Coming home from Hokkaido with 8000 images to edit should seem intimidating, but it isn’t. I got a couple requests from people to share my editing process, which hadn’t even occurred to me until I got them, because I’m pretty much done already. So then I went and told Twitter and Facebook I’d show people how I do this painlessly and I’m worried people are going to read this looking for a magic bullet. So, here are my caveats: This is how I do it. For me it’s painless. By editing I mean the process of choosing images, not processing them. And finally, the software doesn’t make a spot of difference – use what works for you. Hell, use contact sheets and a red marker, if you want. It’s the photographs that matter, not which tool you use to get there.
If you haven’t seen some of the images here are links to Postcard from Yamanouchi, Postcard from Hokkaido, Last Postcard from Hokkaido, and a Hokkaid Re-Cap, with more images and the March Desktop Wallpaper.
1. Field Edit.
When I say I had 8000 images, understand that I was shooting on high-speed burst. Way too many frames of monkeys, but the snow was falling hard and I wanted the best chance at useable frames without a snowflake over an eye or something. Same with the birds, all of which move fast. The eagles were incredibly hard at times, and one morning I shot 1000 images, all panning with slow shutter speeds, knowing my failure rate would be through the roof. My usual practice is to shoot fewer frames and be more selective in-camera. But daily I do a field edit. Very rarely do I let a day go by without doing this. Let it slide and it begins to backlog. If it’s an assignment, then this is the stage I do captioning and add notes about model releases. I do it this way:
- Import and view as smallish thumbnails in Lightroom. Small thumbnails show me the gesture/composition. If I like it, I give it a 5-star rating. If I don’t, I leave it. I tend to be very binary this way. It’s either Hell, Yes – or it’s No. I don’t polish my turds. If it’s not right, I let it lie. This immediately cuts my editing down to fractions of my total capture. I don’t create so I can have a ton of images. I don’t care if I get one in 1000. Keeper-rate means nothing to me. I learn, I move on, and I’m grateful I got one. I usually get a couple more, but quantity of rejects is irrelevant – they’re what it takes to get to the good stuff, part of my process. If you find yourself looking at a sequence and asking which image sucks less, do yourself a favour – they all suck. Move on. Your photography will get better if you spend less time justifying your weaker frames, and more time learning from them. Edit to find your best frames, not the most frames you can squeeze out of a shoot. 12 beautiful, compelling, images, are better than 100 mediocre ones.
- Sort images to show only 5-Star ratings, then view at 100% and eliminate images that are unacceptable for technical reasons. If they’re not sharp enough, or not blurry enough, or show some other reason – perhaps on viewing it larger the gesture isn’t right – someone blinked, or something – I remove the 5-star rating and it disappears from my cut. I could use flagged picks, but I use 5-stars or nothing. Just the system that fits my way of thinking. But there are lots of ways to use ratings, and this isn’t about that. An image is either a yes or no to me.
- I make photographs because I love lines, light, and moments. I think these are our basic building blocks of composition, no matter what you’re shooting, so that’s the Holy Trinity of my editing process. It’s the same I use when I have the camera to my face. What are the lines doing? What is the light doing? What’s the moment? If there are no lines, light, or moment that wows me in some way, I move on and the images don’t get a second chance until step 3.
2. Home Edit.
A small 11″ MacBook Air can only show so much. By the time I get home I’ve got a roughly edited body of work that I immediately export to my main computer, a 27″ iMac. I don’t wait. I can do everything else, including sleep, unpacking, and laundry, while files are being ingested. Then:
- I back the files up to my RAID unit, and immediately to one of two off-site backup drives.
- Convert all images to DNG and delete the Nikon NEF files. All I use is DNG. This takes a while. I let the computer do its thing overnight.
- Look through all 5-star images, remove spots, tweak histograms, do any dodging and burning.
- Remove anything suffering from monitor-shock, that sick feeling you get when that killer image on the back of the camera doesn’t pass muster when you see it at 100%. Hit 0 and the 5-star rating disappears.
- Create a collection. Best of Hokkaido. Run a Lightroom backup again.
- Print work. This often takes days or weeks. Happy not to rush this stage.
3. 6-Month Edit.
I’ll come back to this work. I always do. I let the best rise to the top immediately, and let the rest sit. New images show themselves with time, while that same time shows me weakness in images I initially thought stronger. Printing that work helps with this too. After living with those prints for a few months, even a year, I’ll pull some from my collection, replace them with others. I’ll often do a 1 or 2 year Edit as well, for the same reasons. A little distance helps you see things differently, often more clearly.
I think the most important part of the edit for me is in not allowing myself the luxury of the angst-filled second-guessing. I know photographers who lose sleep over picking images. Is it strong? Isn’t it? Is it a 3-star or a 4-star? I admit that my own tastes and ability to know which images are strongest to me is something I’ve acquired over 25 years, but listen, if you love the image, make it a pick (Love it, don’t just pick it because you need 12 mediocre shots. Love it!). You can un-pick it later. This isn’t Sophie’s Choice. If you don’t like an image, let it lie, you can change your mind later during the 6-month edit. What is most important is that you know what you like. If sharpness is the be-all/end-all for you, then allow that to guide you. I’m not sure most people are moved first by how sharp an image is, and I’m not either, so I go with composition and gesture first, which is why I use the small thumbails. I can see little else except the lines, shapes, balance, tension, and colour. The rest doesn’t matter. Don’t let this process grind you down.
It’s important to remember that any task will fill the time you’ve budgeted for it, and if you’ve budgeted to just “edit until I am finished,” then you’ll be going for weeks. Give yourself tight time limits. Work within that constraint. You’ll begin to get a little more ruthless and that’s a good thing. Photographers can afford to have fewer delusions about their work. To misquote Hemingway, “photograph drunk, but edit sober.” Anyways, this is my way, it doesn’t have to be your way, but if any of this is helpful, run with it.
For more, I’ve written an articles on The Art of the Edit, and Missing The Shot / Capturing the Moment, in the first two issues of PHOTOGRAPH which I publish, adore, and am happy to shamelessly promote. You can see them here at Craft & Vision.