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Expert Advice: How To Edit Photographs

Monday April 30th, 2012

by Sean Stone

Editing images—whether for a website, print portfolio or for a promotional mailer—is something a lot of photographers struggle with. Every week I have conversations with photographers seeking help, usually saying something along the lines of “I’m just too close to my own work…My images are my children…I can never decide.” So if you feel unable to edit your own portfolio: take heart! You’re far from alone. Paul Stanek and I spend much of our time helping photographers build or refine their marketing materials. Not that I’m complaining; working closely with photographers is one of the coolest things we get to do. So please, let us know if you’d like some help. In the mean time, I would like to share with you my thoughts on what makes for good photography editing, and how create the best impression with your portfolio or website.

The first step is one that many photographers overlook and it begins even before you look at a single picture.

Step one: Determine your audience

Before you start peddling, you better know where you’re going! A good portfolio can’t be just a selection of your favorite pictures. In order to appeal to sophisticated clients, it has to have a clear purpose that they can relate to. Think about the intersection of what you like to shoot, what you’re good at shooting and where the commercial opportunities lie for someone with your skills and interests. Make a short list of specific clients that you’d like to pursue with that portfolio. Now you can start gathering pictures with that goal in mind.

Step two: Determine your brand

As you gather your best photos, you may see a certain amount of variation in subject matter and style in your pictures. Many photographers start their career shooting everything under the sun. But in order to be really good at something and in order to be appealing and memorable to high-quality clients, you’ll want to specialize to some degree. (Remember, your portfolio isn’t for you, it’s for your clients!) With so many photographers to choose from, clients will naturally gravitate to specialist rather than jacks-of-all-trades. That thing (or things) that you want to be known for is what will become your brand. If you do choose to show pictures in more than one specialty or style, make sure they complement rather that clash with each other. For example, food and travel pictures can look great in a portfolio together. The pictures can be presented in a similar style and many clients who hire one type of photographer will appreciate the other too. However, if you shoot food and also medical pictures, it might be tough to reconcile those in one portfolio or website. You may have to create separate portfolios or simply make a choice of what you really want to pursue. Also, be aware of post-processing technique. Individual assignments may require different approaches, but your portfolio should be as consistent as possible.

Step three: Determine the scope of your edit

How ambitious you want to be? Are you starting from scratch with a new print portfolio, website and iPad portfolio or are you just revising an existing edit of one of those items? Think about your budget. A website is essential. And if you’re short on time and/or money, that’s what you should concentrate on (along with some sort of promotional mailer). And while you can survive without a print portfolio or iPad, if you’re planning on meeting personally with clients, they sure do come in handy. (If you can do all three, keep in mind that you will need to tweak your edit for each.)

Step four: Choose your strongest pictures

You’ve probably been keeping track of your favorite shots as you create new work, maybe adding them to your blog along the way. But if you’re going edit from-scratch, I encourage you to dig a little deeper. Revisit material that maybe you were lukewarm on earlier. Sometimes the passage of time makes you see pictures differently. And now that you’ve reconsidered your marketing goals, you may see potential in something you’d previously pushed aside. Remember that you’ll need “supporting” pictures as well as “lead” pictures. While websites can be simply a series of single images, most print portfolios beg for pairings or small groupings of photos. That means that you’ll want to have enough choices to work with as you’re making those decisions. I like to start with about 500 pictures and then distill them from there.

Of course, the cutting is the hardest part! William Faulkner said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” What he meant is that you can’t let your personal attachment to something you created keep you from editing it out if it’s not strong enough or if it doesn’t serve the mission. It’s no secret that photographers get attached to their work. I find it can be a struggle to convince some that an old image, glorious as it may have been in its heyday, is starting to look like an antique. You may have some images that you have fond memories of creating, or maybe you steadfastly believe it’s the best thing you’ve ever created. But if you stopped shooting film five years ago, you shouldn’t have a single image in your portfolio that look like it’s been scanned. You must be ruthless!

Keep an eye out for variety. Food shooter? Don’t include 14 images of ice cream and no veggies. Portraits? Make it clear to the client that you can, in fact, shoot women and men. No matter what you shoot, look for a range of settings, lighting scenarios, angles, etc. You want to make sure your work still looks like the work of just one photographer, but show range in your abilities.

Step five: Choose appropriate categories and titles

Determining categories can be quite simple if you create distinctly different categories of work. If you shoot food, architecture, and portraiture, there you have it. But, say you shoot kids lifestyle for fashion clients, it probably won’t make sense to have separate “lifestyle,” “fashion” and “kids” sections. Sometimes mixing different types of pictures makes the strongest presentation. I tend to take it on a case by case basis when people shoot specialties with blurry edges. And when editing for a website, you’ll have to name those categories too. Sometimes simple and descriptive works best. But other times a more lyrical approach is called for. For example, a food photographer might choose categories like Eat, Drink, Be Merry! Or instead of Farms, Chefs, Dining – Grow It, Cook It, Eat It might serve the same purpose but with a bit more style.

Step six: Create an editing method

Managing 500 photographs can be a challenge. So it’s important to create a systematic way to evaluate and distill that large group down to the final edit. Some photo editors can do it on a computer screen. I prefer to make small prints (about 3×4″) on cheap paper. I find it easier to visualize and quicker to compare lots of images on a big table than on a monitor. I experiment with different combinations of photos until I start to see patterns emerge. Rather than forcing my preconceived notions onto the pictures, I try to let the actual photos guide my choices about categories, pairings and sequences. But whatever your method, you want to have it be such that you can make steady progress towards your final edit.

Step seven: Sequencing and layout

Here’s where things really take shape, and it’s the most subjective part of the process. With all your pictures separated into rough categories, start piecing together snippets of a story line. Don’t second guess yourself when you’re laying things out, follow your instincts and see how it looks when it all comes together. Then make further adjustments if necessary. Your presentation has to be intelligent, but photographs create an emotional experience too. So you have to be sensitive to how different combinations of pictures make you feel.

What’s really going to keep the work flowing nicely is a feeling of narrative. It’s hard to describe or teach how to sequence as it’s an intuitive and subjective process. Whenever possible, you’ll want to start and finish with your strongest pictures. The images throughout the sequence don’t need to relate precisely, but you can use setting, color and mood to guide your viewer through each section and to create transitions that keep clients moving seamlessly through your presentation. Don’t try to pack too many pictures in. A single gallery of your website shouldn’t have more than about 30 pictures. It’s better to leave people wanting more than have them grow tired of looking.

Whether you choose to display single images, pairings, or layouts with multiple pictures, create a style for the presentation and stick to it throughout. That’s not to say each page has to look the same. But if you create a gallery or vertical pairs, then include a single vertical image in the mix, its going to feel random.

Step eight: Back off

One marathon editing session will not yield the best result. Take a break. Sleep on it. Then come back to it with a fresh perspective. I strongly recommend getting a second opinion. I can always count on my fellow photo editor Paul to give me his highly-educated and unvarnished opinion. And for good measure, I’ll have one of our producers (who have a deep understanding of a client’s perspective) give me their feedback too. But even if you don’t have professional photo editors walking around your office, any intelligent human will be able to help you see things that you might have otherwise missed.

For a little extra portfolio editing advice, check out our video, The Portfolio Edit: Sean Stone Style:

 

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