And Then There Was One

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A classic on a Palm Springs street. Edited down to one frame. 2007

I had an interesting conversation the other day. I was away from home, ran into a photographer who found out I make a lot of books. He expressed interest in what I was doing, how I was doing it, and I was happy to share what I knew.

But then something interesting happened. He asked about editing. I gave him my lowdown on how I edit, but also said that each book is a unique experience, so there was no “secret number” of images that a book must have and no “secret order” of things. The book would be his creation, and his edit would pave the way forward.

The old cliche, “You’re only as good as your worst image,” in my mind, is very true, and I have personally seen a table full of editors tear apart a portfolio because of one weak picture, forgetting anything redeeming the portfolio offered before they descended on the weak photo.

My friend developed a concerned look on his face and began to look around the room, appearing as if he was trying to solve a tricky math problem.

“Well, if I shoot 4000 images in a day, for my client, I normally just edit those down to about a 1000,” he said. “What do I do, just put all those in a book?” he asked.

And there we were. This situation had been brewing around in my mind for quite some time and I thought this a perfect time to investigate this specific situation.

“No, I would give yourself a number, say 50 images, and then edit that again to make sure you don’t have any weak spots, or images that are not helping to tell the story,” I answered. “One of my best books has twenty-pages and about ten images total,” I added.

My friend grew more concerned.

“I don’t know how to edit like that,” he said, with a look of desperation.

This photographer had been working as a pro for many years, but I THINK had really come to age in the digital world, so shooting that image total for a day was a “normal” occurrence, something that for me is way outside what I would typically be doing. I would do an entire long-term project and not shoot that many images. A few short years ago, making this many images in a day was rare, but today it seems to be the norm. I see story after story about photographers shooting tens of thousands of images for a piece, project, story, etc, and my first thought is always, “Oh man, who has to edit all that?”

Editing is something you have to learn, and to study, but it isn’t anything that should be feared. Editing is about decision making, being able to select your best images and being able to explain why you selected them. No biggie, you just gotta practice.

“Hey, not a big deal, you can learn to edit,” I explained. My friend didn’t look convinced, but I know when he sits down to make the book, he will quickly realize that it’s far more enjoyable to work with say 50 images than 1000.

Let’s go back in time for a moment.

When I was in school, actually trying to learn this thing called photography, a HUGE part of what we did was edit. We dreamed something up, or we were handed an assignment, we trudged into the field, box camera in tow, twisted knobs, slide things around, draped our heads in cloth, and managed to snap off a frame or two. Sometimes, if were lucky, we’d grab a 35mm, and snap off a roll or two. A roll or two. A frame or two.

And then, we would EDIT. Yes, you heard that correctly, edit.

What you chose, and why you chose it, was a critical part of being a photographer. It was, in some ways, as important as the actual take. Make a great take, choose the wrong images, and your great take ended up not so great.

You chose your images, printed your images, then stood in front of the class and explained the decisions you made. In essence, there is no right and wrong, but editing is what begins to shape you and your work, and is what helps you develop a style.

Practicing this ethic taught us many things, but first and foremost, it taught you that excessive shooting in the field wasn’t a good thing. Photographers watched, waited and then made their move, shooting only the moments or details that contributed to the story. You might shoot two or three frames of something, but rarely ever more. I think today we have lost this idea to a certain degree, and the idea of shooting thousands of images in the field has become an accepted method. Personally, I think this damages the impact of what we are doing, and will continue to do so. I can’t tell you how many edits I’ve done where the photographer shot twenty, thirty, forty or more images of the exact same thing, and for no particular reason other than they could.

And coupled with this excessive shooting, what I’m finding today is a near total lack of knowledge in regards to editing, and more so, an almost total lack of teaching in regards to editing.

When I asked students about editing classes, they just reply with blank stares, and I think this has had a profound effect on our industry.

I’ll give you a typical scenario.

Student: “Ah ya, I’ve only done a loose edit, and was hoping you could take a look.”
Translation: “I shot 1000’s of images, they are on my laptop, I haven’t made a single print, and I haven’t even thought of editing.”

Student: “I was hoping you could tell me your favorites.”
Translation: “Geez, can you edit this mess for me?”

People, everything is interconnected. You give a young photographer,or old for that matter, the ability to shoot endless images, and it’s no different than handing a teenager the keys to a Ferrari and asking them to keep it under 55. Unrealistic.

Couple this with the fact that editing today typically requires a computer, often times on a small screen, and suddenly things are coming apart. If you are given the task of editing 4000 images on a laptop, in a hurry, well no wonder editing has been lost. It isn’t fun. It’s all about blowing through it and moving on, because perhaps you have to do it again tomorrow. Editing from a contact sheet is a far easier way of editing, but that ship has sailed.

I’ve done shoots where I’ve shot too much, then been saddled with having to quickly turn the images around. In my mind there is nothing worse in photography. Not only do the results typically really suck, but the process isn’t fun, and for me it, it really isn’t even photography. I can totally understand this for news, PJ, etc, but this style of work has taken over nearly every genre of photography. Why does it seem that everyone, regardless of what the shoot is about, is on deadline, and needs images at a record pace? It’s this way because we photographers bought into this, simple as that. In most cases, if people do their jobs, there is no reason to have to work this way, but we have accepted it, and now must live with being under pressure and being rushed nearly all the time.

I do know photographers who don’t work this way, but their numbers seem to be dwindling. However, I think their work is consistently better than those of us who are always rushed. No big surprise there.

Robert Frank, the legendary photographer who completed the project “The Americans,” is a great person to think about when it comes to editing. I was recently able to see the exhibition of his work, in both San Francisco and London, and if there is ONE THING I would take from this show, outside the actual photographs, it is in regard to the edit.

Now I can’t remember the exact numbers, but over the months and months that Frank was in the field, he shot either 27,000 images or 72,000 images. I could probably look this up, but I’m too lazy.

He edited 58 images. Or 53.

Let’s just take a second to think about that.

Let’s take the lower number, 27,000, just to safe. He edited 58.

Okay portrait shooters……how many frames did you shoot on your last voyage? 200? 500? 750? 1500? What was your “edit?” 500? 200? 100? Is that really editing?

Wedding snappers? Don’t even get me started. I hear it from the wedding planners I work with, of photographers selling quantity, then dumping 5000 images online for a client to wade through. That ain’t editing, or even photography in my book.

I don’t think anyone is immune at this point. Photojournalists shoot too much, send too much, file to much, cram too much into multimedia presentations that are ten minutes long that would have far more impact at two minutes.

And yes, I’m guilty too. Look, you put a box of Coco Puffs in front of me, I’ll eat the entire box. I can’t stop myself.

Sitting here thinking about this feeble post, I’m reminded of something else. This image at the top. There are more, other angles, other directions, other points of view, but this was the one, in my mind, that was most powerful. It took me about five minutes to make that decision………………….FIVE MINUTES.

You can do a lot today, in five minutes. How many Twitter posts can you do? How many pages of Facebook can you read? Could probably send a lot of text messages in five minutes. Wink, wink.

This image at the top was shot two years ago, but I never saw it the first time. In fact, there was A LOT from this shoot I didn’t see. And then I found the contact sheets. And I sat with the contact sheets. And there they were, all these images that prompted me to say to myself, “I don’t even remember shooting that.”

The point is, in many cases, we have to live with the work, for at least a little while, before we can truly appreciate it, or even understand how it works together. But in today’s photo world of hyper-rushed nonsense, there just isn’t time, or at least that is what we tell ourselves.

After having been at our industry’s most significant trade show, for three days last week, I’m left with far more questions than answers. You can now get a camera that shoots massive, high resolution digital files, and also high-definition video at the same time. You can get a printer with 12 inks that has an alleged lifespan of 200 years and you can have a book made quickly and easily.

But none of this makes any difference at all if photographers have completely lost touch with the basics of photography.

Do you know about light?

Do you know about timing?

Do you know about composition?

Can you edit your images?

If the answer is “No,” then it won’t make a bit of difference what you put in your hand.

I’ve beat this drum many times, but I’ll do it again. We have to learn to slow down, and we have to learn to think once again. Our brains are running the hundred meters, but our pursuit requires us to be marathon runners.

Next time you shoot, do yourself a favor. Put the work away for a few days, let it stew. Then return to it and look at it with fresh eyes. Then edit down to one image. Pick the best one, and when someone asks, “Why is that the best? have an answer for them. THAT is called editing.

8 Responses to “And Then There Was One”

  1. ana june says:

    Great post, Dan. Editing is such a critical component, and I agree that newbie digital photographers, who have never had to sweat over one print in an actual darkroom, tend to have no idea how to edit their work. I work at a small community paper here in Santa Fe, and am always up against both tight deadlines and disciplined editing procedures. Last November I shot the Baja 1000 for a “centerpiece” in our paper…a two page spread, essentially. Over 24 hours of shooting the race and things associated with the race resulted in roughly 28 gb of RAW images. From that, I narrowed it down to 10 for the spread (I also needed room for the story and cutlines). I had to ask myself a very pointed question: what very very short sequence of photos captures this story succinctly? It was tough but it’s wonderful practice.
    Now I need to practice DELETING all the images that didn’t work and will never ever see the light of day. Not easy…but terribly necessary!!
    Loving your blog and I hope you’re well!
    :) Ana June

    • smogranch says:

      Hey Ana,

      Thanks for contributing. Right on the money with your note. I think what really helped me was working at a paper. Being on assignment, then deadline and having to edit to one or two images, knowing that no matter what I did, it would probably never be more than three or four images. And, it taught me to think in the field, to not turn my brain off because I had to edit and deliver.

  2. Paul says:

    Danno…the quote later in the article about discovering an image later on your contact sheets is a gem.

    That’s what happens when you hold onto these things and look at them later. It’s like a writer putting a manuscript in the drawer and then pulling it out. Time gives a fresh set of eyes.

    I had a similar experience to you. I was editing a story that I had shot about ten years earlier and when I looked at the film and contact sheet for a portfolio, I edited a frame that I somehow missed during the initial edit.

    I had obviously shot it and something was going on subconsciously but somehow it didn’t bubble to the surface for another ten years. How did I photograph it, and then miss it the first time around???

    Glad I had saved all the outtakes and had them to go back to … it’s one of the reasons I save all the frames I shoot…of course it’s a lot harder going through the hard drives now than the contact sheets from film ;-).

    pg

    • smogranch says:

      Paulie,

      You know it. I’ve been editing my work for a compilation book I’m working on and I can’t tell you how many “unknown” images I’ve found. I don’t think we are really capable of nailing an edit right after we’ve made the images, and I think discovering these images is proof of that. I think it is especially true when you are looking at thumbnails. The contact sheet, for me, has become one of the most important things I’m doing because it not only gives you an easy way of seeing your images, but also gives me a sense of how I was working a scene. And I don’t need to sit at the computer to do it. When I saw the Frank show they had his contact sheets, and you could really great frames that were not grease penciled or edited, so I’m wondering if it happens to everyone? If you get a chance to see that show you should check it out, very interesting to see how it came together. The other thing it shows is how he was shooting one or two frames of everything, not 20 or 30 or more, and some of the signature images were made in edition of ONE, and in the midst of shooting something completely different. THAT is vision.

  3. pesh says:

    Dan,

    In an attempt to make myself thinner on a lower information diet, I cut out all of the RSS feeds that I had… I missed reading your blog as much as I would miss a snickers while on nutrisystem. There is just something about the nougat that I get from both.

    Anyway, I am back now to a limited set of inspirations feeds and was pleased to read this post. Although I began with film, contact sheets and chemicals, I have dome more as a shooter in digital. With that, I have bogged myself down with a ton of images after a shoot. I do not like it at all, and much like the needed information diet I was and am still on, I think I need to add more discipline to my diet of frames. I have a shoot this weekend and some of the images will be used in a magazine but I am committing now to shoot with more of a purpose, and edit down to a handful, I am thinking FIVE. In a long weekend like the one upcoming I could foresee shooting a couple thousand *blush*. I need to stop that…. Thank you for this post and keep it up, I for one like to hear how I could mimic the behaviors of those photographers that I enjoy.

    • smogranch says:

      Pesh,

      What a great comment. I love the diet analogy, and am currently using that myself, on a digital diet of sorts. Just the capture part. Trying to slow myself down a little bit. I’m really glad your back, and I hope my posts continue to keep you here. Let me know if there are other topics of interest and I’ll post my ideas, thoughts, goals, etc.
      Digital can be a great thing, but for me, I find myself rather sloppy when I’m using those tools. I’ve got three shoots in the next week, all film, which is slower, more “out of pocket” but for some reason, much more dear to my photo-heart. Thanks again.

  4. Ironic that this post is so long.

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