13 Ways To Take Better Photographs: Edit Down

Last week, I started off with a story about Joe McNally, a seasoned photojournalist who has shot many stories (at last count, I think it was 27) for National Geographic. He was shooting a story on the sense of sight, and for the assignment, he shot about 1,500 rolls—ROLLS!—of Kodachrome. At 36 shots per roll, that’s 54,000 individual frames. The magazine printed 25 pictures for the story, or roughly one picture for every 60 rolls—ROLLS!!—of film he shot. With that kind of editing, of course he looks great!

I bring this story up because there are really two lessons in it for photographers. First, as I said last week, shoot lots of pictures. Second, throw almost everything away.

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As a matter of technical definition, photography is a receptive medium. All photography begins with a scene in front of an impressionable medium. The photographer does not build an image in the way that a painter or sculptor does; rather, the photographer’s job is to select, always to select. Photographers select the frame that they capture, the boundaries of space that define what becomes the image. Photographers select the moment and duration of time that an image captures. And, perhaps most importantly, the photographer selects which images get seen, and which images do not. In the digital era, when we say ‘editing,’ we mean fiddling around with an image in Photoshop. But traditionally, editing is the process of decision making, and it is a critical skill for any photographer of quality.

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I always put the same lesson this way: I don’t take good pictures; I keep good pictures. I throw out lots and lots and lots of pictures, not because they aren’t good, not because they didn’t capture a moment, but because there is another image that does the same job better. I keep the one that is the best, and no one sees the others, of which there might be five, ten, twenty, or a hundred. With film photography, those outtakes still live on in the contact sheets and strips of negatives. But with digital images, they are gone. Truly gone.

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And no one cares, because the important thing is not to have fifteen okay photographs of my daughters. The important thing is to have one great one. If a photograph does not really speak of their personality, or of something we were doing, I do not hesitate to throw an image out.

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This is what is meant by editing down. Throw out the junk. Be unsentimental about your photography. Discard, discard, discard. Keep only the images that you think you will want to look at, only the images that make you say “Ahh!”

When you start throwing out your mediocre photographs, you learn about your work. What is it that you are keeping? How did you shoot it, and why? What kind of image makes you go back for a second look?

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As you learn the answers to such questions, you will learn to simply not take the pictures that you have been throwing out. You will start taking more of the pictures that you tend to keep, and that means that the average quality of your pictures is going to increase. Now, as you edit down your pictures, you are throwing out pictures that you used to keep, because now the best of the best are starting from a higher level of quality.

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This is how professional photographers work. Shoot a lot, and keep only the best.

Homework: Shoot every day for a week. Keep one, and only one, photograph from each day.

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