Esquisses and Raw files

Esquisses and Raw files

Originally published at:

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 3000Sunrise 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 3000An 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 3000Sun 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 3000Sunrise 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.


Great food for thought Alain, Thanks!

Alain, thank you for presenting such an in depth insight into your creative thinking process. It is quite helpful to understand how photographers with diverse artistic backgrounds work in our digital medium.

Thank you Eric. I am pleased you enjoyed the essay :slight_smile:

Thank you Alan. This is the direction my writing is taking. I have more essays coming up on this subject.

I think it is important to hear, from someone of your caliber, that photography can be an artistic process; that we can be free to explore the possibilities in the RAW image. I look forward to more essays on the subject. Your final images appear quite natural.

Thank you Allen, I do approach photography as an artistic medium. The title of my current series of essays is actually ‘Creating artistic photographs’. It does not appear in this essay but it is what directs my thinking process. Art brings a number of challenges with it and this is the focus of an upcoming essay. Overcoming these challenges is one of the key aspects of my artistic progression. Just when I believe I overcame them all a new one surfaces ! Writing about it is actually one of the challenges so I am thankful that this essay is well received.

Thank you for this! I totally agree that photography is art! I suspect you can’t wait to be asked whether you “photoshopped “ a photo. Your rationale here is just plain super.

Hi Kathy, Yes, I have been asked that question many times, either whether I ‘Photoshoped’ or I ‘manipulated’ my photographs. I had a very hard time with it because I felt guilty answering that I did, thinking it would cost me a sale, meaning people would not buy my work because of this, or thinking that ‘manipulating’ was wrong and I should not do it. After years falling over myself trying to explain things and not having much success, I finally decided to just say ‘yes’ (I wrote an essay about this titled ‘just say yes’ several years ago ). Things changed immediately when I answered ‘yes’. People accepted my answer and did not ask more questions. I started having fun answering that question! Now I answer that ‘I follow the digital paradigm instead of the film paradigm’. I am having even more fun. Eventually what I do to my work doesnt’ make a difference in regards to sales or to people who like my work. They either like it or they don’t like it, regardless of how it was created. Questions about manipulations are curiosity oriented. People already know that they like or don’t like my work before they ask. The answer is therefore inconsequential. However answering the question truthfully does make a difference for me. I no longer feel guilty. Instead I feel free! Getting rid of ‘artistic guilt’ is one of the keys that unlocked my creativity.

Mr. Alain Briot,

I completely understand, appreciate and respect your artistry and honesty. You in my opinion are like a painter with a brush, canvas, and paint who sets down to create a work not to so much represent it as truth but to shape it into your vision much like Picasso and other impressionist painters. And, if I may say so, that is great. Your purpose and approach to photography is much different than my own but that is ok.

I lean much more to the artistry found in conquering the technical aspects and limitations of the medium in order to get the best possible image at that moment in time. I hope you can also understand and respect my approach as I do yours. For me it’s about the camera and film (sensor) and final print process not about the post processing software. For your work capturing the best technical exposure possible is not that important because ultimately you are using it as your paint. I hope you don’t feel I’ve misunderstood or misinterpreted your essay.


Thank you for your response George. You are incorrect however in stating that ‘For your work capturing the best technical exposure possible is not that important.’ It is important because the data recorded by the camera cannot be recorded again. For this reason I pay close attention to the histogram, f-stop, shutter speed, focus and other aspects of the capture that cannot be changed in post processing, and this for each of my captures in order to maximize the amount and the quality of the data. I also want to add that post processing is important for all digital captures, including yours, because raw files are just not designed to be shown as is. The question is not whether or not we apply post processing, the question is what type of digital processing we apply. Since we no longer have an ‘original’ the way we did with transparencies, the nature of this processing has become subjective. We can only match what we remember and memory is fickle. The nature of this processing is the subject of my essay which, as you mention, describes my approach.

The Adams quote is confused because people who create music are creating every inch of it. People who “make” nature photographs are creating almost nothing. They are recording something made by nature and producing something that requires only one eye ball to fully appreciate. Unless I missed something.

I personally interpret my raw files and this is why I used this quote about interpretation.

Regarding musicians, all start from something, either the work of another musician, or sounds either natural or man made, or simply notes and chords produced randomly or intentionally. They also follow a particular musical genre that gives them a framework. In doing so they build upon the work of previous musicians. Writing a musical score is done according to a framework, ‘rules’, so that the score is intelligible and can be read by other musicians. Nothing is created in a vacuum, whatever the medium we use might be. We all start from something. What we start with varies from medium to medium. To say that one medium is more creative than another because of what we start with is discriminative. It is similar to saying that one person is better than another because of their upbringing, the color of their skin, their sexual preferences, their nationality, their religious or political beliefs, or some other specific aspect of their persona.

In my opinion an image shot with optimal light conditions will always be superior to one shot in suboptimal conditions and then reprocessed to inject that luminosity back into the image.

1 Like

I did not know that light was divided in two categories: optimal and suboptimal. What I do know is that light can have a wide variety of different qualities, such as direct, diffused, bounced, reflected, warm, cool, overcast, shadow, open shade, horizontal at sunset and sunrise, overhead at noon and so on. Personally I like all the different qualities of light, indiscriminately. They all serve a purpose, they all tell a different story. They all have value. I love light, period, whatever quality it may have.

I believe that what @stevenm and @George_Givens are saying is that in one case you are starting with a white canvas and creating a painting and in the other you start out with silence and create music. But in photo processing you have an image and embellish it. A crude example of their point is the painting by numbers that we did as kids.

Mr. Briot,

You said “Writing a musical score is done according to a framework, ‘rules’, so that the score is intelligible and can be read by other musicians.”

Pray tell, what framework of rules are being followed when you do what you do?

Apples and oranges, sir. Apples and oranges.

Well lets agree to disagree. You misstated my point. Of course all raw captures require processing as they are the negative and have to be turned into a usable file for output. However, I stand by my statement. Processing for print output is very different from complete manipulation and especially blending multiple captures in post especially for adding or subtraction of solid objects. Don’t get me wrong, I consider what you do art but what you do is primarily outside the camera not with the camera. Without the computer and manipulation software your art couldn’t exist. Have you ever done what you do with a hard negative? Granted negatives and even prints can be hand colored and it used to be, and probably still is, done all the time. But do you? Yes it’s art too.

As for you paying attention to the “histogram, f-stop, shutter speed, focus and other aspects of the capture that cannot be changed in post processing” I’m sure you do. So I won’t insult you by saying you’re incorrect but I will say you have misstated the facts. The very reason for raw capture is so those very aspects can be changed in post. After all in your essay you admitted to doing just that.



The debate between raw and jpeg will never end.