Even though it’s easier than ever today to operate a camera and produce a picture, it’s no easier to recognize the most compelling images among your outtakes and make collective sense of them. In fact, the extensive output digital technology enables can make it even more difficult: while the haystack of digital files can grow to immense proportions, the number of needles (i.e. meaningful pictures) necessary to evoke a theme or narrative remains quite small.
However, being able to find the best pictures among a group of images and to understand what links them is one of the key skills that distinguishes photographers from people who take pictures.
For many of us, selecting our most compelling images is an elusive task, one that involves patience, open mindedness, and deliberation. Even the most seasoned photographers have to dismantle the blocks that keep them from seeing their photographs clearly, because no two shoots are alike, and they know that the better the editor they are of their own images, the more powerful and valuable their images become.
We street photographers are largely motivated by a personal passion, so removing our subjectivity in order to determine what photographs are strongest can be particularly challenging. In order to demystify the editing process, I spoke to photographer and educator Karen Marshall, a seminar leader in the full-time Documentary Photography and Photojournalism at The International Center of Photography in New York City, who says that “learning how to see your images objectively is a muscle you can strengthen just like any other.”
Set an Intention
Marshall, who has specialized in teaching personal vision by way of photo editing for over twenty years, says the first step is to set an initial intention, and that “doing so guides you to what your work is about in general.” Setting an intention at the outset is a way of clarifying your initial motivations to yourself, a jumping off point that gets your quest started. “Whether your intention is to photograph the backyard because the light is nice, the structure of buildings, or the population in a refugee camp, it’s really important when you photograph to have some kind of understanding of what you’re looking at, some kind of set goal.”
Alter Your Intention Later, If Need Be
As important as it is to set an initial intention, it doesn’t mean you have to stick with it if it isn’t working or possible at the time of photographing. Novice and accomplished photographers alike can go out with “a really great assumption about what they're photographing,” Marshall says, “only to end up doing something entirely different, and you have to understand that that is okay.”
“For example, you might think you’re going out to photograph people who have been displaced by a fire, and in the end you have no access to the people so you resort to photographing fragments from the fire. But in the language of photography, that could be a lot more profound to the viewer than if you had actually photographed the people. Photography is a process,” Marshall maintains, and to remain true to it, you have to trust the winds will guide you.
Allow Your Photographs to Respond
After the shoot is over and you look at the images you’ve made, “you have to find your ‘best’ pictures and let them tell you what you ended up seeing,” Marshall says. “You have to allow that initial idea of what you thought you were looking at recede into the background and allow yourself to find what you consider the best photographs. Once you’ve found these photographs, they will tell you what you are doing. And at that point it’s almost like you reinstate your intention.”
Marshall gives the example of someone interested in architecture going out to photograph buildings, but the resulting images that “float to the top are more about the beauty of how the light works with the geometry of the buildings,” she says. “So when the photographer recognizes that, it actually redefines what he or she is doing. It brings the photographer one step closer to making a resolved body of work.”
Continue to Develop a Relationship With Your Photographs
Much like a conversation, this back and forth between photographers and their pictures allows them to be good editors of their work, because it enables them to develop and refine their relationship with their photography over time: they make pictures, the photographs respond, the photographers listen and then make more pictures accordingly, then those resulting pictures respond again, and so on.
And, as is often the case in relationships, those who are good listeners fare best, because they take the time to understand the perspective the images are showing them, instead of remaining mired down in their own point of view.
Put Aside Your Back Story
Acquiring “back story syndrome,” as Marshall calls it, is one of the biggest obstacles photographers face in being able to objectively look at and listen to their photographs. “You need to be able to step back and remove yourself from the experience you had making the photograph in order to see it clearly. When you’ve had a particularly intense experience photographing, the memories can be so strong it can cloud your judgment of what the photographs depict."
For example, if you have a very positive experience photographing, you might mistake a lackluster image for an interesting one. Conversely, you might have such a strongly negative experience photographing you fail to recognize any exceptional photographs you made. “Photography is a visual medium. What photographers need to care about is what the photograph actually shows. So you have to figure out how to view your pictures as if you have no context or associations with the image.”
Look at Your Pictures—a Lot—and Over Time
To prevent your back story from creeping in as you assess your photographs, Marshall recommends looking at your pictures at various points in time in order to get an honest assessment of what’s there. Time plays a very helpful role in editing: as it passes, it breaks down our expectations of our images and fades our memory of making them, which aids in clarifying our vision.
“Part of becoming a good editor is practicing at it. It’s a muscle that you can develop, much like dancers who strengthen muscles that help them with the choreography so that when they dance it’s not just technically correct but expressive as well. The amount of time you spend going over your pictures and having experiences with them is like building up muscles that support your final understanding of them.”
Be Patient As You Edit
Time also quiets that pesky voice of insecurity and disappointment that so often blinds us, according to Marshall. You might find it heartening to know that it’s normal to have a wildly extreme, roller coaster ride of an experience while assessing your outtakes. Award-winning portrait photographer Gregory Heisler, in his book Gregory Heisler: 50 Portraits (which I highly recommend), writes:
“Often, the first look is completely discouraging. The picture almost always looks like a failure. The color’s not right. The exposure is off. Or, more often than not, the subject’s just not worth it. The first edit of the whole shoot is usually equally disheartening, because I’m seeing all of the off moments and mistakes. (It’s at this time that I silently vow never to take another photograph.) By the second round, things are looking up; the processing has been tweaked, the total rejects have been removed (but not discarded, not yet), and the shoot looks like it may be salvageable. At the end of the third go-through, things look pretty good, and it’s just a matter of cherry-picking the best from the lot. And by the time that’s completed and I have my ‘selects,’ my optimism has been restored and I can live on to photograph another day.”
This—coming from someone who photographed more than 70 cover portraits for Time magazine!
Cast a Wide Net, Then Zero In
Because the experience of looking at outtakes can be so confounding, especially at first, Marshall recommends casting a wide net initially. “First I look at all of my outtakes—I just look. And then I go back and mark every photograph that strikes my interest, including photographs that are maybe just great ideas but have problems. Then I look at them a third time and start grouping the pictures I’ve marked: group C I might eliminate completely because I know they don’t work; then I have groups A and B, which I don’t separate completely, I’m just looking at them.”
“I’m trying to be in love with my pictures until I find the ones that are the best, but I also know how to say goodbye. Photography is like sculpture, in that you’re just chiseling away pieces of stone until you see your form start to take a coherent shape.”
Categorize Your Images
After culling the better images from the others, Marshall advocates placing the good pictures into files or categories as a way of analyzing them. For example, your initial intention was to photograph people crisscrossing the corner of a city block. When you come home, you place your best pictures into groups: you might have a group that portrays details of people’s feet, another group of women in hats, another comprising environmental portraits of people you stopped and talked to, etc. Each day that you go back and photograph that city block, you keep adding to these piles, slowly building up boxes or files of all the good images, eliminating all but the very best in each set every time you add to them.
“By categorizing your images, you’re able to start having a conversation about what it is you’re doing. Sometimes that categorizing leads you to your intention of what the project is actually about. Sometimes it helps you understand the different sources of photographs you’re taking in a situation, to account for what you have and identify what is missing. You’re making these piles or selections just to converse with yourself about the actual strategies you were using, whether you knew it or not, when you were out on the field. Later you might put the best of each category together and there is a clear link that binds them.”
“In order to understand your images, it’s key to get feedback from others,” Marshall says. “But make sure you ask for it without letting people know your entire agenda. ‘Contaminating’ them with your intentions or back story beforehand can lead them down a path that keeps them from being the objective observer you want them to be. It’s okay to talk to them about that later,” Marshall contends, “but not initially.”
“You also have to be mindful of who you show your
photographs to. For example, some people only like pretty pictures, so that’s
all they will like. Another person might be very formal in the way they look at
things, so they’re only interested in very tight, uncomplicated compositions
and they don’t care about anything else. So you have to take a little bit from
everybody and understand where the feedback coming from."
However, if the majority of people like a certain picture you’ve been ambivalent about or even dislike, “you have to listen to that and ask yourself why you’re being indecisive. You need to at least keep that picture in your edit until you’ve resolved that disparity,” she says.
Know Your Objective
“There are many different reasons we edit our photographs: we edit to understand our work, we edit for a client, we edit for our family,” Marshall says. “So when you select your best pictures, you have to know what you are editing for.”
“For example, if you make photographs at your friend’s wedding, you’re going to look for the best pictures that describe the wedding: the classic moments, the highlights of the event, the most emotional times. But you may also find a few images that push the envelope so to speak, that are a little weird or challenging to some degree; perhaps you keep those images for your own edit and don’t include in theirs.” While you want to remain agile and open-minded as you assess your images, being aware of your objective helps you make a more focused and appropriate selection.
Be True to Yourself
“The relationship you have with your photographs can be a lot like the relationship you have with your family or friends,” says Marshall. “It’s human nature not to know whether to accept the way a relationship is or to end things. You could sit around for years wanting your life partner to be a particular person and being frustrated with them because they’re not being who you want them to be and they’re not giving you what you want them to give you. But if you actually accept that person for who they are—if you stop thinking ‘they aren’t a morning person and I’m never going to be able to have a nice cup of coffee with them in the morning’—then you can start enjoying them more in the afternoon and evening instead of wasting all this time being mad about them in the morning.”
“It’s the same with your photographs. I might want to make a certain type of photograph, but if I don’t—if it’s not in my nature to do that—if I celebrate what I actually do naturally instead of trying to be someone I’m not, then I end up finding my personal vision. Sometimes people are so worried about finding their personal vision that they get in their own way. It’s all interconnected and that’s what can make it so difficult. You have to accept yourself and let the photographs guide you.”
Edit After Photographing, Not During
When working with digital technology, Marshall also recommends looking at photographs after the shoot is complete, not in the midst of it. “Sometimes it’s really good to look at an outtake or two just to see an exposure, but I don’t recommend you delete images, because once you’ve downloaded your pictures you may have a completely different opinion. First of all, just looking at them technically on a bigger computer screen instead of a little LCD is going to be two different experiences, so what you might initially think is a failure you might later end up discovering is your best picture.” Stay focused on making pictures while photographing, and save analyzing your images for after, when you can more fully devote yourself to the endeavor of reading your pictures.
Develop Visual Literacy
Last, but not at all least, good old fashioned studying is indispensable when developing your editing skills. “Going to classes, meeting with people, looking at books and exhibitions, etc. are all ways to exercise this muscle. Analyzing a retrospective of a master photographer’s life’s work, for example, can open your eyes to the myriad shapes a selection can take. You might say, ‘Wow, this photographer made high contrast images on the beach for many years and when they are put together, the collection starts talking about something beyond that.’” Having that experience over and over again exposes you to the variety of nuances that can form a dynamic, coherent body of work, and keep you fresh and open when you assess your own photographs.
“Editing is a skill you must acquire. You can’t avoid it, because it’s part of the process,” says Marshall. A good edit articulates what is so special about the photographs—something that is impossible to know at the outset. As a result, photographing requires you to make a leap of faith: it begins with your intention, but later effaces itself of your expectations, and that’s why editing your pictures is largely a lesson in letting go.
Karen Marshall is a seminar leader in the fulltime Documentary Photography and Photojournalism Program at The International Center of Photography, where she has been on the faculty for the past 20 years. She is an Associate Professor at New York University and teaches workshops in China, Europe, Latin America, and online. Her seminal study, Between Girls: A Passage To Womanhood, documents the coming of age of a group of urban middle class teenagers from high school into adulthood 30 years later. The multimedia project exhibits October 13-November 17, 2015, at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.