Photoshop can be an important tool in the image-making process, but as such it is only part of a means to the end (and not an end in itself by any means). Knowing visual “mark-making” conventions that have been invented and that have evolved over centuries of art history is critical in order to maximize the possibilities that lie within Photoshop.
The visual structure of an image not only includes formal attributes such as design and color theory but also the psychology of visual communication. The visual conventions that we use to read three-dimensional space from flat two-dimensional surfaces makeup the framework by which we are guided to perceive, organize, read and interpret what we are looking at. Camera skills and vision at the initial “image gathering” stage and computer skills later are all part of the same creative flow. The mental “pre-visualization” of an image in the beginning includes one’s knowledge of something simple like an object on a string, knowing the string will not be a part of the final image, or the vision of something complex like combining two separate shots. Some things are just easier to take care of later in Photoshop. Since what can be done in PS is a different world than the darkroom, “pre-visualization” in a digital age has evolved to include new ways of thinking.
Image structure evolves at each stage of the process. It can be mostly completed in the camera or in the computer, but ultimately a combination of both occurs, and this balance will vary with each image and idea. I always figure that the more I can achieve initially in the camera with light and concept, the further I can push the vision in the computer. As with most processes, it is best to begin with the highest quality material one can to keep all technical options open.
Understanding where PS comes in is completely a matter of knowing what Photoshop can (and can’t) do. Photoshop may appear “magical,” but despite its complex mathematical configurations, it only has a “brain” in science fiction movies. It is important for the user to understand the logic of the program as related parts instead of a bunch of separate bells and whistles. What the possibilities do in symphony with each other is where the power of Photoshop lies. I rarely use a single Photoshop effect by itself, but rather think in terms of a logical sequence to build an effect. As well, layers of image effects build on previous stages as an image is developed. The mechanical look that computer-based images often have is simply due to the lack of natural organic logic.