How To Edit Your Photos
Choosing the best photo is a skill that can be refined and improved
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I'm the first to admit that I'm not a very good photo editor. I can actually do a nice job if I'm editing someone else's work—whether it's a portfolio edit or helping to pull out the images that tell a story best in a photo essay—but on my own work, I'm all but stumped. I think this is a fairly common complaint, actually. Because we have so much tied up in our own work that has almost nothing to do with the end result we can sometimes become a bit myopic when trying to edit pictures from a take.
Editing is important, because if you want to put together a portfolio or simply show someone a collection of your work, the most amateur mistake you can make is not editing carefully enough. You know those slideshows of family vacations you suffered through as a kid? Those could have been comprised of only ten photos, if they were the right ten photos. Editing is crucial, and difficult. So here's the cheat sheet I've developed to edit my shots much more effectively.
1. Gut Reaction.
If I have a visceral reaction to one image more than the others, I know I'm onto something. Trust your gut, even if you can't articulate why a particular photo seems more compelling than others. If it grabs your attention and draws your eye, it may be perfect. Don't underestimate the power of a visceral reaction; your audience is likely to have it too.
Short of a visceral draw, one of the first things I check is focus. Unless it's literally a one-in-a-million shot, with lots of other things going for it, I first eliminate any out of focus images (or the ones with unintentional motion blur or camera shake) from my selection. A subtly unsharp image may work okay for small uses, so consider the usage (and focus) before throwing out a potential winner. For big prints, though, out of focus images are almost always a no-no.
If you're trying to choose one image over another, the composition is bound to play a large factor. If one composition is clearer, or follows more compositional rules, or breaks those rules in a dramatic way, perhaps that image should have the edge over another shot. Consider composition when making your decision, but maybe don't factor it over other important concerns such as sharpness and "the moment."
4. The Moment.
Speaking of moments, this is probably the biggest deciding factor when it comes to choosing the perfect portrait from a bunch. If one shot captures the ideal smile, or the perfect balance of moving elements in a scene, or any number of intangible elements that are just right for the very split second you snapped the shutter… Well that's the very definition of a "decisive moment," and it's one of the most special things about photography. I weigh the moment very highly when editing images, and I'll even select the best moment over a perfectly tack sharp image as long as the shot with the ideal moment still tells my story best. Capturing that perfect instant goes a long way toward making up for other flaws. In my opinion, weigh the moment most heavily.
Is the lighting in one image more interesting than another? More flattering? Or maybe just not obscuring the subject as much as another, or not as distracting? If everything else is practically equal, a nicer light will get my vote every time. Sometimes that means it's more dramatic, sometimes it's softer, and sometimes it's simply prettier. But in any event, it must be more capable of telling the story by supporting the mood I'm after.
It's easy to shoot a picture of a person standing still. Pictures of people standing still are kind of static, and sometimes boring. So increasing the energy in a scene by photographing that same person in motion, your shot is often bound to be more interesting. Even if a subject is simply standing still in one image and walking slowly in another, a subtle bit of motion can be just enough to make one shot more engaging than another.
The cleanest composition is often clearer and sends the photographer's message louder and clearer. So when I edit my photographs I consistently find myself drawn to the simplest images with the cleanest compositions. A great portrait photographer once told me that he chooses compositions that would make good photographs even without the subject. That's a good indication of a simple, graphic composition—and a clean, easy to digest photograph that should have the edge over another shot.
8. Don't delete.
I'm a big believer in keeping everything—especially the images you're considering for use in your project. So when I eliminate choices, I don't actually delete them. I simply reject them via Lightroom (or Aperture, Bridge, Capture One and any number of other browsing and rating programs) and make them hidden. Sometimes I simply rank them lower than other frames and sort my favorites by rank in the end. Either way, I can always go back and retrieve an image file if I change my mind later. I've found that my tastes—and the tastes of others—can evolve rapidly. You can always redo your selection as long as you don't delete the outtakes.