Better Photography Through Editing

Better Photography Through Editing

You can become a better photographer without improving your shooting technique, composition, or consistency to deliver. In fact, you don't even have to pick up a camera.

Best yet, it's something you're already doing: Editing.

This isn't editing in the sense of processing or manipulating images, but simply the selection of photos for presentation; the images that you choose to show and share.

For some photographers, this process might only mean deleting technically deficient shots, such as those that are blurred or poorly exposed. For others, editing extends to excluding images from the final set based on more fine aesthetic considerations like composition, subject, or failure to capture “the decisive moment.”

Less is More

By its nature, photography is a subtractive process. We choose the elements and the moments we want others to see. This reduction starts from the moment the image is pre-visualized and the subject isolated, and continues on well into the editing process.

Ultimately, this philosophy of photo editing on a large scale is no different than the more specific task of creating a portfolio, and the same goal applies of creating a positive opinion of your work and abilities.

Only the Best

For opinions based on photographic output, the art of editing comes in only allowing people to view the images that will lead them to arrive at the conclusion that you intend. Which, of course, is that you're a phenomenal photographer.

What most experience photographers know is that this process means only showing your best work. Or, at the very least, work of the standard for which you want to be known.

One of the biggest mistakes made by beginner photographers is to display a very large selection of the images they've shot without an shrewd editorial eye.

The Signal-to-Noise Ratio

Given that it's possible for a photographer of any experience level to create compelling images by virtue of talent and/or luck, reducing the number of images one shows can drastically increase the signal to noise ratio.

Though severe and diligent selection of only the best examples of one's work, it's possible for even new photographers to achieve an outward presentation of high quality output. To this end, it might mean only showing one or two images from any given shoot, rather than a more full range of images.

The Great Equalizer

From an outward perspective, editing can even help close the gap between highly experience photographers and those with less time behind the camera. If one photographer has a “keeper” or “hit rate” of 25% and another only 5%, the process of editing is one means of leveling the judgment of their work, such that the quality of the two may be seen as equivalent.

This advantage of keen editing is particularly relevant for a photography portfolio, which should only showcase the best of one's work. For this purpose, though the differences of range may still be considerable, the higher consistency of a more experienced photographer is a moot point.

Of course, editing should not be construed as a means to truly compensate for skill and the ability to consistently deliver for assignments. Naturally, the more experienced photographer should be able to ensure quantity and quality.

The Moral of the Story

Still, with the assumption that serendipity and a little luck can allow even a novice photographer to create compelling images for a given situation, the editing process should never be underestimated.

Whatever the depth of the selection process, the essential point of editing is this: You're only as good of a photographer as you show people you are.

My Camera DSLR and Lenses for Concert Photography

Nikon D750:
I use two Nikon D750 for my live music photography. Amazing high ISO performance in a compact body with tons of pro features.
nikon-24-70mm-f28-lens-squareNikon 24-70mm f/2.8:
For most gigs, the 24-70mm is my go-to lens. Exceptional image quality at wide apertures and super-functional range.
Nikon-70-200-squareNikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR:
A perfect pair to the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8, I can basically shoot any job with the midrange and this lens. Superb image quality.
nikon-14-24mm-f28-lens-squareNikon 14-24mm f/2.8:
Ultra-wide perspective, ridiculously sharp even wide open at f/2.8. I love using this lens up-close and personal, where it excels.
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There are 38 comments

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  1. Craig Ferguson

    Good advice. Less is more is something I find becoming more and more important for my shooting. When I show an editor 3-5 images, they almost always make a decision and license a couple on the spot, or within a couple of days. If I show a much larger selection, even if they are all technically and aesthetically good, it takes a long time for decisions to be made – and they don’t usually license any more than if I’d shown 5.

    OT but slightly related, the other day I heard the advice to shoot everything as if it were a cover image. If you’re shooting a small club band, imagine you’re shooting for the Rolling Stone cover. Or headshots of a businessman, imagine it’s Vanity Fair. Travel stuff, imagine you’re shooting for Nat Geo’s cover.

    • Todd

      Hey Craig,

      Interesting point about the quantity of images as being a factoring the decision-making process for an editor. More options are not always better; sometimes they’re simply more confusing.

      Good advice on the cover image mentality, which gets at the point of always doing one’s best work – and hiding everything that isn’t that “one” shot.

  2. Celso

    Well it’s now morning, I gave it a second read, now with a fresh mind. I have to say that I completely agree with you on every single point. Good article that makes a good read! It’s kind of what’s happening to me. As everyone tells me I’m getting better, my keep rates are getting lower and lower. I think this happens because as I mature myself into photography, I see myself improvising, taking risks, bold decisions, sometimes they don’t work at all… But when they do… I get better keepers!

    • Todd

      Hey Celso, thanks for your thoughts on this piece.

      On interesting element to editing in relation to concert photography is that while one’s hit rate might actually go up as a result of increased skill, one’s threshold for “keeper” images that make it into the final set gets more and more selective.

  3. Kevin

    When I talk to new live photogs, I often make the statement “What can make a great photographer is their self editting ability”. That is not saying that ability and skill is not involved, but everything that Todd has stated above is so true. I am in the position where I publish a magazine and have photogs shoot gigs for me. I ask them to send 4 images in for the review which gives me a good idea of just how proficient they are, and at what level I consider them at. Some consistently send images in that make me stop, “Wow, check that out”. Others have images that are simply satisfactory for the review. Very rarely I will show more than 2-3 from my own shoots.

    • Todd

      Hey Kevin,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. It’s funny to think about all the images that we don’t see from great photographers. Imagine sifting through the negative framed Henri Cartier Bresson passed over to get to the iconic images for which he’s remembered.

  4. Ary-Jan

    Interesting. And true.

    Like for every photo(grapher) I admire, I am realistic enough to wonder “how many hits were needed for this result”.

    Indeed for a beginner (to which I consider myself) a hard process: you do want to show your work, but showing to much (read: the wrong ones) might distract the overall…

    >>This isn’t editing in the sense of processing or manipulating images
    Though that would be an interesting topic as well!
    I am always impressed by your pictures clearlyness, freshness, colors, sharpness, etc., and wonder what kind of post-processing may have added to that.
    Do you consider a Q&A on that on short terms?
    Thanks,
    Ary-Jan

    • Todd

      Hi Ary-Jan,

      I think your question about how many images were made to realize a specific image is a relevant one. I think one of the biggest mistakes that many photographers make is showing too much. Showing a wide range of images has its place in learning, but it’s also important to constantly refine one’s presentation of work. This is one reason why keeping a portfolio updated is so important, especially when one’s work is constantly evolving.

      Regarding post processing, I do plan on a Q&A piece about that topic. I’ve gotten several letters about that subject and plan to do something on that topic.

  5. Sanjay

    Great post Todd. I think many photographers, no matter their level often find themselves wanting to show too much since we look at our own pictures so much we may convince ourselves a certain shot is great or remember how hard it was to get.

    • Todd

      Hey Sanjay, thanks for the comment. I think you’re right. There is a degree of extroversion in photography in that there is an implied audience and a desire to share a vision. So, that impulse is at odds to some degree with the element of reduction and selectiveness that is also inherent to photography.

  6. Kevin

    On a side note, I have also found that over time, I have become far more demanding on what I expect from my photography. When I look back at my work from 3 years ago, the images that I had selected as the best from a shoot would now be considered as simply adequate. When reviewing a set of images from a shoot today, I am looking for a defining moment, something that makes that image stand out over the usual ‘singer at a mic’. On a standard 3 song shoot of 150 images, if i can find 1 image that blows ME away, I am happy. From there I would hope for 4-5 captures that have something very special in them, and about 20 that I would be happy to be used as a review image. The number of hits will depend on the conditions at the gig of cause.

  7. Tom

    Todd, Big fan of the site.
    This article is great when talking about editing a selection down, but I was also hoping you would get into some talk about the post-production that you typically need to do in order to get the shots you want. I am a VERY new photographer (just bought a rebel xsi and bring to whichever shows I can).
    Thanks for all of the great info so far!

    • Todd

      Hey Tom,

      This post on editing has cause many to ask about the post-production I do on images, so I will definitely be doing a piece on post-processing. I’m not sure yet whether it’s going to be an article explaining workflow or if it’ll be a tutorial series.

      In the meantime, I will say that I don’t do much at all to images. For 90% of the images I display, I’ve made simple changes to exposure and WB and that’s it before running them through my save-for-web action to sharpen and resize.

  8. Bob

    Todd,

    I was recently turned onto your site and I can’t thank you enough for all of this great information! Sadly, this column has exposed me for the fraud I am. I shoot tons of shows of my favorite New Orleans bands and most people that see my photos tell me I’m a great photographer. The truth is, as I have no real education in photography, that I am a lucky photographer and an astute editor. My friends only see the best of what I shoot. Thanks again for your hard work on this site – Bob

  9. Erin Suggett

    Wow, Todd! How true is this???? I couldn’t agree more! I find myself editing thousands of my photos and then only using a few. I feel kind of bad, like I’m leaving my “other children” behind when I don’t use all of my images. I also find myslef getting quite bored when I look into other portfolios of other photographers when their photos go on & on & on & on!!!! I usually end up bailing out before I’m even finished looking through their work. I love your site so much! I feel like I’m enrolled in a well respected University for Photographers earning my degree everytime I step inside your world of gifted information! Please don’t stop doing what you are doing. Some of us “dummies” still need you here!

    ~E!

  10. Sean McCormack

    Hey Todd,
    Just perusing the site looking through. I’ve always felt that one difference between a pro and an enthusiast was editing ability. Some people are adamant about keeping every shot they shoot. I can’t get over it. I do shoot certain things as sets, where 90% of stuff is kept, but for Live shooting, it’s all about deleting! 1st pass removes all the technically useless shots, blur, focus, something in the way, too much mike.. 2nd pass gets rid of compositionally inept. I don’t get rid of everything after, but narrow down the picks from there. I’ve come back to sets and found surprise keepers too often to blanket delete on a 3rd pass.
    Anyhow, I’ll be peeking through the articles etc over the coming days, so don’t be too surprised if you see more comments coming in.

  11. Taylor Mahaffey

    I’m glad you said this becuase it is very important. Since I started a couple years ago, my talent and skill has grown as a photographer. My site still has the pictures that in my novice eyes, were really good pictures. Now that I have been getting better, i think its time to go back and “clean out” my old photos that dont stand up to the new ones. Sad really because if you look at my site, you see how my old photos slowly get better as the years get on. My site is less of a portfolio and more of a chronicle of my career as a music photographer.

    The purpose of a site is to show off your work, so dont get Nastalgic with your old photos. Keep the site CLEAN!

    Thanks TODD!

  12. Tobias

    … just read it.
    I do totally agree and will try to follow these “rules” latest, when I do a new portfolio for my site.
    Thanks!

  13. Jonathan

    I LOVED this article Todd!

    It’s so ironic that I decided to employ this practice when I started taking pictures, and all of a sudden people had a respect for what I did. It was very humbling.

    Being a ‘techy’ kind of person (majoring in engineering), I loved the Signal to Noise analogy. It’s quite clever.

    Im really impressed with your website Todd! I think I’m going to keep popping back — I feel like I’ve hit a goldmine of knowledge and I’m so glad there are others out there who are willing to share their experience with others.

    Jonathan

  14. caroline

    My undergrad education is in design, not photography, and I think that’s where I picked up a totally detached view when it comes to editing. Either it works or it doesn’t – and if it doesn’t, it’s out.

    I presented something I’d done for a class, and a friend asked what had happened to an earlier illustration I was planning on using. She said, “you spent HOURS on that thing, how could you not use it?” I told her it didn’t work for the piece. The fact that I spent so much time on it didn’t change that.

    You really have to keep the purpose of your portfolio (or blog, or whatever you’re doing) in mind, and be very honest with yourself about whether or not a photo meets that goal.

    I’m also finding that the longer I’ve been doing this, the less I’m shooting. A bit of real time editing, there.

  15. Ed

    Any chance of doing an article that elaborates on the editing process, using photoshop? Possibly, something that breaks down one of your featured shots? Or is that asking the magician to reveal too much?

    Cheers,

    Ed

    • Todd

      Hey Ed,

      Yes, I might do a tutorial on editing at some point. Most concert photography doesn’t require much editing at all. 95% of what I do is exposure and white balance tweaking, and then moving on to the next image. Processing for portraits is more intensive, depending on the shot.


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