When I start my process of making my photographs, I draw out my ideas in journals. This helps because even if I don't work on the idea straight away, the plan and idea is still there for another day. I happen to be a good illustrator, so it's easy for me to fully flesh out how all or part of it should look. I'm going to focus on the illustration process of "Suicide" .
This is always the first step so I can recall all the ideas I had for the picture. Not everything I draw makes it to the finished product. You'll notice later on that the tears and the extra hands didn't make it into the picture. Also when planning, I write notes on the picture so that I immediately see it while editing or as a reminder of what I need for the picture. For instance, I put red leaves arrow in the plans because it was a quick sketch and its hard to tell that they're leaves and get me thinking about how I'm going to get red leaves.
Collecting (Take Pictures)
The fun part is actually collecting the pictures I need to be able to recreate the illustration. I work on getting the main components first in as few pictures as possible in RAW format. This helps later on in the editing process so that you aren't making too many cumbersome and repetitive edits that would've been easier if it was just one or few pictures. Saying that, I take multiple pictures of that part of the subject just so I have options when editing. For instance when taking the self portrait of myself, I took 7 or 8 pictures with or without glasses to get the right look for the picture. I ended up using a particular picture with the glasses on because it focuses and emphasizes the eyes. I try my hardest to find what I need in real life, but if I'm low on funds, its not the right season, hard to find, etc., I go on Textures.com and search for what I need as far as objects or textures. I needed a bullet in the photo but it was small enough in the photo's design that it wouldn't disrupt the photo if I searched for the one I needed online.
I import the pictures into Photoshop piece by piece because I need to select, feather, and layer the objects like I need them to. I do that before working on the image as a whole. I keep adding the pictures until I feel like it has the right amount. Even though I'm editing the pictures, I have to go back and forth between collecting and editing because I feel like something is missing. When I have the composite done, I play around with effects, color, vibrancy, contrast, etc., until I'm happy and feel the piece is finished.
The Instagram Test
This is something I recently added to my workflow. This is completely optional but it helps me when I'm at a finished point. In this case, I used it because this was the first image in my "Bipolar" series so I did not know what look I wanted. I turn my Photoshop file of the image into a jpeg and go through the process of uploading it to Instagram. I stop at the filter portion and scroll through the filters and see if one of them does a better job at portraying what I need to communicate to the viewer. If it doesn't then I proceed to upload to my Instagram page. But if it does, I screenshot how the image looks on my phone and go back to editing my picture in Photoshop until it is near to how it looks and then again consider if it's finished or not. For this image, I only had to go back and re edit it once.
The right was the second finished version but through the Instagram test, I perfected the image to come up with the final product on the left.
When I first finished Suicide (not pictured), I wasn't happy at all. When I showed it to my fellow artists or other people, they told me that it was fine and it looked finished to them. I was still very unhappy, so I continued to edit to come up with the second version. I wasn't happy until I finally did the Instagram test and tweak the brightness and coloring to emphasize the feel and emotion of the piece. I don't use the Instagram test all the time and would even advise not to use it as a crutch. Its just another way to add options of how the piece could look or that thing that is missing but you can't envision what that thing is. I hope someone reads this and help them find a method that could help them out when they're stuck or how to make surreal photography efficiently.