The anguish of editing your own pictures

©Neil Turner. London, January 2011

I’ve written about this kind of thing many times but it seems to come to the forefront of my photographic consciousness over and over again so I hope that you will forgive me if none of this is new.

There are a lot of great reasons why photographers have to edit their own work. They are the only ones who truly know what was shot, why it was shot that way and how well the pictures reflect the situation. For news photographers the idea of someone else doing their edits is, largely, a far-fetched and even unwelcome notion. It is happening more and more though.

Some of the big wire agencies and more progressive newspapers are using direct wireless transmission from cameras to editors on big sports and news jobs where the time between shooting the pictures and getting them to market is absolutely critical.

If, however, time is not quite so much of an issue photographers like to sit down and go through their own pictures, make their own selections, add their own captions and prepare the files for delivery. That’s how I’ve worked for the last fifteen years or so and even before then I was often in charge of my own edits because that was how things were done.

Every once in a while (mostly on commercial shoots) someone else edits my pictures. I find it both liberating and scary in equal measure. The liberation is that I get to concentrate on shooting pictures and the scary bit is that someone else gets to see everything – the good, the bad and the downright indifferent. What if they miss the subtlety of that amazingly constructed picture on the second memory card? What if they don’t appreciate the ultra-shallow depth of field that I grafted so long and hard to realise?

There’s a good counter-argument to that of course: If a professional editor doesn’t get what I was trying to do, neither will the client, neither will the designer and neither will the viewer. There are some pictures that you take on almost every shoot that are there for you and for you alone. That is true but every once-in-a-while those pictures do get used. Every once-in-a-while somebody else gets your vision and loves the ‘weird one’ as much as you hoped that they would.

Editing your own work is a tough thing to do. Try editing a full set of someone else’s pictures and you will realise just how easy it is to be dispassionate and just how readily you are able to discard pictures that don’t work. Editing your own work can be a minefield. Every step can bring a very tricky decision. What about the pictures that you have a personal emotional connection with? What about the pictures that you have overcome huge technical challenges to secure? What about the pictures that don’t actually add to the edit or make sense as part of a set?

Taking a shoot and making sense of the pictures from that shoot is a skill that very few photographers ever truly get right. Those that do are blessed and really lucky because they avoid the regular pain and anguish of having to ignore their own ‘babies’.

I have four things that come into my mind every time I am struggling to decide about a single frame: light, composition, subject matter and technical quality. If all four are right the picture goes in. If three out of four are right it will probably make it too. Less than three and that’s where the anguish begins…


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