|October 6, 2002|
Give That Cat The Boot: Editing 101
The little three-letter word "pro" (it aspires to be a four-letter word but comes up a bit short) has the longest "legs" of any marketing term ever used in photography. Why? What's so important about being a "pro"?
The way I look at it, most professional photography is very competent. On a ten scale, professional work averages in the 8 range, sometimes achieves a 9, and seldom falls below 7. Okay. Fine-art photography and working photojournalism, on the other hand, can sometimes sink to the 4 to 6 level when you take more risks, you fail more but they also give us most all the 10s.
I've never really understood the eternal appeal to the amateur of the
After having thought about the matter for two decades, here are the first principles of what actually, in my opinion, distinguishes pros from the the rest of us:
This week's column isn't about shooting, but I'll make two comments in this context. Pros have two distinct advantages. One is that they accept assignments, and the other is that they shoot even when they don't want to. Assignments are important to your skills because they can stretch you they don't allow you to fall back on your typical M.O., whatever that may be, and go shoot whatever you're most old-shoe comfortable with for the umpteenth time.
Why can't amateurs do self-assignments? Well, we can. But we seldom do, because it requires discipline, and discipline is a commodity in short supply for most of us...especially when we're telling ourselves that we're doing something "for fun."
Also, the things we invent for ourselves as self-assignments usually aren't as challenging as the things an art director or a commercial client can sock a professional with. To give you a brief example, a pro studio photographer I once worked for had to shoot a naked woman wrapped in roofing material, and, later, a bike messenger climbing a skyscraper with a pigeon perched on his helmet.
You can't make crap like that up.
This segues into the second point about shooting, which is that most amateurs shoot when they feel like shooting when they want to, when they're feeling enthusiastic, when they're motivated. Pros shoot whether they want to or not. This is a big advantage for the pros. The more time you spend shooting, the better your results will be. Drag your arse out of the house on a regular basis, and you will do better than if you don't.
This is why I always encourage amateur photographers who want to get better
to set time or volume goals as opposed to results goals.
Edit like a #$%!&er
But where pros really have it all over amateurs and where most amateurs are all wet is in the realm of editing.
Most amateurs are so bad at editing that they don't have to look any further for the reason why their photography is not as good as it could be. In no particular order, here are a few of the pitfalls of amateur editing:
Pick the one you're gonna go with: Rarely published variants on
the most famous portrait of Ernesto (Che) Guevara, by Renι Burri
'Almost' doesn't quite cut it: from Dorothea Lange's proofsheet
How To Become A Better Editor
So how do you get better at this? Well, the usual admonitions apply...be organized, keep up with it (gee, I wish I could take my own advice), don't set impossible goals, keep moving on. But here are a few specific strategies that may help you improve your editing skills.
1. Use time to your advantage. Time can help you sort a jumble into a kind of order that makes sense. I recommend editing in two stages a rough first pass, and then a more considered hard edit after some time has passed. When work is new, it has a different effect on us than when its novelty starts to wear off.
2. Get input. Ask other people! See what others respond to. At the very least, they bring less emotional baggage to the pictures. It's worthwhile to remember that you're the final arbiter, and you're under no obligation to be bound by other peoples' taste. But, assuming you have sufficient spine to make the final decision alone, input may help clarify.
3. Look at real pictures. Don't imagine. Don't edit in your mind. I personally think the best way to do this is to use an Editing Board, a place where you pin up prints of pictures you're trying to sort out your feelings about...In fact, I recommend this so often that my face turned blue a long, long time ago.
The Editing Board is a mystery and a delight, definitely one of the more cool things about photography. If I take fifteen work prints that I just shot and put them up on the board, I might think at first that all fifteen are of roughly the same quality. Then, after looking at them for a week, I find that I really like three of them and couldn't care less about the other twelve. I can't tell you exactly how this happens. It's like, I don't know, cream rising to the top or something. It takes some time, but once that separation occurs there's little doubt in your mind as to which is what. Try this. I can't guarantee it will work for you, but it might. And if it does, it's a powerful, powerful tool.
But however you work, whatever your method, just make sure you look at the actual pictures.
4. Be three times as ruthless as you think you have to be. You get better by doing your best and then moving on, not by trying with infinite patience to salvage everything you shot in the past that has the least little bit of merit (a typical amateur gambit, and one that serves to keep amateurs locked in amateurishness).
5. Finally, don't take editing lightly. Well, not if you aspire to actually accomplish something, that is. (If you're just dicking around, be my guest and do any tomfool thing you want!) Editing is a very important part of the process of being a photographer. If you're still reading this, chances are good that it's an area where your game could stand a bit of improvement.
And I'll let you in on a little secret: that's true for the majority of
photographers. Yup, even pros.
He was East Coast Editor of Camera & Darkroom magazine from 1988 to 1994 and Editor-in-Chief of PHOTO Techniques magazine from 1994-2000, where his editorial column "The 37th Frame" was a popular feature and where he presented, among other things, a set of three articles on "bokeh" by John Kennerdell, Oren Grad, and Harold Merklinger that were subsequently widely discussed among photographers.
His critical and technical writings have appeared in various publications
and newsletters such as The Washington Review and D-Max. A number of his
articles written under the pseudonym "L. T. Gray" (el Tigre) appeared in the
English magazine Darkroom User.
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