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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.
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.