The Art of Editing

Sometimes it's easy to pick the winners—they just jump out at you, like this image did when I first saw it on my screen. But usually editing is a more difficult task.
Sometimes it's easy to pick the winners—they just jump out at you, like this image did when I first saw it on my screen. But usually editing is a more difficult task.

First of all, thanks to everyone who commented on my post from last Friday. Your participation makes this blog more fun and interesting for everyone. You can also see more votes and comments on my personal blog.

Of the three dogwood images I posted, “C” was clearly the favorite. But there were some strong votes for A and B as well. Just another example of how subjective photography is!

It’s also an example of how difficult it can be to edit your work. When I ask students to bring a portfolio of ten images to a workshop, they often tell me how hard it was to narrow it down to such a small selection. Many have never had to do that before.

But editing—and I mean this in the traditional sense of selecting images, rather than processing or developing them—is one of the most important aspects of photography.

Did you ever suffer through a slide show of your friend’s vacation photos, featuring one boring image after another? The modern equivalent is looking at a Flickr stream where someone has posted every single photo from their latest trip, including ten slightly different compositions of each scene. If you want viewers to yawn and decide it’s a good time to check their email, then by all means, show everything. But if you want to grab people’s attention and keep it, you’ll have to edit.

And if you’re an aspiring pro, or just want to impress your friends with your photographic skill, remember that less is more. If people browse through your web site and see ten great photos mixed with ninety mediocre ones, they’ll think that you’re a mediocre photographer who got lucky ten times. But if you only showed the ten great ones, they’d think you’re the second coming of Ansel Adams.

If you need help with editing—and don’t we all?—Jim Goldstein interviewed Gary Crabbe about the subject, and I think there’s a lot of great information in this piece.

And here are some tips from my book, Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters:

Start with an initial, quick look. First impressions are valuable. If an image strikes you right away as good, it probably is.

But while first impressions can be helpful, the key to good editing is objectivity, and objectivity increases with time and distance. I find it difficult to edit my work the evening after a shoot, but three days later it’s easy. I’ve lost some attachment to my photographic offspring, and can look at them more objectively. So in the initial edit I only throw out the obvious dogs—images that are clearly overexposed, out of focus, or otherwise unusable. After a few days it’s easier to pick the real winners.

Don’t confuse effort with quality. Just because you spent months waiting for the perfect light doesn’t mean the photograph is good. Try to look at the result, not the process.

It’s common to collect sequences of similar images. There might be slight differences in composition, exposure, or focus. Perhaps they’re all identical except that the subject was moving—you were trying to capture a waterfall when the spray was just so, or when the wind calmed and a field of flowers stood still. For checking sharpness it’s invaluable to have software that allows you to zoom in and compare images side-by-side. A series of slightly different compositions is more difficult to edit. Again, first impressions help. Which photograph jumps out at you?

While time may allow more detachment from your photographs, another person is always more objective. But it has to be the right person. It’s nice to have people in your life who love everything you do, but such people are worthless as editors. The ideal candidate has sophisticated visual taste (is not easily impressed by pretty sunset pictures), is completely honest, and can articulate what he or she likes or doesn’t like about a photograph.

But don’t hand over complete control to someone else. If, after living with an image for awhile, you still like it, yet no one else seems to, stick with it.

I think that part about finding the right person, or people, to help edit your work is really important. My wife Claudia is a great editor, and I’m lucky to have her around (for many reasons, not just editing!). We don’t always agree about everything, but she has a great feeling for what people will like—a valuable asset for a professional photographer.

Of course not everyone is so lucky, and it can be hard to find the right person or people to give you objective feedback about your photographs. Camera clubs could be, and should be, a good forum for this, but all too often I hear that the judging is skewed by a too-strict adherence to certain rules of composition.

Flickr has been called “the world’s largest camera club,” with all the good and bad connotations that implies. Negative comments are seldom seen on Flickr or other photo-sharing sites, but if you have a large enough following on one of these sites you can judge how much an image “speaks” to people by how many comments it gets. But keep in mind that most of the viewers on these sites are other photographers, and photographers tend to like different images, for different reasons, than the population at large.

So this is an area where I think we can all help each other. Who do you turn to for objective feedback about your work? What kind of experiences have you had with camera clubs, or photo-sharing web sites? Please let us know by posting a comment!

—Michael Frye

In the Moment: Michael Frye's Landscape Photography Blog

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6 Comments

    I use two (ok, maybe three if I count my wife) of getting some feedback on my images. My local camera club is great as we have competitions each month with a guest judge, and it is fascinating listening to their critiques of all the images. It is good to win from time to time, but the comments are what make me enter month after month.

    The other is the financial feedback when my stock images sell. OK, that is not necessarily a comment on their artistic merit, but it is feedback from the users that it met their requirements!

    Steve

    My Stock photo blog

    When it comes to objective feedback, I turn to my husband – who is a blessing in so many ways. I will often take a few photos of the same subject and then pick the best of the bunch; if I have it narrowed down to two, my husband is the one that will pick the one he finds is the best of the two.

    I’m not in a camera club as of yet.

    As to photo sharing sites, the one that I have posted to has not generated any comments or ratings, but the photos have gotten many views. I would love some feedback from other photographers, it would likely be an asset to learning how to shoot better photographs (and keep me from feeling like an inadequate amature).

    Steve, Ronda, thanks for chiming in!

    Steve, it’s great that you have several ways of getting feedback – the more the better. And voting with dollars is always good.

    Ronda, sounds like we both have spouses who are good for something other than photo editing! 🙂 Oh, and that too.

    I find that after working with a particular photo over an extended editing session it is even harder to let go and see it for what it truly is. My solution? Reverse the image (flip the image on the vertical axis). This creates a “mirror” image of the original. Usually not much more than a keystroke away yet it reveals the photo in an entirely new light. The familiar placement of the images elements are all mixed up resulting in the overly familiar being relatively strange once again.

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