This article was previously published in the Spring/Summer 2011 issue of Outdoor Photography Canada. If you don’t want to wait nearly 2 years to see these articles then subscribe to this great magazine 😉
Photographers are their own worst editors. We are simply too emotionally invested in our images to be objective about them and, as a result, we keep a lot of images that really should have seen the deep end of the trash bin. A critical skill to develop is to remove our bias toward our work and look at our images with a healthy skepticism.
For me, the ultimate test of a photo’s value is the test of time. Does it still excite you and have meaning a week, month, year and even ten years after you snapped the photo? If it does, then the image is a keeper. But in a practical sense we simply can’t let our images age like wine and come back ten years later for a taste test to pick out the keepers. What we need is a system that lets us be objective in the shorter term.
Many of us come back from a shoot and then edit immediately looking for the ‘killer shots’. Often we use a rating system and rank our favourites as 5-star images. These 5-star images get processed right away; we quickly share them on the web and show them to friends. The 4-star and lower rated images we store on hard-drives, forgotten about until maybe (a big maybe) we revisit them many months later and cherry-pick a couple of ‘over-looked’ images. The remaining images gather pixel dust languishing in a library of forgotten hard-drives. We vow at the beginning of each new year to ‘deal’ with these languishing images but probably never will. Possibly we hope that like wine, the longer these images are ‘aged’, the better they will get. They don’t.
I find if I process images immediately after a shoot that I keep more images than I would if I returned to edit the images at a later date. As well, some of the 5-star images in my initial pick aren’t really that good after all! And surprisingly some images that I initially rank low actually end up being my favorite images. Time removes my emotional attachment and lets me edit more objectively. For instance in a recent shoot from the Cypress Hills in October of last year, I immediately went through the 500 images I shot in four days and kept nearly 100 images. If I had processed all these keepers right away I would have ended up with a whole bunch of filler images and only a few really worth hanging onto. Recently I went back and looked at those 100 ‘keepers’ and tossed away 80 of them I initially thought were great! In the end, time proved to me that there were really only 20 images worthy of adding to my files.
So the moral is that I try to build time into my editing workflow. Immediately after a shoot I will do a preliminary edit. In this edit, I delete obvious errors: photos that have poor focus, bad exposure and flawed compositions are removed. All the rest of the photos I keep and back up on an external hard-drive. Then, and this is the critical key, I wait at least a month before I return to final editing of the photos. After a month all the excitement of the shoot is gone; I have moved on emotionally, and I can be objective and ruthless. I become a machine on the delete key!
In this final edit, the images I initially thought were killer have lost a lot of lustre and some overlooked gems emerge. I see the shoot with fresh eyes and I can quickly pull out images that have lasting impact and clarity of message. In the end, I keep ten percent or less of the images that I shot. The rest are permanently deleted. My system is lean and mean and my image library is filled with only my best work. Time is your best friend when it comes to objective photo editing: use it wisely! To learn more about how Samantha and I use time and the delete key to make better editing choices be sure to come to our Enhancing Story and Mood in the Digital Darkroom talk on January 21, 2013 in Cochrane, Alberta (NOTE: this talk is only offered to Persistent Vision workshop participants, so don’t delay if you were planning on coming to that event March 15-17, 2013.)