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…


Great news photography doesn’t just stem from a good photographer. There is are a whole number of people that come together in the planning, execution and reproduction of top class images and the real downside of being a freelancer is that I miss being part of a really great team.

©Neil Turner/TSL | Weymouth, Dorset | December 2007

Being a photographer is usually part of a process. Images are commissioned, stories are bought and sold, edits are done and newspapers are printed. It’s a big and complicated jigsaw and being the person who operates the camera has to be the best part. There is no such thing as a run of the mill commission, but the process often goes like this;

  • The story is commissioned
  • The arrangements are made
  • The photographer is briefed
  • The photographs are taken
  • The edit is done
  • The pages are laid out
  • The newspaper/magazine is printed

There can be upwards of thirty people involved in the whole process and it’s important that the communication is good and that it goes in all directions. Some photographers aren’t as lucky as I am – this piece from the Sports Shooter site is a tongue in cheek rant against bad communications and poor commissioning. Unfortunately lot’s of photographers fail to live up to their obligations, indeed many don’t even recognise that they even have those obligations. It is up to us to talk to the picture editor, the journalist and ask the right questions. Getting the correct information from everyone else in the chain gives the photographer the best possible opportunity to shoot the right photographs and to tell the story in the best way possible. A failure to communicate ties the creative hands of the photographer and drastically reduces their chance of making a great set of pictures.

Sometimes the commissioning editor will forget an important detail, and at other times spelling mistakes and wrong addresses will get in the way of the pictures. Checking details, double checking spellings and discussing the story with the editorial staff will always prove to be time well spent:

  • It helps with the story under discussion
  • It improves your own relationship with the editorial team
  • It goes a little way to improving photographer editorial relations on a world scale!

Of course the picture desk need to do their bit in this vital piece of symbiosis because photographers really appreciate being given accurate information, input into the story and feedback after publication. Two way conversations work, and the industry needs more of them.