Why photographers need editors

There are numerous aphorisms about what separates the serious/successful photographer from the amateurs/posers. Great quotes, such as: “Hobby photographers worry about equipment; Professional photographers worry about money; Master photographers worry about light” are already out there. In this blog entry, I propose to add one more to the list.

I would suggest that such a list should include something like: “A serious photographer is someone who knows the importance of working with a good editor. “ If you have worked in publication photography and have had the privilege of working with a great editor, you already know what I mean. I was fortunate to have worked with some great editors over the years, especially during the time I was freelancing for the Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday magazine.

A good editor looks at your work from an outsider’s perspective. They do not have the emotional baggage photographers create when they develop an attachment to a given image, because of the emotional experience they went through as they made that image. The best editors look past how hard it was to get an image and hone in on whether it works, on its own.

Equally importantly, a good editor finds threads within a body of work, teasing out the strengths in a set of images and paring back the weaknesses. I am almost embarrassed to admit how many times various editors would look at some of my work and tell me the direction I was going was faulty. Thankfully, they also gave me a new and better direction to go with the same work.

Photographers often bristle at the idea of editing and editors yet without them, we would not survive. Though this would not seem to be as true in fine-art photography, I would argue that it is just as true. Most fine-art photographers seek out feedback on their work, through portfolio reviews, sharing with peers, etc. The fine-art photographer who never seeks out and utilizes some editor, formal or informal, is either lying, a master at self-editing or producing work with no intention of ever putting it out for others to see and experience.

The best photographer/editor relationship is one built on respect, even admiration. My editors at the Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday magazine could do amazing things with words and images in ways that I could not even dream of. They equally acknowledged the things that I could do that they could not. Though it sounds like a so-called “mutual admiration society,” we both appreciated what the other brought to the effort. The final outcome, the magazine, was truly more than the sum of its parts. The same would be true in the collaboration of a photographer with a curator in producing a gallery exhibition.

I have internalized some of the editing skills I saw in practice while working with great editors. I try to teach those practices and use those skills when I am teaching workshops. I know that the skills are valued because I am regularly asked to do editing, one-on-one on a consulting basis.

All of this came to mind as I was taking part in the annual meeting of Aurora photographers, where the Aurora Photos community gathers on the shores of Sebago Lake in Maine, to discuss the past, present and future of our communal efforts.One of the many subtexts within the meeting’s discussions was about the importance of editors. One school of thought says that only by working with editors will publication photographers, like those working with Aurora, thrive in the future. The reasoning goes that right now, because the web is largely unedited, everything is of equal value, so in the end nothing is of any value. The few sites that are making money and keeping viewer’s attention are those that have editors or “gate-keepers.” Those are people who web-surfers trust to help them figure what is and is not worthwhile on the web.

Nothing was settled on the question of editors, but I was reminded of this question once again when I returned from Maine. There is an explosion of self-publishing of books and magazines, on the web and in actual hard copy form. Some well-known photographers are leading the charge for photographers to be their own editors and publishers. I would like to have my work published as a book as much as the next guy, but without someone to seriously help me edit and shape it, I am not sure it is worth my time.

Frankly, I think the photographers leading the charge are being foolish, and more importantly, they are misleading the photographers who look to them for leadership. Most publication photographers who achieved any level of success did so with the help of editors, even if they do not acknowledge that fact.

Early in their careers, those same photographers needed to go through the arduous process of learning how to make their work suitable for outside users while being true to their own vision. The best photography is a balancing act between the artist’s expression of an idea and the viewer’s interpretation/ experience of that same idea. To tell aspiring photographers that they do not need to go through that same difficult process (which usually means working with good editors) is dishonest at best and immoral at worst.

6 responses to “Why photographers need editors”

  1. David,
    You’re certainly make a good point here. But the editor comes in IMHO in the second step. The first step for a photographer should be to edit his pictures by himself, before even showing his work to the editor. What makes me say so? Well, just have a look to the countless websites or community websites and see tons of pictures of one photographer. The good and the bad ones, the exceptional and the mediocre work side by side! Sometimes even images of the same subject slightly varied as if they would have been uploaded from the memory card of the camera in the sequence they were shot. Uh, sometimes it makes me wonder, whether they never step back and ask themselves “Which are the best pictures to express what I try to capture in my pictures?” That question would be the first editing step! I hope, you would give some insights, how to conduct such self critique.
    All the best,

  2. Agreed! My point, which maybe I should have made more clear, is that when a set of work moves from the private arena to the public, an editor is very important. As you noted, before that happens, an individual needs to do some serious editing by themselves!

  3. One way I combat the emotional attachment dilemma is, I often edit my shoot only after 10 to 15 days after the shoot. This way, the emotional attachment slowly wears off from the initial charm. When I sit down for editing, I ask myself, why do I like this image, what is in this image what works and how does it connect to me. If I don’t get good answers then I chuck that image and go on the next one. When I am making these observations, it also helps me to learn through all the mistakes I had pointed out to get it right the next time, during shooting.

    The only problem being, after so much analysis, I usually dont like any of my pictures. That’s really sad.

  4. I usually edit a set of work multiple times. First time I cut the work down is typically on the day of the shoot, then another cull a few days later and at least one more edit about a week later. This helps me look at the work more clearly and get past the “passion for the moment” that I experienced making the images(s

    This is an under appreciated part of any editing “…it also helps me to learn through all the mistakes … to get it right the next time, during shooting.”

  5. one of the things I have learned from you is that unless one is a pure professional compared to a somewhat competent amateur (that is don’t get paid to do it and don’t have to be particularly disciplined about it) it is hard to
    not have the emotional baggage created by developing an attachment to a given image because of the emotional experience I went through when I captured that image.

  6. as a result I’ve become more dispassionate during the image selection and realize (and accept) images that are interesting only to me because of my emotional attachment to them.

    On the other hand some HDR images i shot last dec in Scotland in the middle of winter are esthetically striking but almost “cold,” indicative of my mood at the time.

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