from thousands of photosites that are transferred to computers as data files for conversion into countless pictorial possibilities. I have become, more than ever, of the opinion that like the negative, the RAW image file, is now the “score” to Ansel Adams – the photographic print.

I know there are those that haven’t bothered to move their camera selector off JPG (Joint Photographic Group). However, choosing JPG files means those images are pre-processed in-camera and the photographer loses control. I prefer shooting RAW (not an acronym like JPG, RAW is unprocessed data) and choosing RAW is like having the negative Mr. Adams discussed, affording us total control over those data files or, more importantly, allowing a personal vision of how the final photograph will look.

A young photographer that came into my shop last week got me thinking about this when, with some kind of misplaced pride, he announced he would never use PhotoShop on any of his pictures because he was only into true reality. Although I didn’t comment, I thought about the manufacturer’s presets that were applied in-camera to his image files, the sensor’s dynamic range of only about five stops from black to white and the very limited number of colour spaces his tiny JPG files gave him.

Some years ago I attended a print-making lecture during which one of the speakers said in the past he would get up early and drive to some scenic location hoping to capture an impressive sunrise, after which he would package up his film and send it to the lab and leave all decisions to an unknown technician’s personal vision. However, now he shoots RAW and transfers his image files to his computer and the decision has become his to control how his photograph will be processed for viewing.

As in the days when I processed and altered negatives in special chemicals and manipulated prints by adding and subtracting light, I now use computer programs to process my RAW images in my quest to perfect my vision of each. And I expect the same thing is true now as it was with my students all those years ago, that what they do with the camera is only the beginning, and to repeat Ansel Adams, “The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print (is) its performance…”

I look forward to all comments. Thanks, John

My website is at

8 responses to “The Photographic Composer’s Score and Performance

  1. Not to disagree with the photographer who will not use Photoshop, but I don’t think there ever was a photograph made that represented “true reality”. I say that because there are so many technical variables, both in conventional film and digital photography, that an absolutely “true” photo can not exist. The work at the Museum is to try to show as accurate a representation of objects in the collection as possible. This isn’t as simple as it seems and there is manipulation in each of the RAW files in order to do so. The manipulation is not meant to deceive the viewer but rather to improve the accuracy of each file. Photos such as you have shown here (all excellent, I might add) are not meant to be an accurate representation of the scene but rather an effort to express your artistic vision. That’s the basis of Adams’ photos as well. His prints were beautifully handcrafted but it was a lot of work on his part. They didn’t come out of the camera that way.


    • I thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. and your words” The manipulation is not meant to deceive the viewer but rather to improve the accuracy” couldn’t be better said regarding photographs in general.

      I admit I pushed the bounds with some of those images I selected for this post, if nothing more, than to make a point.


    • I am glad you like the wind farm Frag. The light was just right when I was there that morning. And I really like your words. “I love realism, but as I see it.” I detect a bit of “tongue and cheek”?


  2. I really appreciated you explaining shooting in RAW vs JPG. I studied at TRU in 2002-2004 and took four photography classes in that time span developing film in the darkroom and learning my craft. I have not yet bought a DSLR and have not been able to afford film for many years since starting a family shortly after my stint at TRU. I have been shooting with a digital canon Powershot and recently a IPhone. I have asked a friend to sell me one of her first DSLRs that she no longer uses. I have been spending the last two months in Lightroom learning how to use it and I find the creative control so wonderful. I spend hours lost in edits just like I did in the darkroom so many years ago. But, now that I will soon own a DSLR, I am so glad I read this post! And to come from someone local who walked the same halls as me, and dipped sheets of photo paper in the same trays, makes me even happier to hear it here first. Thanks! I am so excited to get a DSLR and improve my craft.


    • Thanks Billie Jean, You might want to take the time to attend some of my Saturday morning Photographer’s Mini-Sessions. I have yet to have anyone attending that hasn’t been excited with how much they learned. Hope to seeya sometime.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.