Kill Your Darlings

Artists, especially photographers, need to kill our darlings. I have received this advice before, but it is seldom a happy or welcome activity.

Why in the world would any artist want to kill their darlings? These are our babies! We are in love with them! We need them! It makes no sense.

Photographers generate lots of images

OK, let’s get this out to discuss. One of the distinctions of using a camera is that images are (usually) quickly created. We tend to shoot many variations of a scene looking to capture it best. We take “brackets” of exposure, focus, lighting, etc. to work through subtle differences that may make an image stronger.

This is one of the key differentiators of photography to other 2 dimensional art forms. A painting is constructed slowly from the ground up on a blank canvas. The artist selects and only adds the elements he feels make the image stronger. A photographer starts with an existing scene and decides what to include or exclude, often in a instant. The resulting image is often a small slice of time. The process is totally different.

But besides being different, it is usually fast, fluid, immediate. We have the ability to change our perspective and try out variations. Each one may be a great image in its own right.

On a productive day in a great location, I may make hundreds of images. A painter may only make one, and that’s if they are working very fast.

This very fact of photography causes a problem for us.

We love our images

Ah, the beauties we see on our monitor. Most of them are lovely and lovable. Sure, I discard the ones that are unintentionally out of focus or that have unintended shake or movement. I may exclude the ones where the lighting was bad. And there are the ones where I have to admit the concept just didn’t work or my execution was poor. I can say goodbye to them without much grief.

But the “good” ones, well, they are all good. A well composed image captured with a great camera with a super sharp lens using good technique may be technically excellent. Any one of them is my work. I am proud of them.

I can’t just delete most of them and tell myself they are not as good as I would like. It is the work I made. I created these. They are mine.

Editing is hard

Editing is where is starts getting real. Editing is one of the steps that separate the great from the good. It is very hard for many of us to do as brutally as is called for.

For me, it helps to have a cooling off period. With time I can usually take a cooler perspective on a shoot. Sometimes a day or 2 is sufficient. Sometimes it takes years. Yes, there are groups of my images where I couldn’t be really honest with myself for up to 10 years.

I do my sorting and grading in Lightroom. I have used it since its initial beta release. My exact process of how I file and mark them is probably not of interest. I will just say that I go through many levels of exclusion before arriving at a set of “portfolio” images.

My initial pass culls out the imperfect images (if perfection was what I was going for), duplicates, and things that just didn’t work. These are thrown away unless I believe there is some redeeming value to them. And that is exactly the problem I am talking about here – I think that most of my images have redeeming virtues.

A second or third pass may look over a shoot and select the few defining images out of the set. These are marked for further processing. This process is repeated several times with increasingly strict criteria, usually with long pauses to gain perspective. In general, the best image of a shoot is not going to progress up the chain just because it was the best of its group. It has to provide some reason for being considered a top contender.

Editing is necessary

The editing process has been very good for me to internalize, even if it is painful. I realize now that without brutal editing I don’t have anything worth saying. That is, if I show you thousands of images because they are all “good” and I don’t have the discipline to choose between them, you will quickly tire and go away.

When I can be honest with myself and exclude great images that do not capture my artistic intent, then the ones I keep to show are stronger. You don’t want to look at everything I saw and was interested in. You only want to see very strong images.

Going through the pain and being honest with myself is not fun. But it is necessary to end up with art.

Fewer is stronger

It has been said that your portfolio is only as good as the weakest image in it. This has taken me a long time to internalize. Fewer is stronger.

Editing is a challenging and imperfect process. I know I make mistakes. I know I sometimes let my love for an image or a location or an event cloud my judgment. I am trying to learn.

Take an arbitrary category on my web site, like Landscapes. I haven’t checked exactly, but let’s say I have well over 1000 landscape images I consider “portfolio quality”. That doesn’t work and it is unrealistic.

By forcing myself to pare them down to, say, 50 images, I am able to present a strong set of art for you. It hurts. I have to exclude hundreds of images I consider wonderful. Indeed, some of my all time favorites have to go. But if I do it well the set that is left is strong and I will not be ashamed to show them to anyone.

The ones that didn’t make the cut? I keep them, of course. I love them. Sometimes at a later date I see something new in an image that I did not perceive before. Maybe it gets bumped up. Still, it is my responsibility to edit brutally and only show you the survivors.

If you go browse my web site I hope you agree.

Let me know what you think. Do you suffer from an abundance of riches?

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