The art of editing – The editing of art

In the last week, I have been editing lots of images, looking at thousands and cutting those down to hundreds (or less.) Over the years, I have become a pretty fast editor who can easily articulate why an image does (or does not) work. When a good friend told me she was having trouble editing down her own work, I walked her through some strategies to help her improve her editing skills. By the time we were finished, I realized our conversation was “made” to be a blog entry.

When I say edit, I mean looking at many images and picking out the best few. I do not mean cropping the image. In my own workflow, I do very, very little cropping when I am making the finished TFFs or JPGs from my initial RAW files. I do this partly for philosophical reasons and partly because I take pride in shooting an image exactly as I want it to be, but mostly I do it for practical reasons. If my photographs were so loosely made that every image required cropping and I spent just two minutes per image doing that cropping, (multiplied by the thousands of images I make a year,) that would be a lot of wasted time.

In my experience, all photographers need to learn how to edit images down to a few. It obviously helps in recognizing which are the best pictures. But, it also helps photographers learn how to crop in the camera rather than after the fact!

I started to appreciate some of these questions in the abstract, when I was studying the history of photography, looking at the work of master photographers. Subconsciously, I was internalizing how their images were put together and how they were able to move the viewer’s eye through their compositions.

My first serious lesson in editing came when I was working as a newspaper photographer. At that point, I was of using film, but even then I had a strong tendency to take a lot of pictures and then find the best one in the editing. Most newspaper photographers learn quickly how to edit by looking at the black and white negatives in order to decide which was best. Though we could have made proof sheets in order to see the image as positives, we rarely had the time (or money) to do that. So we used the abstract nature of the reversed tones in the black and white negative to help us quickly decide which were the best images. Newspapers are not an ideal photographic world obviously, but a high premium is placed on working fast and making images that communicate the idea clearly and quickly, so they are a good place to learn some aspects of editing.

The next lessons came when I moved from newspapers, where we mostly worked in black and white negatives, to magazines, where we mostly used color slides. The thing that I loved about color slides was that if, and it is a big “if,” you make the color transparency just the way you want it, the end user rarely would change it. Because slides are such an unforgiving medium, they are an excellent way to learn the disciplines of proper composition, exposure and use of colors. So, I learned to crop the image exactly as I wanted, to expose the image exactly as I wanted and to have the various colors exactly as I wanted.

Then I migrated into the world of fine-art photography, where the story telling that is common to photojournalism is subordinated to the more formal aspects of the image. Though fine-art photography is not as subject-driven as photojournalism, the most successful photographs in both genres are the ones that communicate their messages directly, even viscerally, with minimal explanation.

More recently, when teaching workshops, I have seen students make many great images (and even more images that were less then great.) Teaching and editing as I critique the student work forced me to both articulate what works in an image and to explain what I am doing in my mind/eye as I am editing.

My friend who wanted to improve her editing, was struggling through the dilemma that many photographers have encountered. Simply put, she did not know how to edit and how to decide, with finality, which images worked and which did not. So, I gave her a few exercises to help her approach editing from a new perspective. I made a few suggestions, in no particular order.

First thing I suggested was to practice editing on another photographer’s images. I offered her a few sets of my own work as an exercise. The point of the exercise was to make clear the first problem that tends to hinder most people’s editing. The problem is we often cannot critically edit our own work because of the emotional experience we went through as we made the image and/or our emotional attachment to the subject in the image. These usually fall by the wayside when we are editing someone else’s work.

Then, I suggested she turn the images upside down. The French master photographer, Henry Cartier-Bresson used to edit his contact sheets upside in order to better evaluate the graphic structure of his images. Anyone editing upside-down images tends to view the photographs more as shapes rather than concentrating on the subject/information in the image. Later, I suggested she make the color images she was looking at into black and white images. Temporarily de-saturating the images makes the graphic structure of the photo most apparent.

Finally, I taught her my favorite technique for editing images. I told her, as I tell all my classes, to try this simple strategy. You need to have an image (or set of images) in front of you. Close your eyes. Open your eyes, and quickly look at the images. Pay attention to how your eye physically moves inside your head as your attention goes around the image. Do not think about the subject in the image or the effort required to make the image. Do this a few times and pay close attention to how your eye moves through the image(s.) Do not intellectualize this process in any way.

Years ago, an older photographer told me that: “photography was nothing more than good white management.” His point was that our eyes go to the white in an image, automatically. It is a physiological process and an innate reaction. Appreciating that pure, direct process, without piling on layers of thoughts about the content of the images or the techniques used to make them is the key to this process.

After explaining all of this to my friend, she was very excited. One of the many interesting things about the entire discussion we had, was that her husband, who is a painter, kept chiming in on the discussion. His point, to put it bluntly, was that “looking is looking and seeing is seeing” and most of what I was talking about in terms of editing photographs also worked with painting and printmaking. I had never fully considered the question, but once I did think it through, all I could do was agree with him even more.

In all editing, the editor’s personal perspective is bound to impact how they edit. When it comes to editing, there are always a percentage of images that work different ways for different people, leading us to what I call the “personal taste zone.” But, most of the things that make an image work are all but universal. Knowing those and being able to articulate what they are is the first, and arguably the most important step in learning how to edit.

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