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?
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