Distanced makes the heart grow fonder.

Distanced makes the heart grow fonder.

I hidden jewel revealed after a two year wait.

A comment I often hear amongst photographers is how they are terrible at editing their own work. This isn’t just among young photographers, even the most seasoned professional find it difficult to edit their own work. I can’t tell you how many times I have e-mailed an image to a friend to get their feedback, because I was uncertain of the impact of the image. It’s no secret why this is difficult. It simply comes down to we are emotionally tied to the images we make. We are there experiencing everything around us, the sounds, the smells, the pushing and shoving, the laughter, the tears the incredible tension or unbelievable happiness of the moment. All these things serve to impact our vision in the way we feel about an image. The problem is the rest of the world doesn’t see, feel or experience any of these things. All they get is what’s in the final frame and that’s it.

When we look through a series of images we view them with history and this makes it very difficult to be unbiased and ruthless in our edits. So, how do we combat this problem? Recently, I’ve been reading through “The Passionate Photographer” by Steve Simon, and he lists editing as one of the ten steps towards becoming great. He gives an example of Garry Winogrand. Winogrand died at the early age of 56 with over 2,500 36-exposure rolls of film unprocessed, 6,500 rolls of film that were developed but not contact-printed and another 3,000 apparently untouched and unedited contact sheets. Why did he have so much of his work undeveloped and unprocessed? Winogrand was a prolific shooter and almost never looked at his images within the same year. Thus when he passed away he left all this work on finished. Winogrand is quoted saying,

“If I was in a good mood when I was shooting one day, then developed the film right away,” he told us, I might choose a picture because I remember how good I felt when I took it, not necessarily because it was a great shot.
You make better choices if you approach your contact sheets cold, separating the editing from the picture taking as much as possible”[1. Resnick, M. (1988, July). Coffee and workprints: A workshop with Garry Winogrand. Modern Photography] A workshop with Garry Winogrand. Modern Photography

In this case, out of sight out of mind, works in your favor. Not many of us have the ability or the self-discipline to sit on an image, let alone 6,000 images for over a year before we look at them. But here’s something you can do. I wish I could say that this was a workflow that I consciously have developed over time.  In fact, it is a product of laziness that has actually come to serve me well.

When I shoot an assignment I review my images daily. I make daily edits and I send them onto the client or later send them a web-based contact sheet. I will go through and pick my favorites and images that stand out immediately. I will delete those that are grossly out of focus or seem to be inappropriate for whatever reason. At this point after the assignment I’m basically done with those images. I store them on multiple hard drives and pick out one or two images for a blog post, then forget about them. Later, perhaps six months to a year I might go back and look through the images again. This time with a fresh approach. With less emotion and connection to the actual images. It’s similar to what Winogrand suggests only with an element of immediate satisfaction built into it. When you go back through after a year look at your images critically, be ruthless.  Do any grab your attention?  Do any have emotion? Do they communicate anything? Now is the time you can make some drastic cuts. While making these cuts you’ll find images that you didn’t see before. Some will stand out like a brand-new photo, having just been shot. You’ll wonder, where did this image come from? You may not even remember having taken it. Yet now it seems to be a striking image. It’s because you’ve distanced yourself from your own work. Now, you become your own best editor.

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About The Author

Matt Brandon

Matt is a Malaysia based humanitarian and travel photographer. Well known as a photographer and international workshop instructor, Matt’s images have been used by business and organizations around the globe. Matt also on the design board for Think Tank Photo, a camera bag manufacturer. In 2013 Matt founded the On Field Media Project to train the staff of non-profits to use appropriate technology to produce timely as well as quality images.

12 Comments

  1. Matt Brandon

    Having trouble editing your own images? Me too. Maybe this will help.

    Reply
  2. cfimages

    I take a similar approach. If it’s an assignment, I’ll send selects to the client ASAP and then leave the rest archived months or years later. If it’s personal work, I’ll often do a rough edit with the 1 star rating basically to weed out the junk. Then I’ll let those sit for anywhere from days to months before going back and refining that done to a selection that get processed. Everything gets archived even the junk – hard drive space is cheap, after all. I’ve recently taken a look through some of my earliest DSLR images shot in Thailand in early 2005 as I made the transition from chromes to pixels. Some images that I thought were terrible, have actually received a new lease of life thanks to a mixture of Lightroom 4 and Nik Color Efex 4. 

    Reply
    • Matt Brandon

       Yeah, Lightroom 4 is freaking amazing! But the beta is really full of bugs, be careful. I recently went through images form Sumatra from 2 years ago and found some new gems that I just didn’t see. It also helps that a few of them I had given up on as the light/exposure was not the best, but I was able to really work with these and pull some nice stuff out in LR 4b.

      Reply
  3. Matt Welsh

    This is absolutely true for me. I often send out exactly what the client needs and I’m confident about, and then archive off the rest. Anywhere from 6 months to a year later I comb through them again using the same narrowing system I first use and I usually find new images I’d dismissed at first pass.

    Reply
  4. Ben Seelt

    Yes, had this in the past: not being able to select what was really worthwile immediately after the shoot. I always processed immediately after the shoot because i was (and am) exited and curious knowing what i did. Sometimes it was disappointing what i saw than. These days i know when i make it that it is good, and yes it is good when editing. Its the LCD on the camera not so much as my developed insight through the years of what quality really is.

    Reply
    • Matt Brandon

      Ben, I recently lead a workshop where we asked all the students to turn off their LDC, and not check their images till they were done. (Another Steve Simon's idea pg 61) it was really a challenge and made everyone much more aware of their metering. It took all of us back to the basic, just by not looking at that little screen. Crazy.

      Reply
  5. Bernard Henin

    NIce post Matt. While I do work like you (daily checks) what you write about is exactly how I rediscovered some pictures of the Taj Mahal I took 2 years ago. Sometimes a good picture is like a good wine, give them time to mature 🙂

    Reply
  6. Ed

    I just finished that same chapter in Steve Simon’s book and am really enjoying it. I’d love to hear him with you on Depth of Field. For me the hardest thing to do is let the body of work sit when you have little out there already. However, I am managing to do that for two long term projects I am working on. I do make some selections as I go but very rarely immediately after finishing. So my process is very similar to yours and his when working on a personal project: upload everything to the computer because ultimately you cannot feel an image even on the larger LCD screens of cameras today > delete those that are wildly out of focus or completely missed the moment/composition > let them sit and brew for a while, weeks or months > start to make some wide selections and edit gradually from there. I hope to start putting working prints of selections for the final edit up on my wall soon for one of these projects and select from there.

    I imagine editing for a client is quite different as hopefully you know what they want having discussed it beforehand and so can edit for that specifically. But on top of that you can through in some absolute corkers that stand out to you and therefore show them the creativity or eye they hired in the first place and maybe they go with one of those instead.

    I’ll confess this is coming from someone who is not in the industry but that is how it seems to me having worked with one client and on mostly personal stories until now. Would love to hear any more discussion around this.

    Reply
    • Matt Brandon

       The invite has been given to him. Just waiting to hear back.

      Reply
  7. Piotr Gołębiowski

    I agree with what you say here Matt. I must admit that I was/I'm to lazy to edit my own work and for some time I was angry with me for not doing the edits right after the photoshoots. Sometimes it's better just to let the photographs sit in hiding for some time.

    Reply
  8. peter berg

    I’m hearin’ ya! I looked over my portfolio and thought “why on earth is that picture in there!” Good reminder – must re-visit 🙂

    Reply
    • Matt Brandon

      Kind of opposite to what I was using as an example, but exactly the same point. After time and the dust settles, we not only see the gems we didn’t see before, but we see some stuff that our connection to the moment really clouded our judgment on. We now see them objectively and realize they don’t below in the cut after all. Good point.

      Reply

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