Editing Is An Art, Don't Treat it Like A Process

I am just working through editing images from my trip to Xiapu in China this September. This is the contact sheet of the final images I'm so far happy with.

I love the entire creative process. At the start when I’m taking a shot I try to visualise what it might end up looking like, only more often than not it’s nothing close to the eventual result. I do believe that at the time of capture I know what I would like the image to look like, but there is always an element of the unknown about the creative process that I find intriguing. The most magical thing I think is the way an image can seem to have a voice of its own and dictate how it will look in the final print.

As most of us will know, editing is an integral part of our creative process. The digital darkroom for me is where I bring my own images to life. However, I have not, as yet, devised a formula on how I generally approach editing. I tend to review the first few images separately, editing based on their own merits but then maybe trying to see some common relationships between the initial edits to take me forward in relation to the rest. I like to have a free flowing approach, but that said, I have found a few key points that affects what I do. 

  • The first is that I need to be in the right mood to edit correctly. Each image takes time and achieving good results can’t be rushed. This ethic and approach is something I have really tried to nail down, resisting the impatience to get through them quickly. Not every image speaks out about how it wants to be edited. Sometimes I just have no idea about how to approach them. I have found this to be more of a problem when I'm tired, having already done too much editing, or simply not feeling much inspiration. This is a clear sign to take a break, do something completely different, or just close my eyes and get some relief from the eye-straining work. I find working for more than 15 to 20 minutes looking at a screen is very tiring on my eyes. 

On more of a technical note, when you’re starting each editing session, it’s important to let your screen warm up as the temperature of your monitor changes in the first 30mins, and so it displays colours slightly differently. Once it reaches a static temperature, the colours will stay put. Note that your eyes are remarkably consistent in this regard. Even during an editing marathon, they’ll see colour and detail the exact same way throughout, not withstanding tiredness.

  • When returning home from a photography trip, like I did recently, I can have anywhere up to a few thousand images to work through. To address this overwhelming number of shots I institute some organisational strategies to help in editing. Every day whilst I am away I make a back up of the days images and keep these in date folders ready to upload on to my main PC. I don't look at everything in one sitting, but instead tackle each day separately, because I don't want to be overloaded with the need to work on too many images at once. By working on just one day’s images at a time I am able to control the impulse to just jump straight to what I thought were the most impressive images from the whole trip. This methodical approach means that no images fall through the cracks, and each image is reviewed and given the opportunity to shine. This I think helps with my interest in trying to produce a collection of images, rather than just singles. While each image has separate individual merits, I believe that as a group they can work together and give a deeper understanding of the place and story I wish to tell. 

  • At the moment, I’m finding image culling the hardest thing to do consistently. When I first started out I never deleted anything, as I believed that I would either come back to them and discover a secret gem, or just want to look at them again. The first part has been true to some extent, but in general when I have gone back and looked at older shots, even newly processed, I have not been happy. I need to go through ruthlessly and eliminate the also-rans. Out of a day’s work there may be lots of images that I regard as standard or very similar to one another, but only a couple will stand out. From these I form a collection of the best and then delete the others. This was incredibly difficult at first, but to be honest I haven't missed any and I find my work is getting stronger for it. Never mind about the storage space I am now saving.

  • In my progress of trying to be a better photographer, objectively assessing my own work is important. I only release on my website what I am truly happy with and sell prints of the images I am proud to hang myself.  Sometimes I have a nice image, but it’s simply too much effort to get right. The images should come together smoothly, without needing excessive and strenuous work. My editing has definitely followed this ethos over the years, becoming more simplified and clean, and I now believe good images should not take a long time to edit.

  • Also, over the years I have found that pixel peeping is not productive; instead I try to see the images as someone else would. Some flaws, I believe, are acceptable. Sometimes it’s these little flaws that add to the emotion and spirit of an image. Being clinical I think makes for sterile, soulless images. And, if you don’t think something is ready, you don't have to show the world your work immediately, or ever! Sit with the images for a while to gain a sense of distance from the whole process and then maybe you'll be more objective about what you have produced. As mentioned in a previous article, printing your work is a great help to editing and gain increased perspective.

Hopefully this can be helpful to some of you. Editing is a complex and personal process, and discovering what works for you can take some time, but stick with it. Try different methods, including the relaxed and free-flowing method I’ve been using, and see what works for you.