The Value of Editing

Rusted old Chevrolet against a contrail

Image editing has great value beyond just the corrections done.

I often hear photographers state a goal of minimizing or even eliminating the time they spend on the computer editing images. Some say they don’t like technology. Or maybe they are too busy to spend the time editing. There are some who seem to think that a well executed image should already be complete right out of the camera.

I believe all of these attitudes are mistaken.

Technology

I have ceased to like technology for it’s own sake. I’m not impressed nearly as much as I used to be by fast chips with great graphic processing and lots of memory. However, the computer is a necessary tool. Virtually all imaging is done digitally now. Digital images need a fast computer to process them efficiently.

Like it or not, photography is probably one of the most technical art forms you can find. It is inextricably linked to technology. The computer is our darkroom. Just like Ansel Adams and his generation spent hours in the wet darkroom processing their images so we will spend hours at our computer doing the same.

Of course, we have the advantage of being able to have a nice glass of wine next to us while we work. 🙂

The inescapable fact is that computer-based processing is required for modern photography. In practice, this means learn to love Lightroom and Photoshop.

I have seen videos from well known photographers describing their process and it is apparent they only have a limited depth of Photoshop knowledge. Yes, results are what count, but I am sorry for them. They could possibly do more if they became more familiar with the technology they use. A craftsman should be an expert with their tools.

So if a computer is a necessary tool for our art then we should consider getting an adequate one. Bigger is better here. Bigger meaning more speed, more cores, more memory, more graphics, etc. Get one that makes editing very large files as speedy as possible. It is part of the cost of doing business.

Need for editing

It is a common misconception that the image you just downloaded from your high-end camera should be ready to share or print with little processing. Some people are able to do this for limited applications. For instance, I have seen wedding photographers or sports photographers who are able to ship their images out to clients almost immediately. What you often don’t see is the preparation that enabled that. They are able to shoot and ship jpg files and they spend lots of time getting their exposure and white balance dialed in before the shoot, along with presets for their typical processing steps.

This can work excellently for an experiences artist. But only for certain niches.

If you are following this blog I hope you do not shoot jpg files. For landscape or fine art RAW files are a requirement to make all the sensor information available to you for editing. Most of us need to dedicate the time for processing our RAW files.

Wasted Time?

OK, our images need some processing. Is the goal to minimize this time? To what end?

Something I am discovering is that, at a higher level, the goal is not to see how many images I can accumulate. The goal should be to make great art. I hear people complain that time at the computer takes away from time shooting. Yes, it does. That isn’t all bad.

I am even starting to consciously throttle my image making production because I get too far behind on the processing and refinement. Making new images is a joy. I would prefer to be out in the field shooting. But a balance is necessary and the follow on editing is equally important.

The images have to be assimilated and processed, both by my computer and by me. This is the process I am referring to as editing.

Value of editing

What I have come to realize is that editing is not just about making some corrections in an image so I can get on to shooting more. Editing is an extensive and necessary process. There is the filing and culling. There is the tagging and quick corrections. Then there is the more extensive edits required to bring a promising image to fruition. Sometimes over and over. Finally, there is more culling. Yes, ample opportunity to throw things away. And be sure to set aside time to play and experiment.

I am not a conceptual artist. Unless I am working on a project I do not shoot planned or designed images. Most of my images are discoveries, something that captured my imagination. Because of this the value of an image may not be consciously recognized by me until much later.

Some of my images need time to mature, time for me to understand why I was drawn to them in the first place. Sometimes this requires trying several variations on editing an image. And time. It just takes time for a tricky image.

The realization can sneak up slowly or it can come in a flash of insight. It is great when I finally understand a difficult image. Sometimes it never happens and I end up just filing it away or even deleting it.

I have written before that we should kill our darlings. It is painful but true. One mark of our maturity is what we choose to keep.

Understanding

It sounds mystical, but editing, for me, has become much more than correcting an image. The time spent with my images is a key part of the process of me understanding my art. I start to see patterns of being drawn to recurring themes. Understanding the way I subconsciously work a subject over time is significant. When I spend more time with my existing images I can gather more insight to better understand my art and myself.

Just the time spent browsing, culling, rearranging, and grading my images has led me to better understanding of some of the themes that are important to me. By removing good images that no longer align with my style or interests my portfolio gets stronger. Less is more.

So, if anything, editing time is becoming more and more valuable to me. I value it as a necessary and important part of the image creation process. Your mileage may vary, but this is where I am.

Terrible Images

Blowing grass by old shack

This is a follow up to my previous post “Kill Your Darlings“. It is too big a subject to let go that easily. There is a time and place for making terrible images. Even to seek to do it. Terrible images can be a springboard to new insight and growth.

One of my heroes I quote often, Jay Maisel, said

“I used to tell my classes when they raved about my work and compared it to theirs, ‘Believe me, I’ve taken more terrible images than all of you put together.’ The trick is not to show them to people.”

Experiment

I believe that experimentation is one of the most common and valid reasons for making terrible images. Many of us photographic artists spend a long time trying to discover our style. But once we have done that, I believe it is a mistake to settle down and only shoot to that style for the rest of our career. We need to push ourselves is different directions. View the works of other artists. Do things to make ourselves uncomfortable.

I am always reading articles and looking at videos to get new ideas. Making myself get out and try some of these ideas I pick up is necessary to see if they work for me. Sometimes they do, but sometimes I just make terrible images.

I have determined for my own values that if I am not growing in my concepts and techniques there is no reason to keep going. Keeping an uncomfortable edge to my work keeps me asking questions. It keeps me fresh. I do not want to keep shooting the same picture over and over.

Shoot a lot

As Jay Maisel hints in the quote at the start, shooting a lot of images is one of the keys to having good ones. The reality is that for even the best of us, the percentage is depressingly low.

No, just walking around and pressing the shutter every few seconds will not lead to some gems. It might make a mildly interesting time-lapse video.

Doing good work in any field takes practice. The infamous 10,000 hour rule is not a truth, but it is generally true. Any discipline takes uncounted hours of practice in addition to formal training. I believe it is certainly true for photography.

It is important to get out every day and practice. Practice seeing, discovering subjects, planning shots, framing compositions, executing good images. Sometimes you should even use a camera. ☺. The point being that you don’t always need to be actually taking pictures. You can practice while walking to the coffee shop or driving down the street. It is a mental discipline.

But it is a physical discipline, too. And it is very helpful to use your camera every day. Just having it in your hands helps sharpen your senses. Carry it everywhere. Actually using the tool builds muscle memory. And coming back and having to edit what you have done closes the loop. It makes me evaluate my work and really think about how I have done.

Edit ruthlessly

Ah, editing. The point of my previous post on killing our darlings. I believe this is probably the second hardest part of photography (the hardest being marketing).

Shooting a lot of images means having a lot to edit. This can get to be a real time sink. And it can be depressing. I’m trying to look at it, not as making lots of terrible images, but as having lots of failed experiments.

If you go out every day and make yourself shoot and try new things, most are going to fail. That is OK. A few will succeed. That is one of the things that keeps me going. A few succeed.

The failures should be learned from and then trashed. There is little reason to keep a bad image, unless it helps you remember what your were going for and why it failed.

Even if you are constantly experimenting and expecting large number of failures, there is no excuse for letting down your standards in the editing. Be ruthless. If I get even one “keeper” out of a day’s shoot, I am happy for it. Having no keepers is not a failure for a personal day.

Another insight from Jay Maisel is “It’s my obligation to take out all the ‘wrong’ pictures.

Be honest with yourself

I like to experiment. I like to put myself in new situations and try out new ideas and techniques. But I have to be honest with myself and admit that most of them do not work well. Sometimes there is a glimmer of hope that might lead me to experiment further with an idea, but a glimmer of hope does not mean an image that should be shown to someone.

I have to accept the fact that the vast majority of the images I make are bad. That is, bad by my standards, which is all I can go by.

Most of them should be deleted. Even of the ones I keep, that may have some personal significance to me, very few should be shown to people. I am starting to understand and accept this.

One of the lessons that has been hardest for me is that a tack sharp, well exposed and focused image may well be worthless. It probably is. If it does not have something useful to say it does not matter how technically perfect it is. I owe it to you, the viewer of my images to only show you one worth looking at and considering.

Don’t fall in love with them

So I know I am going to throw away the vast majority of the images I take. I know I will throw away piles of technically perfect images. I know I will throw away away most of the experiments I make.

Because I know that, I have to keep from falling in love with them all. That’s hard. I made them. But the digital ecosystem is littered with useless bits. I have to do my part by cleaning up as much as I can.

I said in the previous blog about this that I go through many rounds of edits and culls. I really try hard to delay falling in love with any of my images until they have survived several rounds and seem to be contenders. I am not always successful. There are times when I just love an image. I try to not let that bias the objectivity I need in my edits, but of course, love wins sometimes.

Not falling in love with them is more a goal than a hard rule. But the hard reality in photography is that most of what I produce is not really good and is destined to be deleted or buried deep in my filing system never to be seen by anyone other than me.

But if it hurts and they are going to be thrown away, why shoot lots of terrible images? I don’t know of any way to improve beyond where I am or to expand my vision without experimenting and then ruthlessly editing. Terrible images are necessary.

Kill Your Darlings

Field of giant hamburgers

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?