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A weekly column by Mike Johnston

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 three-letter word.

Pro Quality

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:

  • They shoot a lot more.

  • They edit a lot better.

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:

  • Amateurs don't limit themselves to the best shot. They'll "work" a subject and shoot a roll or two, and keep every picture they think is good — even if there are eight or ten of them and even if several of the pictures are very similar. Friends, the very soul of good editing is to pick one that really matters and throw the rest aside. You gotta choose. Difficult and painful though that may be.

Pick the one you're gonna go with: Rarely published variants on
the most famous portrait of Ernesto (Che) Guevara, by Renι Burri

  • One of the very hardest things for amateur editors to do is to let go of near-misses. We may have had high hopes for a particular shot. We may have almost achieved something great. But always remember, the key word there is "almost" — not "great." Let 'em go. I know, it's tough.

  • Sometimes amateurs don't shoot enough to even get a good shot. Everything they're dealing with editing is in reality a near-miss or worse! When all you've got is chaff and there's no wheat, it makes editing exponentially tougher. Solution: entertain in your mind the possibility that all the pictures you're trying to edit from actually suck, and there isn't a single good one in there. Hey, it's not so bad. It happens to all of us sometimes.

  • Amateurs are sentimental. It's not the greatest picture of a kitten, but he's such a cute little kitten. How could anybody not like the little guy?

    Be ruthless. Give that cat the boot.

  • Spend time at it: Sometimes amateurs fail in editing simply because they don't bother to do it. In general, pros spend a great deal more time editing than amateurs do. First of all, they have to, because they shoot a lot more. But they also know that editing is the flip side of shooting, and almost as important to the final result. Remember, pros aren't necessarily more talented than you are: they just shoot more and show less.

  • Don't confuse related but separate issues with the picture in front of your nose. Example #1...You used your best new Leica lens you're so proud of, and the picture is soooo sharp. Bah — If it's a bad picture, the fact that you took it with your new 28mm Summicron just means it's a sharp bad picture. Cull it. Example #2...The picture looks kinda like a famous shot you saw in a book. You're not entirely sure what makes a good picture good anyway, so you chose something that looks like somebody famous took it. Sorta. Example #3...You worked so hard to get that shot — you got special permission to get some kind of special access, you went home to get your super tele zoom, you waited for just the right light. Clue: you get zero credit for crap like this. Viewers will not be saying to themselves, "Well, it's a pretty ordinary shot that really doesn't do anything for me, but you know, I'll bet he worked really hard to get it." Don't be sentimental about your own labor. Let go of your memories of how much you wanted it to work and how hard you worked to get it to work, and just look coldly at the picture you got.

    You get the idea.

  • "To thine own self be true."

'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 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.

—Mike Johnston

Mike Johnston writes and publishes an old-fashioned, entertaining quarterly ink-on-paper newsletter called The 37th Frame ( He has a B.F.A. in Photography from the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C., where he was a student of the late Steve Szabo and of Joe Cameron.

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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