A Guest Article: Becoming Your Own Best Editor

A Guest Article: Becoming Your Own Best Editor

In my last article “Photography is Curation” I made a case for curating your work. I had many deep conversations with many photographers about this very subject. One of the most fascinating exchanges I had was with my good friend, Ibarionex Perello. Ibarionex, with whom I had an opportunity to lead a photographic workshop, wrote about this subject in the July 2019 edition of the Medium Format Magazine. Today, I would like to share with you Ibarionex’ article and his stunning imagery. Enjoy!

You can’t discern how talented a photographer is by looking at a single photograph. The image could be the result of skill, but it might just be luck. Only by evaluating a selection of work can you make an honest assessment of a photographer.

However, that selection of images should not be a random selection of what the photographer thinks is their better photographs. Such collections often consist of hits and misses and others that fall somewhere in-between.

When a photographer asks me to critique their images and they want me to look at hundreds of their photographs, I know it will be little other than a fishing expedition. They hope I can make sense of what they’ve created, affirm their talent and make recommendations on how they can build on that.

I completely understand that desire as I have experienced such feelings myself but among the many things I’ve learned, any feedback that I receive is just an opinion. Some of it may benefit me, while some of it may not. The feedback, opinions and recommendations I receive from people will often be contradictory, leaving me more confused than when I started. Reliance on someone else’s point of view has never served as a stepping stone to take my photography to the next level.

Quantity Doesn’t Translate Into Quality

I learned that the making of photographs alone never made me a better photographer. I could take tens of thousands of photographs, but quantity alone doesn’t guarantee improvement. I could increase my familiarity with my camera and improve my technique, but that doesn’t mean better quality. I could read countless books and view hours of video that would increase my knowledge of the craft. None of this naturally segues into understanding how to apply that information to my creative practice.

That kind of thinking eventually led me to moments of disappointment and frustration. I looked at my work and compared it to that of the people I admired and only saw the disparity between their photographs and mine. Although I believed I understood the photographic process as well as they did and used equipment much like theirs, I couldn’t understand why my body of work didn’t measure up to theirs. I too-easily assumed that it was an issue of natural talent and that I was lacking.

Becoming an Editor

But it wasn’t that I lacked talent. The real reason I struggled was that I missed an essential skill—I didn’t understand how to be my own editor. And by editor, I don’t mean my skills in Photoshop, but rather my ability to cull my images. Editing is the ability not only to choose which images are better than others but to organize them into a body of work that demonstrates vision and a clear point of view.

Despite the reliance of photography on technical knowledge, equipment, and a repeated methodology, the ultimate driver is the mind. Our subconscious gives us the means to recognize the potential of a subject or scene for a photograph. It is where that spark of inspiration is born that boosts our heart rate as we raise the camera to take a photograph.

The challenge lies in making sense of what the subconscious was up to when it prompted the photograph and that understanding comes through the process of editing.

Despite the wealth of educational material on photography, there is very little to be found on the process of editing one’s own work. The lack of a clear and methodical approach makes the editing seem like something out of the Wild West: anything goes. From the lacklustre results I have seen in the portfolios I have reviewed, it’s a challenge faced by most photographers.

Becoming a good editor is an acquired skill so here are a few suggestions that may help you to become your own best editor.

Create Categories

Create collections of the category of photography that you practice, e.g., landscape, portrait, close-up, street photography, etc. If you favour only one type of photography, create sub-categories. If you enjoy landscapes, the sub-categories could be water, sky, close-ups, sunsets, etc.

When reviewing your images from a recent shoot, rate your better images with a pick flag, a star or a colour rating. It doesn’t matter which, as long as you remain consistent. Put your highest-rated images in the appropriate category or subcategory.

Limit the number of images in each collection to approximately 25. When you reach this number of images, you can begin making comparisons.

Contrast and Comparison

Look through the 25 images and choose one image that you believe is the stand-out, the best of the best. If you struggle with making this decision, simply choose the image that best represents what you are aspiring to create as a photographer. Assign this image a higher rating such as a single star. This is your benchmark image.

Next, compare this image to the other 24 and make a judgment call. If the next image as good as your benchmark, it stays. If it doesn’t, remove it from the collection. If you have multiple versions of a scene or subject, narrow down your choice to just one. Continue this until you have eliminated 10 images from that collection.

This can be hard to do, especially if you are emotionally attached to your photographs, but it’s a necessary part of the editing process. You have to learn to make those hard choices. Remember that the choices are not permanent. This doesn’t delete the images from your hard drive. It’s just a necessary part of the editing process.

As you continue to produce more work and again fill out your collection to 25, repeat this process to see which new images find a home in the collection and which need to be eliminated.

The Survey mode in Adobe Lightroom Classic CC provides the perfect tool for doing this easily and efficiently.

Getting Your Core 8

As you practice this process throughout the year, you will begin to discern which images you favour and why. You will teach yourself how to recognize the visual elements you gravitate to, your strengths in composition and even themes and ideas. That clarity will help you edit your images at the end of the year to your Core 8 photographs.

The Core 8 are the photographs in each category that best represent what you’ve accomplished as a photographer that year. It is the means by which you not only make a judgment call on the quality of the individual images but how they came together as a body of work.

It is the same practice that you applied previously but instead of narrowing down the images to 12, you are choosing a final eight. Again, choose a benchmark image, which will likely have changed from earlier in the year. You then contrast and compare until you have culled the images to a final eight.

This can be the most difficult part of the entire process as you are hopefully looking at some exceptional photographs. But this time, you are looking at the photographs as a body of work. One of your favourite images might be beautiful and striking, but does not fit or flow with the other images that you’ve selected. That doesn’t mean this image won’t find a home somewhere. It just means that in terms of your Core 8 it isn’t appropriate.

When you are done with each collection, you will have a representative body of your very best images in each category or subcategory for the year. If you have created four categories or sub-categories, you will have compiled a selection of 32 images, an ideal size for a portfolio or web gallery.

Detach Emotionally

The most difficult thing when going through this process is to detach emotionally from your work. Sometimes, you become so invested with the story behind the images or what you went through to capture it, that you lose your objectivity. The story may be great and the challenge commendable, but the image and the collection can’t be about that. The work has to stand on its own.

After practicing this approach repeatedly over time, you will find that such detachment comes more easily. And as you see that your body of work is stronger and more consistent, you will trust not only in your ability as a photographer but also as an editor.

Ibarionex Perello is a photographer, writer, and educator. He is also the host of The Candid Frame photography podcast which he has been producing since 2006. He has authored half a dozen books on the subject of photography including his latest, Making Photo- graphs: Developing a Personal Visual Workflow. Find out more about him and his work by visiting www.thecandidframe.com

2020 © OLI Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.

Photography is Curation (Part 1)

Photography is Curation (Part 1)

In the last year, I’ve worked on photography from a slightly different angle than before. Most of my life I have crafted and curated my own images. In the last two years I have had the chance to work with an incredible team at the Medium Format Magazine, which exposes me to a different way of looking at photography. I was not only curating my own photography, but I was curating ideas and imagery for the magazine. This process reinforced my views about the importance of curation and pushed it to the forefront of my photographic thought.

I am well aware that in today’s over-sanitized world of photography, writing about this topic may not be the smartest choice but those of you who have followed me for a while know that I write “as it is” regardless of social moods or trends. A few posts ago I touched on the topic of curation and its importance. In short, I loosely defined the process of curation as “the impartial selection and revaluation of a photographer’s own work for the purpose of presenting one image or a series of images.”

After having in-depth conversations and working with the best photographers in the world, I came to the conclusion that one trace, one common feature among them all is this: they are all great curators! In other words, they have gained the visual proficiency and emotional maturity to curate their own work honestly, thoughtfully and ruthlessly. If the last word sounds strange and rough – it is and I chose it deliberately. 

Why do most people have such a problem with curating their work? There are many reasons, some external and some internal. There is no question that among the most prominent factors is the industry itself, especially in recent years. With the explosion of YouTube channels, blogs and social media, credentials to share, inspire and teach have been reduced to owning a camera and a megaphone – the louder the better. It is especially true on YouTube, which has created an entire generation of YouTube stars who cannot shoot but quickly turned into internet gurus. I will pass up giving examples, but it is not difficult to prove my point – just look at the imagery (if there is any) of some of the most popular youtubers. The formula is always the same: 

  1. Inspire – or in other words, use clichés and in-the-moment slogans for people to LIKE and SUBSCRIBE. 
  2. Teach – or in other words, repeat beaten-to-death dogmas and teaching points so it feels good, it is easy and under no circumstances forces the viewer to do any hard work.
  3. Fit into the current social narrative or, even better, create a controversy which has nothing to do with crafting great imagery. 

In short, the objective is to make everyone feel warm and cozy. As you may suspect, the process of curation becomes the first casualty of this nonsense. The situation is even more dire in the photographic groups. The slightest suggestion of any sort of curation is met with the mob-like response sprinkled with the usual slogans such as “How dare you judge my work” and “In art everything goes.” In the meantime, great photographers throughout history have built the case by shooting great imagery but, most importantly, by carefully choosing which images are printed and shared with the public. Furthermore, they stood by their work and defended it successfully against the army of vicious critics (and it is a good thing they did!). 

Fine, Olaf, but how do I start? It always starts with you and me. In my early days as a photographer I thought I was a good photographer. I liked my work but in reality, my imagery was poorly crafted and simply boring. It wasn’t until I met my mentor who, in rather direct language, pointed out the mediocrity of my work. What’s even worse is that I was shooting too much and sharing too much. I fell into the common trap of “I like it so it must be great” fallacy. 

I quickly realized that the fact I took a photo and liked it, meant nothing! Quite the opposite. Step by step I became critical of my work, asking uncomfortable questions. The more uncomfortable they were, the more I realized how poor my craft was. I was living in a fantasy land propelled by the LIKE fantasy of the FB. 

When questioned by some of my mentors, I started working on curating my work, which I found even more difficult than shooting the imagery itself. A thousand question marks appeared in my head. This is where the internal process of detaching myself from my photography began. I looked at every image with new eyes, questioning its visual validity, composition and even purpose. 

One of the first outcomes of this process was the realization that when I reviewed some imagery I couldn’t answer the very simple question: “Olaf, why did you take this photo?” It became clear that almost every image which came with the answer “I don’t know” was poorly done and was a prime candidate for deletion. The habit of “because I can” or “just in case” quickly disappeared, which was huge progress already. In practical terms, when I was out shooting, I would not press the shutter button if I couldn’t find a reason to capture the image. 

Then, I developed a process during which I would review my work right after shooting it. In this process, any doubt about an image equated with the delete action; no second guessing or finding excuses to keep it. The more I practiced this procedure, the more I liked it. After each session I was left with less and less imagery – this by itself was a huge step forward in my curation process.

In time, reviewing my work has become as important as shooting. Interestingly, each function complemented the other and fed on the other in unexpected ways. I noticed that my curation process directly affected the way I shot. I started curating scenes and frames BEFORE I took them. At one point I would spend three or four hours daily going through my imagery and deleting most of it. 

Here are some of the criteria I applied:

Is this a cliché? Have I seen this idea many times before? If so, is this image technically or artistically one of the best I have seen or it is just like most of them? When in doubt – delete!

Is it possible to shoot this particular visual idea better? What would I change? Would better light help? Should I think more about composition? 

One question which I always ask when looking at an image is: Was there a way to minimize the number of elements in the frame? And in 99% of cases my honest answer was YES. THERE IS ALWAYS A WAY TO MAKE AN IMAGE SIMPLER!

How does this image represent my visual brand? Am I excelling or staying at the same level?

Is the image elegant? Why did I include the subject in its entirety? What if I could show just part of it?

Does this image stand on its own? What if I share it in a sequence? If so, what would the order be in order to maintain visual balance and scrolling continuity? 

Then I play the devil’s advocate. I started finding weaknesses in my image. Why didn’t you place your subject more to the left? How about this pocket of light in the corner? Is it distracting? Does it add anything to the image? Why colour? Why black and white? I questioned even my best images. Only images which I could defend from my own attacks had the chance of remaining in my catalogue.

The entire process, once done honestly and regularly, develops a certain sense of design and taste. The best comparison with the idea of visual taste is with wine. I rarely drink wine but on occasion I do have a sip. Of course, I could tell you which wine I liked or I disliked BUT that doesn’t mean it is a good or bad wine. I have no reference, experience or expertise. Only someone who had studied the wine industry and tasted a huge variety of wines around the world could develop proficiency and expertise. That person would be able to distinguish good from bad wine and, most importantly, articulate why. The same with photography.

To be continued…

2020 © OLI Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.