The Art of Creativity

Finding the Proper Cook Time in Photography

Finding the Proper Cook Time

In photography, there is this idea of letting images stew. Let’s take this cooking analogy further to learn more about how long the creative process may take.

In photography, there is this concept of “letting it stew” or “letting the image cook.” It's something that I've talked about before and with good reason: The concept is a valuable one. Creativity, the whole thought process behind it, this is something that takes time. Develop an idea, take a photograph, then let it stew to see what happens, to see what new ideas or additions you may come up with before you finalize the project.

So why do I bring this up again? Well, in this day and age, photography is tough. Nearly everything that you can imagine has already been photographed. It's less an artform about new discoveries and more an artform about finding new ways to look at old things. And that is why I bring up the “let it stew” concept again because I think that if we apply a new analogy to this old concept, we may discover something surprising. New perspectives, whether it be a subject that has been photographed hundreds of times or a concept that is well-known among photographers, will often reveal something as yet undiscovered.

So here is my analogy, such as it is. We'll look at photography compared to cooking to see what more we can learn about “stewing” our images.

Are You Cooking Long Enough?

My analogy deals with one of the most important aspects of cooking – the cook time. It's sort of reminiscent of the Goldilocks story. You can cook your food for just long enough, not enough time or too much time. Similarly, you can let images stew for just long enough, not enough time or too much time.

So what happens when you don't cook your dinner for long enough? Well, to put it simply, the result is not ideal. The food just doesn't taste good. Meats come out undercooked, vegetables are too tough, spices haven't had the chance to mingle, meld and form new flavors, the textures are off, the temperature is wrong. Loaves of bread and cakes come out doughy. You get the idea: Undercooking is just all around a bad thing. Cook times vary from one recipe to the next, each tailored to produce the desired result. Coming in under that time always produces a less than perfect product.

The same thing happens in photography. Images that are imagined, created, and processed too quickly come out underdone. The photographer simply hasn't had the chance to think about things and create the best possible art that he or she can create. There needs to be time – and plenty of it – for ideas to form, develop, and become refined. The image itself should rest awhile as the photographer ponders treatments and post-processing options or perhaps even things that could have been done differently with the composition or the subject material. Hence the concept of “letting it stew.”

What is the Ideal Cook Time?

How do you find the ideal cook time for your images? In cooking, the cook time is built into the recipe. There are also standards set forth, for instance, so much time in the oven per so many pounds of meat. But photography has no such standards. As with cooking in the kitchen, the time needed will vary from one project to the next. The ideal period of time is that time when everything is finished to perfection.

Though we can't define the ideal time to let your creative ideas and images simmer, we can identify some of the ways that we know the photograph has “cooked” long enough. As you ponder images and ideas, keep track of how often new thoughts come to you. At a certain point, those ideas will stop flowing. The image has been considered enough and there just isn't anything more than you can add to it. You may also find yourself reaching, attempting to apply concepts that don't come naturally to the image in question. This is another good sign that the image has been left to rest for long enough.

And how do you know if an image hasn't had enough time put into it? Ask yourself, and be truthful: Does the image feel slapdash? Haphazard? Rushed? If it doesn't feel right, if the process feels hurried or not carefully considered enough, then give yourself that time to finish mulling over the project.

When Have You Stewed Too Long?

When cooking, overcooking is a distinct possibility. The food ends up dried out, burnt, the flavors are lost and the textures are destroyed. It's every bit as bad as undercooking, just in a different way.

Now, you might not think it possible to “overcook” in photography, but it is. As I mentioned above, when you start running out of new ideas to apply to the project, that's a sign that the stewing process is done. But how do you know when you've let your photo stew too long? Well, either you've long forgotten about the image or you've descended into procrastination. This is a tricky sort of trap in which you keep telling yourself that you are still mulling the image over but in reality, no forward progress is being made. You're dithering, unable to make firm decisions about the image. You're leaving it on the burner and letting it stew while you hesitate. If you find yourself in this position, there is only one real course of action. Make a decision and follow through! Get that project finished.

The art of cooking and the art of photography aren't so different after all. This is one reason why artists in general often look at artforms besides those that they specialize in. The processes, techniques, everything that goes into making a piece of art that you may not be familiar with – all of these things have the potential to give us insights into our own artistic fields.

About the author

Will Moneymaker

Will has been creating photographs and exploring his surroundings through his lens since 2000. Follow along as he shares his thoughts and adventures in photography.