An often overlooked skill that is essential for all photographers to learn is photo editing. While photographers focus squarely on technical discussions relating to in-camera capture or post-production, little attention is paid to the critical step of selecting the right photo(s) for presentation. One of the best methods to improve ones photo editing skills is to learn from an experienced photo editor. For that task I approached professional photographer and photo editor Gary Crabbe who was kind enough to share his knowledge on the subject. Enjoy!
Background – As Described by Gary
I spent nearly a decade managing a niche stock agency for world-renowned photographer Galen Rowell. At the time of my departure in 1999, he had a library of nearly 400,000 images, none of which were in any kind of computer database, very few were scanned, there were no keywords, and no images save for his best 1000 had any kind of unique ID number. Still, I and my staff were called on a daily basis to cull through his collection and submit a selection of images for all kinds of client requests, from bunny rabbits, penguins, and polar bears, to hiking the Inca Trail or climbing in the Himalaya, or grand scenics of Yosemite and the High Sierra. We’d look though thousands of images to find just the right one to send to a client, that we felt would fill a particular need. I would often say, I could look over a full sheet of twenty images, and in less than a second know whether there were any images on that page that would even be worth a second look.
These days, in addition to my own freelance photography and book projects, I continue to offer private photo workshops, individual and company consultations regarding photo editing, portfolio development, and image library management.
Why is editing important?
Photography is a communication medium. Every shot is a story that we are trying to tell, to show and inform the viewer. Editing is how we clarify that story, or help it fit within a particular contextual expression. If you start typing random letters on a page, you get gibberish, something nobody can understand, and nobody will care about. If instead of letters you start typing random words, viewers will be able to recognize the words, but there will be no focus or understanding regarding what you are trying to tell them. Start assembling the words, and suddenly people start to more clearly understand what you are trying to explain to them. Give further thought and refinement to how you arrange those words, restructure the grammar to impart more drama into your story, and suddenly you have poetry, prose, or a gripping novel that captures peoples attention, and triggers an emotional connection between the reader (viewer) and the story you have crafted for them.
Editing Photos is no different from editing text. You start with the idea that you want to convey, and then you determine the best way to use and arrange all of the elements at your disposal to make your story as clear, and emotionally accessible as possible. Some of that editing takes place in the field while looking through the view finder, and the rest takes place while comparing shots after the fact.
As a photographer what does photo editing entail? Is there a best practice to follow?
Assuming for editing in this context, we’re referring to after capture editing. Editing is the process by which we sift through our shots of a particular scene, and determine which image has the most dramatic impact, or clarity of subject or story. When taking that one second to review a page of 20 slides, there was always an image which stood out from the crowd, whose focus was so clear, and whose subject was so readily apparent, that there was no doubt within that one instance regarding what that image was about, or the story or emotion it was trying to convey.
Editing is subjective, and photographers are usually our own worst editors, since we’re emotionally invested in the images we make. We want to like everything we’ve taken, and we feel that everyone should respond to our images just the way we hoped or intended.
And in the real world… it doesn’t quite work that way. Editing is personal, and it’s brutally tough if you can be hard enough on yourself to try and view your work objectively and dispassionately. But as best practice, edit out anything out of focus right off the bat. Anything over or underexposed that’s not recoverable… goodbye. Once all the outtakes are moved aside, I generally recommend the half approach. For any scene, or bracketed series, or any number of images, do a first run through and mark any image you think is good. Let’s say out of 100 shots, mark 50. Then of those 50, half them again, down to 25, 12, then be as tough as nails, and try and weed it down to a top 10, or 8, 6, or even 1.
What pitfalls do most photographers often run into when attempting to
edit their work?
Many photographers, myself included have what I called the Magic File Drawer. (digital folder or file cabinet) That’s where you’d put all those over/under exposed or out of focus blurry images, and in a few years, you’d re-open the drawer, hoping against hope that those “gee-I’d-really-wished-that-came-out” image would suddenly emerge perfect and flawless. Learn to let go of those images. I know it’s tough, but it’s understandable given that we’re all so connected to our own images, yet it needs to be done. Next on the list is that most photographers see in the image exactly what they wanted to see, as if they had magic zoom lenses for eyeballs. Yet for all that they see in the image, they most often fail to miss the obvious distractions or compositional flaws that keep the viewer from seeing the story as clearly as the photographer. You need to look at your own images fresh, like you’ve never seen it before, and ask yourself, is this showing what I want to show in the best possible way. If not, is there something I can do to fix or clarify the scene / story.
What does a photographers final edit say about the photographer or their work (to those viewing the final selections)?
Simply put, the combined in-field and post capture editing communicate the strength, style, and potency of the photographers personal vision. The refined editing is what captures the viewers attention and says “Here I Am; Look at me!” The combination of vision and editing determine whether the viewer is going to be hit upside the head with a marshmallow or a mallet. The viewer instantly responds, “oh yeah, wow! I get it” or “um….ok; it’s nice, but I’m not really sure about….”.
Is there a favorite story of yours that you can share when photo editing made an impact in your professional career?
I can’t really think of any one instance that made an impact on my career, probably because I’ve been doing this now for nearly 20 years.
One of the cardinal rules of editing slides or images for clients was “Only give the client what they are asking for”, and don’t throw in totally irrelevant images just because you think it’s a nice image. Yet countless times, I’ve still thrown in an image or two to a submission that I knew wasn’t what the client was asking for, and they’d wind up picking that image. It just goes to prove that editing, like viewing images is a subjective art that defies hard and fast rules. But the bottom line is that it’s a learned talent that takes practice. Listen to your inner critic, yet feel free to follow what your gut says. Sometimes I really love an image, and yet no one else seems to get it, and other times I’ve shot an image that I think is OK, but nothing special, and when I post it to an online photo forum I get raves and comments like “one of the best I’ve ever seen from you”
The one thing I like to leave my consulting and workshop clients with is the saying that people will judge you by your weakest image. Strive always to show your best, or at least find out what you could do to make an image better. Editing is about making your story clearer and your image(s) stronger. Go into that back room closet, or down to the goodwill store, get yourself a nice coat of armored skin, and think “Slash & burn”. The tougher you get, the stronger vision you’ll portray, and viewers will respond.
Sites to See Gary Crabbe’s Photography and Writing
[tags]photography, photo editing, pro tip, best practice, Gary Crabbe[/tags]
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Interesting perspective from a veteran photographer and editor. I like the half, half, half idea. Thank you for bringing in Gary for this post, Jim. Useful information.
Great interview, Jim. Gary definitely has a lot of useful knowledge to offer.
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Great post. An idea that I work a lot on which I think gets overlooked these days.
Great article, Gary & Jim. You’re “weakest image” statement is a great one line summation. Thanks for sharing,
Great interview guys, thank you. I think one of the biggest problems in the digital age is that people don’t edit their work as diligently, thinking that because it doesn’t take up “physical space”, they don’t need to edit as carefully. The thing to remember is that you don’t want to have to sift through all those images down the road when you need that image, it takes too much time. By doing the work now, you have your best images ready to go when you need them. That said, I am guilty of saving way too many slides from shoots of yesteryear.
Gary strikes an excellent tone for what I have found to be a “tough love” subject with my photographers. Got a couple at this moment who I’m going to refer to this interview.
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thank you…….but which is the best editing software
thank you…….but which is the best editing software