When to Stop Being a Photographer and Start Being a Photo Editor - Digital Photography School
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When to Stop Being a Photographer and Start Being a Photo Editor

At some point, every photo shoot comes to an end.  Every portrait session, cookbook shoot, family vacation, ad campaign, college graduation, wedding, and photo essay eventually gets to the point when it’s time to put the camera down and see what you’ve got.  Congratulations–  You’ve just become a photo editor.  To be clear, I’m not talking about correction or manipulation in Lightroom, Photoshop or any of the other image editing software packages available.  I’m talking about the task of sitting down with the 367 images that you’ve just downloaded and being able to look at your own work with an objective, critical eye, and whittle them down to your best work.  Truthfully, this is one of those benchmark qualities that defines the term “professional photographer.”  Some people define the term based on the gear, while others base it on whether you are paid for your photography (and if so, how much).  For me, I define it in large part based on the photographer’s ability to at least temporarily sever their emotional tie to the work and realize that they shouldn’t be uploading ten images of the same sunset to their Flickr or 500px accounts simply because the angle is ever so slightly different in each.

I first learned this lesson several years ago when I started out as a second shooter for a high-end wedding photographer.  I showed up at the studio one Monday morning after a big weekend wedding, all excited to help with The Culling.  The preliminary critique the night of the wedding had been very positive, so I was feeling good.  Until we started going through the images.  “You’re deleting THAT one?  Seriously?  Wait a minute– what was wrong with THAT one!?!”  By the time we were done I was seriously questioning my new career choice.  My boss tried explaining that when the bride started going through the proofs she was going to get overwhelmed (and not in the good way) by having so many similar photos, that picking her favorites and placing an order would be an insurmountable task.  There wasn’t enough that was different about them.

As much as I didn’t want to admit it, he was right.  I hate it when that happens.

The bottom line was that the bride really didn’t need five 3/4 portraits with varying degrees of tilt when two– MAYBE three– would more than suffice.  The point of the lesson was learning to edit yourself by thinking like a client.  It’s a lesson I’ve tried carrying with me on every assignment since.  Think about it like this– have you ever had to sit through a three-hour marathon session of being forced to look at each and every photo your best friend took on their summer vacation?  Of course you have.  We’ve all been there.  How much better would it have been if they had edited themselves down to their twenty best?  See where I’m going with this?

This was a Lightroom import from last week while I was shooting the last four dishes of the thirty I’d been commissioned to shoot for an upcoming cookbook.  I seriously overshot this one.  The screen capture only shows 24 of the 39 frames I shot of a sandwich.  Thirty-nine frames of a sandwich!  Not only do I not want the client to have to go through that many images to select the one that will go in the book, I don’t want them knowing that it took me 39 frames to take a picture of a sandwich!  Knowing how to edit yourself is crucial.  Unfortunately, not enough photographers learn how to do it well.

Editing-001-copy

The rule of thumb here is not to only show your best.  It’s to show the best of your best.  If I’ve taken 100 photos, chances are that maybe 50 go in the “selects” folder.  Of those 50, maybe 30 are really good.  Keep cutting your numbers in half as you move from “really good” to “THAT’S what I’m talking about!”  If I’m your client, I’ve already spent considerable time and money in hiring you.  I know you’re good.  Show me just how good you are by not wasting my time and showing me your best.  As soon as you can take your own emotions out of the equation you’ll be thinking like a photo editor and will be much better prepared to present only your best work, whether the client is a bride, a band, or a book publisher.  (As a side note, the same advice applies to entering photography competitions.  Think like the judge, not the photographer).

I see some you nodding your heads, but some of you are still skeptical.  “I got up at 3:00 in the morning to get to the location and set up just in time to see the sun come up over the crest of the mountain…”  Stop right there.  Rule #1 of critique with my photography students is “No talking once your photo is up on the screen.  The old cliche that every picture tells a story is true, but you need to let the picture tell it.  I don’t care about how difficult it was to get the shot or that you were happy/depressed/angry/indifferent when you took it.  While the result always matters,  you can’t necessarily say the same for the back story.  Save the stories for when you write your book some day.  For now, the work needs to speak for itself.

Learning to edit yourself pays dividends across the board.  If you are a professional photographer, your clients will appreciate both your quality and professionalism.  Professionals, hobbyists, and enthusiasts can not only get better at selecting the cream of the crop, but can also eventually start mentally editing themselves before they even push a shutter button.  Digital has made it easier than ever to walk away from a shoot with several hundred images.  That’s great, I suppose, but why create so much extra work for yourself?  Learn to think like a photo editor and all that extra work goes away.

 

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Jeff Guyer is a commercial/portrait photographer based in Atlanta, GA. Still an avid street photographer and film shooter, Jeff also launched a kids photography class ("Digital Photo Challenges") three years ago. You can check out more of his work at Guyer Photography, and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

  • http://www.cramerimaging.com Pocatello Photography, Cramer Imaging

    I used to get upset when my classmates and my professor would critique my work and say that it was mediocre. They would also point out areas for improvement. I’m still not so good with the actual verbalizing of a critique, but at least I’m working on making my stuff better. I had to learn to only use the best. I’ve had to learn that even more in advertizing. There, you show the best of the best of the best. Sure you rotate in new stuff to show that you are not idle, but if it’s not meeting that earlier standard, then it will get pulled sooner or later. Divorcing emotions during a critique can be a very difficult thing to do and we all could use some work on that. At least I didn’t usually talk during a critique of my own work in school.

  • Em

    Couldn’t agree more. I cringe when I see photo collections more that number in the hundreds. I don’t have the patience to look through that many photos in one sitting. I’m usually very harsh as far as what I present to the viewing public, client, etc. If it doesn’t fit the right composition, or if the lighting was off, or any other little thing that bothers me, I keep it in the archives and move on.

  • Albert

    I cannot agree more! Well said and some sound advice! I think the challenge for every photographer is to take your pictures in such a way that it will limit post editing to the minimum! Also to while you busy taking pictures, to delete the ones that is not so good from your camera before downloading them on your computer. I have even made a rule for myself, I try to limit myself to say 5 frames of the same shot and if I cannot get it right by the 5th time, I move on to the next one.

  • Dimitri

    EXCELLENT article. I wish everyone, professional or not, would read it. I used to be criticized for not shoot ing a jillion frames of film of something. My response was usually something like “I already got the picture, how many do I need?” Or, “If was shooting video I woujld have brougt my video camera.” Again, great article.

  • Albert

    I cannot agree more! I try to discipline myself to a minimum of 5 frames per shot or even less. If I cannot get it right in 5 frames, I move on to the next subject. I think that one of the challenges/discipline of being a photographer, is to take your photo’s in such a way that it limit post editing to the minimum. It all boils down to applying the basic principles of photography. There is nothing as annoying as to have like a million of the the same shot and then have to go thought them all to select the best and then doing the editing. I even delete the shot on my camera if it does not look good on the camera screen.

  • http://www.ernestjschweitphotography.com Ernest J. Schweit

    Truer words were never written, friends.
    As a newspaper editor for more than 30 years, it was drummed into my head very early that my role was to be the unemotional link in the chain from the writer to the reader. “Think like the reader,” I was told.
    Now that I’ve switched careers, I realize newspaper editing was the perfect training ground for photo editing. You must think like your client, or think like a viewer of the image. You are correct: no one cares what went into getting that picture. Its about the image.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/josekalel Jose M.

    Really good article. I think we all go through this, now that digital photography makes it easier to take hundreds of shots of the same thing. I agree with what you said, after the photo shoot, and after you transfer your photos into your PC, you should rid of your emotions of the photo shoot and be objective, and critique your work (I know I do). That doesn’t mean I delete the stuff I don’t like (I still can’t deal with deleting photos), but that means I know what to do next time I take photos, what to aim for. I think your article can apply for those people who upload ten photos of the same thing, and don’t realize how boring and uninteresting that is. Variety is the key.

  • Jennifer Campbell

    Great article. I’ve been guilty of your wedding scenario, thinking the couple will be impressed by a huge volume. But you’re right, it is much more impressive to choose only the very best unique shots. So now, I try to be much more selective of what I present.
    Thank you.

  • Angela

    Good article and I completely agree. Before my boyfriend found out how passionate I was about photography, I did a little photoshoot at his baseball game during a sunset. He absolutly did not understand how I could have 20 remaining pictures from a total of 100+. I hate having more then 5 (that’s pushing it) shots of the same thing so I went back and forth about 20 times between two different pictures of him right before he was about to hit the ball “Why can’t you just keep both!?” Well.. because they both look the same except for a slight change in your leg..

  • http://www.cooksey.id.au Justin Cooksey

    Great article. This is certainly something we all have to learn, regardless of the shoot being professional or social. Who hasn’t sat through holiday slide shows that show the same things to many times. Culling the 100s down to 20-30 is sometimes hard to do, but do it enough and you can get through it quite smoothly.

  • Abel Santos

    Great article. As a photographer for a newspaper I take 30-40 photos on assignment. After going over them with the editor we may only use 1-3 for the story. On a photo essay will use more.

  • Rachel

    This article really rings true with me today. I have just spent hours editing a wedding boring myself silly, just to many photos, something has to change, I really Need to be harsher with the cull, as much as I enjoy the editing I do not have time for to much, it just makes life to complicated for me and the client, you are so right ! Advice taken on board the next shoot I do I shall take heed and follow this advice !

  • Jan

    Great article. I just had a different thought as someone who is not a photographer, but has just had pictures taken. My photographer took almost 300 pics and has narrowed them down to her top 30. The problem is that we have different ideas about my most flattering angles. While the photos she picked are “beautiful” I honestly don’t think I look my best. I wish she had let me look at all of them and I could have easily picked the best 20 for her to spend time editing. Instead, she picked 30 of which there’s only two that I want to use.

  • Jeffrey Guyer

    That’s a good point, Jan. That’s why the photographer and the subject (or client, creative director, editor, etc.) need to sit down and talk about things like this ahead of time. We don’t always agree on what looks best. There needs to be some middle ground.

Some older comments

  • Rachel

    September 17, 2013 11:50 am

    This article really rings true with me today. I have just spent hours editing a wedding boring myself silly, just to many photos, something has to change, I really Need to be harsher with the cull, as much as I enjoy the editing I do not have time for to much, it just makes life to complicated for me and the client, you are so right ! Advice taken on board the next shoot I do I shall take heed and follow this advice !

  • Abel Santos

    September 16, 2013 11:46 pm

    Great article. As a photographer for a newspaper I take 30-40 photos on assignment. After going over them with the editor we may only use 1-3 for the story. On a photo essay will use more.

  • Justin Cooksey

    September 10, 2013 06:39 am

    Great article. This is certainly something we all have to learn, regardless of the shoot being professional or social. Who hasn't sat through holiday slide shows that show the same things to many times. Culling the 100s down to 20-30 is sometimes hard to do, but do it enough and you can get through it quite smoothly.

  • Angela

    September 7, 2013 03:22 am

    Good article and I completely agree. Before my boyfriend found out how passionate I was about photography, I did a little photoshoot at his baseball game during a sunset. He absolutly did not understand how I could have 20 remaining pictures from a total of 100+. I hate having more then 5 (that's pushing it) shots of the same thing so I went back and forth about 20 times between two different pictures of him right before he was about to hit the ball "Why can't you just keep both!?" Well.. because they both look the same except for a slight change in your leg..

  • Jennifer Campbell

    September 6, 2013 11:59 pm

    Great article. I've been guilty of your wedding scenario, thinking the couple will be impressed by a huge volume. But you're right, it is much more impressive to choose only the very best unique shots. So now, I try to be much more selective of what I present.
    Thank you.

  • Jose M.

    September 6, 2013 03:26 am

    Really good article. I think we all go through this, now that digital photography makes it easier to take hundreds of shots of the same thing. I agree with what you said, after the photo shoot, and after you transfer your photos into your PC, you should rid of your emotions of the photo shoot and be objective, and critique your work (I know I do). That doesn't mean I delete the stuff I don't like (I still can't deal with deleting photos), but that means I know what to do next time I take photos, what to aim for. I think your article can apply for those people who upload ten photos of the same thing, and don't realize how boring and uninteresting that is. Variety is the key.

  • Ernest J. Schweit

    September 4, 2013 01:33 pm

    Truer words were never written, friends.
    As a newspaper editor for more than 30 years, it was drummed into my head very early that my role was to be the unemotional link in the chain from the writer to the reader. "Think like the reader," I was told.
    Now that I've switched careers, I realize newspaper editing was the perfect training ground for photo editing. You must think like your client, or think like a viewer of the image. You are correct: no one cares what went into getting that picture. Its about the image.

  • Albert

    September 4, 2013 06:01 am

    I cannot agree more! I try to discipline myself to a minimum of 5 frames per shot or even less. If I cannot get it right in 5 frames, I move on to the next subject. I think that one of the challenges/discipline of being a photographer, is to take your photo's in such a way that it limit post editing to the minimum. It all boils down to applying the basic principles of photography. There is nothing as annoying as to have like a million of the the same shot and then have to go thought them all to select the best and then doing the editing. I even delete the shot on my camera if it does not look good on the camera screen.

  • Dimitri

    September 4, 2013 02:29 am

    EXCELLENT article. I wish everyone, professional or not, would read it. I used to be criticized for not shoot ing a jillion frames of film of something. My response was usually something like "I already got the picture, how many do I need?" Or, "If was shooting video I woujld have brougt my video camera." Again, great article.

  • Albert

    September 3, 2013 04:35 pm

    I cannot agree more! Well said and some sound advice! I think the challenge for every photographer is to take your pictures in such a way that it will limit post editing to the minimum! Also to while you busy taking pictures, to delete the ones that is not so good from your camera before downloading them on your computer. I have even made a rule for myself, I try to limit myself to say 5 frames of the same shot and if I cannot get it right by the 5th time, I move on to the next one.

  • Em

    September 3, 2013 02:56 pm

    Couldn't agree more. I cringe when I see photo collections more that number in the hundreds. I don't have the patience to look through that many photos in one sitting. I'm usually very harsh as far as what I present to the viewing public, client, etc. If it doesn't fit the right composition, or if the lighting was off, or any other little thing that bothers me, I keep it in the archives and move on.

  • Pocatello Photography, Cramer Imaging

    September 3, 2013 11:51 am

    I used to get upset when my classmates and my professor would critique my work and say that it was mediocre. They would also point out areas for improvement. I'm still not so good with the actual verbalizing of a critique, but at least I'm working on making my stuff better. I had to learn to only use the best. I've had to learn that even more in advertizing. There, you show the best of the best of the best. Sure you rotate in new stuff to show that you are not idle, but if it's not meeting that earlier standard, then it will get pulled sooner or later. Divorcing emotions during a critique can be a very difficult thing to do and we all could use some work on that. At least I didn't usually talk during a critique of my own work in school.

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