Once Upon A Time Before Photoshop. . .

In a different world not so long ago, before social media, before digital file transfer was possible and before photoshopped was a verb – if you wanted an extraordinary image, it meant countless hours of planning to make the impossible possible.



Long before photoshopping was mainstream, my job as a commercial photographer was complete once the advertising agency got their hands on my freshly shot film. From the camera to final image, it meant losing authority over post-production once the film left the back of my camera.

If you were lucky, you would spend countless hours of post-production in a darkroom to perfect the final picture. But nine times out of ten, processed transparencies were couriered over to someone in the agency’s art department to ‘retouch’ a concept into something that resembled reality.



To counteract this, I spent hours preparing and planning every tiny detail of every single shoot, so that the vision I shot was the final image the client needed – and less time in the hands of editors.

The images I shot 16+ years ago for a Qld advertising agency are a perfect example – they were the hero images for advertising the Ray Group’s Salt development. Although the following pictures look like untouched (not photoshopped) landscapes, they give you an insight into the pre-production labour involved in capturing the perfect shot before the days of photoshopping EVERYTHING!



I loved Fuji film for its blue tones and super fine sharpness. I always shot ad agency work on a medium (sometimes large) format camera, and for this job I used one of my favourite cameras – The Fuji 6×17.


Test image photographed at sunrise Mermaid Beach, Gold Coast



I can see the grand vision in my head… but there’s always a conservative someone (who is usually paying the bill) that needs a little help to see it. For this particular photo shoot, it was convincing the art director to understand my idea of using a panoramic camera (a format he had never used before) and the ridiculously early morning starts that we needed.

Before they agreed to go ahead with the photo shoot, I photographed a sunrise at Mermaid Beach to show the ad agency the incredible quality that this large format camera was capable of, and to help them understand the beauty of panoramic landscape photography. One shot and they were SOLD! In fact, they used this test image of Mermaid Beach as a final image in the advertising campaign.



After careful planning and a few reccies to the wild and untamed northern NSW location (now affectionately known as Salt Village), I scheduled the first day to start at 2 am.


No footprints. No car tracks. No Photoshop…



We journeyed down a long beach track in the dark with a tripod, camera gear and the awkward, heavy wooden deck chairs. I had picked the perfect day using weather maps and tide charts so we would arrive on high tide. I set up the camera and tripod in the water line of the high tide to compose the image, then placed the chairs further into the waves, in their precise positions, ready to be photographed at sunrise. Then we waited, and waited, for the tide to drop and the sun to rise.

I wanted the beach to look perfect, completely deserted with NO FOOTPRINTS. So we waited for the high tide to wash away our footprints and the mass of car tracks that were there from the day before (today, it’s an easy touch up in Photoshop). The sun came up quickly, and with three long exposures, I got the image before the sun rose too high and the sky turned to blue.


Mirror image on Cudgen Creek, Northern NSW Australia



Another early morning before dawn and another cautious trek in the dark lugging camera gear down a long bush track. In this image, I wanted a mirror reflection of the trees in the water (easily created in Photoshop these days) so the timing had to be just right. As the sun came up over the stillness of the beautiful creek, we held our breath and captured the shot moments before a gentle breeze rippled the scene away.


Salt Beach – foot prints and car tracks swept away with a broom!



Although this isn’t an image of the sunrise, we still needed to start our day before sunrise to prepare the scene. This beach was a popular fishing spot and 4wd drive location covered with deep car tracks and footprints. But that’s not what we wanted in the shot!

I composed the image from the sand dunes; we spent the next couple of hours in the dark sweeping all the sand that I could see through the camera’s super wide viewfinder (Yes, we swept the beach with brooms, for hours). Just as we finished, a fisherman and his mate drove over the perfectly bumpless sand and said,

‘Hey, I’ve been watching you for ages, what are you doing?’

Can you imagine the look on my face as I replied… And, what was going through my head as I re-swept his car tracks.

Sounds like an awful lot of time and effort I know, but this was just one of the ways we manipulated images pre-photoshop.


The cute boy with the star fish – Take 2



The final image used in this advertising campaign was a ‘Take 2’. The ad agency had booked the talent, unseen! The cute young boy arrived, he was the perfect model, punctual, photogenic and charismatic, but unfortunately not quite the ‘right look’ for this project. Take 2. Model number 2. We got the look the client was hoping for, albeit with a sunny Miami Beach, Queensland, in the background.


These days, I still spend hours researching and planning for every client and photo shoot. But, thankfully my work as a professional photographer now extends well beyond the hours of preparation before I click my digital camera into post-production through clicks of a mouse – It is now an expectation that a Photographer will present the final touched up image. In one way or another, a ‘photoshopped’ image has always been the reality.


The old beach road from Kingscliff to Cabba



Tech Tips:

  • Research and reccie sites for landscape photography, so you know where the sun will be and the right time of day for your shoot. Just turning up and hoping for the best can result in any number of disasters.
  • Always be aware of your surroundings. The bush tracks to get to these sites were crawling with ticks and deadly brown snakes. We dressed appropriately, but my assistant still found a tick on herself a few days later.
  • I compose my shots and then cover or remove the camera until I’m ready to shoot. Salt mist along the beach will fog your lens up quick.