The One About Editing Your Work

In Vision Is Better by David10 Comments

A couple of months ago I got a question from a guy named Sean on my FB page and a bunch of people chimed in with “yeah, what Sean said” so here’s Sean’s question and my best shot at a response. Remember this is just the way I do things and we all do things for different reasons with different skill sets. Still my response might be helpful to some. Here’s what Sean asked:

What are your thoughts on being demanding/critical of your own work while also picking the images you love best? I assume the ones that move you personally are what you want to share with others. Sometimes I have a competent image (exposure, focus, composition “rules”, etc.) that I don’t love but others do, and sometimes the images I’m most excited about fall flat when others view them. How do you employ your emotions when editing to help find moving images without being blinded by personal preference?

If you’d rather watch this, you can see it on YouTube here.

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So, Sean, there’s a short answer to this and a long answer. The short answer is: I don’t. On some level I am always blinded by personal preference, though I prefer to think of it as being guided by those preferences and tastes, but ultimately it comes down to this: if I made a photograph I don’t love and others go nuts over it, it’s of no value to me. None. I can not imagine what good it would do any artist in the world to have work out there towards which we are indifferent, or worse, that is also acclaimed by others. That’s a prison. So when I edit, and I edit all my projects several times because we all have bad days, we all have blind spots, I edit based on my personal preference, not trying to avoid them. End of story.

Alright, it’s not really the end of the story, and this is the longer answer: I’ve been photographing for over 30 years now and with that comes a certain level of maturity and growth, at least where my tastes are concerned (I still act like a child and make fart noises the rest of the time.)  Those 30 years studying my craft and the work of other photographers have helped me understand why I love what I love, and those tastes have changed or evolved over the years. It is so important that artists and craftsmen possess the humility to learn and grow, to explore their blind spots, and to be open – even to pursue – the changing and maturation of their tastes. It’s important to get the feedback of others – often – and to be open to alternate perspectives. Not to convince you that one image is better than another, but to educate, to train your tastes, to open you to new possibilities.

Ultimately your tastes are tied to your vision; they’re part of what makes your work a reflection of you. So your tastes, or preferences, are important and at least for the way I choose to practice my craft, they are one of the most important parts of how I edit my work. Part of being an artist is making choices and owning them. That’s part of the risk that we all embrace. To not embrace that risk is to play it safe and hedge our bets and that only leads to homogeny and mediocrity.

However, not everyone is great at knowing what they love and what they don’t. For me it’s a very binary process, I either love it or I don’t. For others they love it all. And for others still, they hate it all. If you’re one of those you’re probably paralyzed when it comes to choosing your images and it might help you tremendously to find someone to help you. Find another photographer to look through your work and pick the images they love, but ask them to explain WHY. Why do they love this one over that one? What within the image makes them respond the way they do? And if they just shrug and say, I dunno, I just like it, it’s time to find someone else to help you with this.

Tastes and preferences can be trained and knowing why people react to one image and not another can be helpful. And on those occasions when they choose an image and you think, “wait, what? How can you choose that one and not the other one?” You’ve just uncovered your own preference. It was there all along but it was waiting for you to recognize it and have the courage to say something. I wonder how often when we say, “I don’t know which one to choose, or which one is better?”  when what we really mean is “I don’t know which one others are going to think is better.” Sometimes you just have to go with your gut, but you also have to be willing to let other voices train that instinct along the way.

Two more things. For some of us we have no constraints when we edit. Our editing sessions are an exercise in “find all the images that don’t suck” and that’s a terrible way to edit. It’s basically pulling out the crap until you get to the stuff that’s just perfectly mediocre, instead of really focusing on the best work. Who needs 200 images from your afternoon out? Wouldn’t it be easier if you just looked for your best 12? Your best 3? Wouldn’t that force you to be more ruthless? If there’s one skill you need in editing it’s ruthlessness. The more willing you are to accept the images that merely “do not suck” the more the standard of your work goes down. So pick a number. 2. 6. 12. 24. Then find the absolute best 2. or 6. 12. or 24. Edit them down until it hurts a little. Editing should hurt a little. That’s when you know you’re getting to the best stuff and shuffling off the sketch images.

Finally, I think might be helpful to understand that editing your work doesn’t need to be instant. It shouldn’t be instant. It’s guided by a lot of things, not the least of which is “what other criteria are important in making this selection?” One image chosen to work on its own is not the same image you might choose to be part of a series. Or a magazine cover. Or a monograph of 100 images that explore a particular theme. Take your time on selections.

If you get to the point when you need to choose 12 and you’ve got 20, print them out, pin them on the wall and live with them a couple days. Give it time. Live with them. If you’re hitting the same note twice with two images put a red X through one of them. See which ones have staying power and which ones don’t. We live and work in this weird time when it feels like we need to go from shooting to editing to posted on Instagram to liked to forgotten in, like, 60 minutes. We get the dopamine hit and then go looking for the next one. How much stronger would our work and our editing and post-production be if we were more thoughtful, looked for only the best work, and were willing to trust our tastes and our guts. Isn’t that what we want? Images that we love with our guts? Images we have a visceral non-apologetic reaction to? Images we look at and think, I fucking love this? Because if we’re ever going to have a chance at others feeling the same thing in a meaningful way, it’s got to begin there.

Anyways, that’s how I do it and it’s not for everyone. We all do things differently, and with time you’ll find your own way as I did mine, but I think being more ruthless, taking your time, and trusting your instincts while also allowing those instincts to grow, mature, and change, is important. And if you can, find someone to work with on this, help each other through the blind spots. I recently took some current work to see friends that are both talented national geographic photographers and asked them to do an edit, putting my work into two piles – the stuff that moved them and the stuff that was just ok. I came out of that time together with excellent feedback. Some of the images they chose confirmed my suspicions or my tastes, some of the comments gave me new insights and ideas, and occasionally they tossed an image I still love and my own internal reaction helped me become aware of my preferences and prejudices. Just because they don’t love it doesn’t mean it’s not a great image and again asking WHY is really clarifying.

Editing, like making the photographs in the first place, is a personal, and deeply human activity. Don’t expect it to be easy, clean, or to come with any simple answers to which everyone agrees. Have the courage to make your selections, to hone your ability to choose based on a gut reaction, and to be open to feedback from others. And have the courage to be wrong.

For the Love of the Photograph,

PS – Want more like this? I send these articles out every two weeks to photographers around the world who want to improve their craft and explore their creativity and I’d love to include you. Tell me where to send it and I’ll send you a copy of my best-selling eBook Make Better Photographs, as well bi-weekly articles, first-glimpse monographs of my new work, and very occasional news of resources to help you keep moving forward in this craft we love.

“Each and every one of your emails inspire and motivate me to want to jump right out of my chair away from my computer and shoot for the love of it . Thank you David.” – Millie Brown


  1. I completely agree. Editing has a lot to do with your personal taste. Sometimes I look at other photographer’s work and see what I like. I get inspiration from them, pick certain elements and create my own version.

  2. David, I love the article! I have always been lucky enough to find great images and beautiful areas to take a shoot, but my editing skills have never been good enough to turn a great photo into the photo. I am sure you know what I mean. I have been researching different methods and different ways to turn great photography into next level photography, but never had the luck or the editing skill. I will continue my quest for the perfect picture as I am sure every other photographer is, but just wanted to pop you a note saying this is a great article and hopefully you’ve helped me out a little bit more!

  3. General Omar Bradley Courage is being afraid but going on anyhow. Dan Rather Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway. John Wayne Courage is doing what you’re afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you are scared. Eddie Rickenbacker Courage is never to let your actions be influenced by your fears. Arthur Koestler Courage is not the absence of fear or despair; it is the capacity to continue on despite them, no matter how great or overwhelming they become. Robert Fanney Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear. Ambrose Redmoon Courage is not the absence of fear; it is the making of action in spite of fear.

  4. Thanks for this piece, it’s right on time for me. I’ve been winnowing through a decade+ of very diverse unedited work, extracting what I feel are the keepers. Anyone else including my wife will likely see the image sorts and deletions differently than me. If you love it and feel that quiet ahhhhh, then stay with it – keep it. As Galen Rowell wisely suggested long ago, “if you’re not emotionally engaged with the scene and the moment, pack your camera and walk away”… In this big sort, it’s humbling in a good way to discover what I thought were some good shots in Canyonlands, were just that, shots that seven years later were absolutely amateur crap… Take time to play with and make an image. Well, I guess I’ve learned that’s just not the same as a drive-by point and shoot shot. Engage, feel your emotional responses, play and make an image. This is where I am beginning to sense and see some Qualitative difference, visually and emotional … Speaking of Qualitative impact, this past summer I visited the Algonquin Park Art Museum which holds a major display of the art works of the Canadian Seven. The paintings, the colors, the renditions and the powerful symbols blew the lid right off my old wore-out visual sensitivities. Step outside your photographic medium. Since that moment with The Seven, I’m seeing things in my visual environment in a very renewed and refreshed way.

    1. Author

      Hi Roger – Thanks for this. Your experience with the Group of Seven echoes mine. My moment of revelation with them came in the National Gallery in Ottawa while looking at “Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay” by Varley. I walked away (actually rolled away, I was in a wheelchair at the time – best way to spend a day in a gallery!) wondering how I could get that kind of feeling into my photographs. The quote by Rowell is on point too, and I hadn’t read that one before. Thanks for sharing it.

  5. Gotta admit I am really glad I stumbled across your blog. I am a hobby photographer and I constantly ask myself the same question! how come others love certain pictures of mine while I do not love them at all, the same the other way around. As you mentioned I also came to realization that the pictures I take and the way I edit them have to be something that I love and not others. This was something I really had to learn because who does not like to get good feedback and hear/see that others enjoy your art – this makes it really tricky to not stop being true to yourself and just start doing the things others like…

  6. Hi David, As always, I love your candor and honesty, and I find this post, a particularly good one.

    You may or may not recall that in the test, I have personally written to you for critique about which of several mediocre images I had done the best job of “making better” using several different processing techniques. None of them was truly a knock your socks off image, either to me or anyone else yet I had felt compelled to try to salvage them. I was grateful for your feedback then about changing my thoughts on why I felt a need to try to salvage mediocre images.

    The post you have written here is an excellent extension of what I learned from you several years ago when you give feedback on my photos of some elk in Rocky Mountain National Park. You gave the opinion I asked I’m which you like better, but more importantly you gave me that pause to reflect on why I was obsessing over salvaging what was clearly not a great photo .

    I’m really excited at the timing of this post as I’ve been asked to teach a photography elective at the high school where I’m a teacher. I started off with asking the students to tell me what they think makes a photograph good.. I absolutely love this article and plan to share it with them.

    I also want to applaud you for offering it in multiple formats for people of different learning styles. I know if I just read this article aloud to the students I would lose them, so chances are, I will go with the YouTube video, but some of them are audio learners and some of them are visual learners, so thank you for presenting this wonderfully helpful information in multiple learning style formats.

    I’m grateful for all the years of learning from you and wishing you luck with your upcoming Master Course.

    Janine Fugere
    As Seen by Janine:
    Eyes of the World Images

    1. Thanks, Janine, I’m thrilled that I can help. Congratulations on the teaching role: the one thing that has taught me the most about photography is teaching it. Somehow always teaching means I’m also always learning and refining and I love that. Happy to know that those efforts bear fruit. Thank you 🙂

  7. If you (general “you”, figment person) are driven and defined by the preferences, tastes and praise of other people, you will ultimately be defined by their dislikes and their criticisms of your work. This is why it is so vitally important to learn to tune out the noise of taste-making and to be authentic to your vision. At the end of the day, both the harsh and demanding critics and the adoring fans go home. And you will be alone with yourself. In that moment, looking down at what you created, can you say to yourself that you said what YOU wanted to say and not what everyone else wanted to hear? Because if you don’t say what you want to say, it will be so very hard to be alone with yourself, unexpressed. It’s so tempting to choose the superficial balm of mass approval over the sting of rejection. But, still, the momentary sting is so preferable to the ache of unmade art living and dying inside of us.

    So, I agree wholeheartedly. Be courageous. Making art is an act of courage. By making the photo, you’ve already stepped out into the wild – keep that boldness alive in the darkroom!

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