Four Questions To Help You Better Edit Your Photographs

All of us who photograph need to edit in some way.

In this context, by editing I mean looking through a batch of photographs we’ve made and deciding which to delete, which to keep, then which of those keepers to share.

This is not the easiest process, as it’s so subjective. 

In an effort to continue to improve my own editing, I thought I’d ask myself some questions and see what answers arose. Maybe you would find these useful to ask too.

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1. Why do you edit? 

Because I know that even though I try not to capture any photos that I don’t think are worth capturing, inevitably some turn out better than others.

Also, whilst I don’t take a “spray and pray” approach with continuous shooting modes, making seventeen split second shots of the same scene, I do sometime take two, perhaps three of a similar scene to try and find the best angle and framing. I don’t need to keep the duplicates, just the best one, so again editing is required to find and remove the others.

Finally, I think I just like to keep things clean and lean. Imagine a sock drawer where you have 25 pairs of socks, but only ever wear five of those pairs. When you go to find a pair you do like, you most likely have to rummage through a bunch of other ones you don’t like to find them. Every single time.

I’d rather just clear out the socks I don’t wear, and won’t ever wear, so then I’d know that even if I reach blindly into my sock drawer in complete darkness, I’ll still pluck out a pair I want to wear.

It’s the same principle with photographs. Why clutter up your SD card / hard drive / cupboards / Flickr account or anywhere else with photographs you’ll never look at again because they’re not worth looking at? Delete!

2. When do you edit?

Usually it’s the same day. I know I often succumb to “the latest is the greatest” syndrome, and feel that the best of my most recent batch are some of the best I’ve ever taken.

To regain a little objectivity, an excellent idea often shared is to let the images marinate for a while. Rather than immediately go through the editing when you get the images on your computer (or prints made, if that’s your preference), instead give yourselves a little space and time away from them.

Looking at the same images a week, a month, six months later, you’ll likely be more objective about which are your favourites. Put another way, you’ll be far more likely to delete a greater number of them than if you edit immediately.

The times I’ve tried this, it’s been helpful and more images have been deleted.

I think the reason I don’t do this more often is because I’m excited to see the pictures straight away, and to revisit the surroundings and the feelings I had at the moment I released the shutter.

Plus I just like the images dealt with and put away. I don’t like having images on my HD that I know haven’t yet been sorted and edited.

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3. How do you edit?

Personally, I like to edit in a number of sweeps.

With the first sweep through I delete any image that’s not focused or exposed how I wanted, is a duplicate, or is just not as interesting as I hoped it would be. I still get a frustratingly high proportion of the latter!

From the second sweep onwards I tend to look for the best photos I want to keep, then delete any that don’t make the grade. Another sweep or two might be required to get to the best of the best.

Then, depending how many there are, I’ll upload to Flickr.

If it’s up to five or six say, I’ll probably upload in one go, but if it’s a larger batch I’m more likely to upload two or three at a time.

4. What else could you do to improve your editing?

I think trying the marinating idea more often.

Also perhaps remembering when I’m out taking photos that any I don’t like will need to be deleted, so try to be even more discerning in what I capture in the first place.

I don’t think I’ll ever reach the point where no editing is required as some images just don’t work out as well when viewed on a larger screen as they do through the viewfinder or on the camera’s screen when I make them.

But that’s ok, it keeps me pushing and wanting to improve.

How about you? How would you respond to these four same questions?

1. Why do you edit?
2. When do you edit?
3. How do you edit?
4. What else could you do to improve your editing?

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

Thanks for looking. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too. If you’re interested, this is what I’m into right now.

21 thoughts on “Four Questions To Help You Better Edit Your Photographs”

  1. I’ve been editing a little more heavily before I upload to Flickr lately. I still upload most everything, but my criteria for “don’t upload” has moved from “abject failure” to “isn’t pleasing.”

    I still have my portfolio album on Flickr as a way of aggregating my best work. But what I consider best work has changed over the years and I can see it’s time for me to edit that album.

    1. Thanks for your input Jim. So why previously would you have kept (and uploaded to Flickr) any image that “isn’t pleasing”? I don’t see the point?

      1. My first and primary use for Flickr is to host my images so I can use them. I’m always surprised when I find a need to use one — like the Wash Out image in my post the other day. Who would ever have guessed that that dumb image would ever have a use? But there it was, a perfect use.

        Like I’ve said before, I kind of wish I could do it differently now. But what’s done is done.

      2. Ok. So in this case, how did you find the was out image in your Flickr?

        As you probably recall I made all of my Flickr photos (something like 4500 at the time) private last year. Then made a few select one public, then with new ones I’ve tried to be more selective with what I uploaded publicly.

        I like that my overall stream is now much smaller and more select, but I still have access to nearly 5000 images to use for blog posts etc.

        I couldn’t face going through thousands of images individually, so making them all private – but without deleting them – seemed a great solution.

      3. Because of Flickr’s automatic tagging I can search. I searched on “sign” and just kept scrolling through until I found some likely candidates. Flickr’s automatic tagging really has helped me immensely since I have made scant effort to organize my own photographs.

        I’ve thought about doing the same thing you did, but then (a) it’s a project I couldn’t prioritize highly and (b) then someone finds some obscure photo in my stream via search and leaves a comment, and it feels all worth it to have them public.

      4. Sounds useful. I’ve found Flickr’s tagging rather hit and miss. It either adds no tags (I do it fairly thoroughly myself, so I can find stuff in future) or guesses wrong, like a close up of a plant I uploaded recently is tagged as “animal”.

        The set all to private thing took me about 20 minutes I think. About 20 seconds to select all and drag into the main window in the Organizer, and change setting to private, then about 19 minutes 40 seconds for Flickr to churn away and do the work!

        As an experiment I made an older photo (of cameras!) that used to get lots of views public again a few weeks back. It seems to be attracting attention again and picking up way more views than new photos I’m posting. Kind of annoying that the pictures I get way more views for are always pictures of cameras, but the flip side is at least it’s getting people to my Flickr, then they might explore further.

  2. I do my editing in the opposite direction. The default is “no.” I have to do something to make a photo “yes.” That’s because, for me, it’s all about the prints.

    On the film side, I keep all of my negatives, and all of my scans, and I have printed contact pages of all of them. Between my father’s negatives and mine there are approximately 6,000 frames spanning a period of 90 years, but I only post process and print a select few of the scans. All of the others are essentially in dead storage.

    The digital side is a little more nuanced. All of my digital photos go into my Apple Photos library. I started taking digital pictures in 2002. As of today there are 8,020 photos in the library. That works out to something like 500 per year, and I am slowing down. Within Apple Photos I have Albums of the very few photos – both film and digital – that I share online. Fewer than 20 photos a year go into these Albums. And, just as with my film photos, I only print a very few of my digital photos. All of the others are essentially in dead storage too.

    1. Very interesting about your editing in the opposite direction Doug.

      It reminded me, I’ve read before about the two general approaches people take with editing. One is like adding – starting with nothing and adding a little until it’s done, like a painter with a blank canvas. The other approach is subtracting – starting with a big hunk of material and pruning and whittling away until you’re happy with what’s left, like a stone sculptor that starts with a huge slab of rock.

      I would like to edit more ruthlessly (still). But I don’t know, I just like taking pictures and end up with quite a few I like!

  3. What was it the Robert Doisneau said – that if I knew how to make a good photo I would make one every time.

    I do edit, and I do edit more than just clearing out the dead wood (blurred shot of my shoe). My heart sinks when the free amount in my hard drive drops to the next digit.

    At the same time, I go searching sometimes for a photo I want to use in a card and find three or four very similar shots. But only one of them shows ‘x’ or only one of them will crop the way I want. Thus, if I had somewhere ‘offshore’ to put my excess shots while being instantly viewable and available to use, I would keep the ‘so so’ photos because I will never know when I might wish I had the one I junked.

    I could use Dropbox, and de-sync that folder, but it is still too much of a faff. I want a one-click answer to everything. That is what technology gets me – less patience.

    1. I think one of the problems with technology is that it evolves so fast.

      With photos I know there are people who shoot film, make prints, and keep those prints (and the negatives) in neatly organised boxes in their home.

      Their methods for editing and archiving their photos hasn’t changed in 10, 25, perhaps 50 years. I love that.

      With technology, even once you master one set up, there will come a point a year or two down the line where the next version of particular software is released, and another point where you’re existing hardware is no longer compatible so you have to upgrade that, and so on. No-one uses the same computer and editing software as they did 20 years ago, it’s not possible.

      I guess trying to keep our systems as simple and general as possible helps, not relying on to many different types of hardware and software and overly specialised set ups.

      1. I can see that. I have negatives and some B&W prints in storage, and they are not even in this country. I would love to have them here and also to go through the photos my father took. One day – when I can face the task of sorting through stuff.

        I have two film cameras. I loaded one with B&W film and shot off some frames and then abandoned it. Later, I pulled the roll out of the camera and dumped it. I have done that a couple of times. I know there are a lot of ‘ifs’ in this world, but if I had a darkroom again, then I could get more involved. I used to love the whole process.

      2. David, what you said here – “when I can face the task of sorting through stuff” is a major reason why I try to edit ruthlessly as I go. I can’t face going through an ever growing mountain of mediocre photos in the future, so I try to weed them out as soon as possible!

        Do you use digital cameras these days? Just thinking they would be easier to pick up and put down as and when you wanted to than film cameras?

      3. Yes, I use digital cameras. I just took my two film cameras off the shelf. One is loaded with Kentmere 100 and the other with Fomapan 100. The film is old, probably have to overexpose to get it to take. I will wait for the weather to turn 🙂

        Do you develop and print your own film?

      4. David, no I’ve never developed film, even in my heyday of shooting 12-15 rolls a month three or four years ago. Partly the (im)practicalities with having a young family, partly because I’ve just never really had much interest in that end of things. Photography for me is 90% about getting out and exploring the countryside, looking for beautiful things to capture. I don’t shoot film at all these days, mostly due to cost, partly convenience, partly that digital compacts give me all I need and the experience of being out shooting is much the same regardless of camera.

  4. Dan, to be honest I don’t edit. Thinking about it now I need to get myself a practice of editing…susanJOY

    1. As I said at the outset with this post, I think we all need to edit to some extent, we don’t just want to keep every single photo we make. Even the best photographers can only hope to achieve maybe 20% keepers, if that?

  5. I make (relative to most) very few photos, and edit immediately. Keepers are stored on the computer with backup to an external hard drive. I’ve thought over returning to a limited use of Flickr, but will wait until they’ve scraped the last bit of Yahoo off their soles.

    1. The most stupid thing with Yahoo’s takeover was needing a Yahoo email account to use Flickr. Then every time you’re on a machine where you have to log in again, having to retrieve your password because you never remember it as it’s used so little. I don’t think I’ve logged into my actual Yahoo email in about seven years or something…

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