Let Your Photographs Talk
Not long ago a friend published his first article in a travel magazine. I called to compliment him on the great article and wonderful photographs. He amazed me by telling me the editor didn’t print the photographs he wanted. Dismayed, I asked, “Why did you send photographs you didn’t want published?”
Since we can’t go out with them into the world, our images must speak for us. They tell the world we are great photographers, we know what we are doing, we’re serious about our work, and they must stand up to criticism by some of the world’s experts: magazine readers. Most magazines have very particular readers. It seems they go through the magazine with a magnifying glass looking for every mistake. I hear about misspellings, wrong information, messed up captions; those things happen all the time. It’s the curse of the publishing industry that no matter how hard you work, something will slip through. But only you control the images you choose to release to the public.
Years ago, as the story goes, an editor received an unlabeled box the size of a small suitcase. After digging through layers of strapping tape, the editor found the box completely filled with unlabeled slide pages. The note inside said, “Here is some of my recent work. Go through and pick out what you like and send the rest back to me.” The photo editor simply closed up the box and mailed it back.
Just as no one wants to sit through a show of all the pictures from your family vacation, no editor has time to go through unedited slides. It isn’t their job. It is your job to narrow down their choices.
Self-editing your images consists of putting them through a filtering process. What stays, what goes, and the maybes. This applies to the amateur photographer as well as the professional. Closets of slides don’t help anyone unless you can find what you need. Culling the wheat from the chaff leaves you with your best work ready at hand.
Your Editing Environment
To begin the editing process, establish an area for working with your slides or prints. Make sure it has good lighting and some peace and quiet. Good lighting is a must whether viewing slides or prints. Set up your environment similar to what a photo editor uses, so you get a feel for how they will view your images. They may start out holding them up to the overhead light, but when they get serious, they use a good light table and loupe. Light tables come in every size and shape. A good light table consists of bulbs which emit “natural” lighting (5000K) and a smooth glass surface large enough to lay out at least one roll of film with space to move them around a bit.
For an exacting evaluation of the image, you need closer magnification. You need a good loupe. An 8x loupe is a standard size and works well, allowing you to see the entire image without strain. For the first part of the culling process an 8x loupe will be good enough.
Keep a garbage can right next to the table so you won’t have to take a second step to toss out the slides when you are ready. Have slide pages or whatever storage system you need near you so you can quickly lay away the slides in their appropriate categories.
Set Aside Sentimentality
It’s easy to get caught up in the sentimentality of an image. We know the hard work that went into getting the image. We know the time, money, and energy of getting the equipment together, going out into the wilderness, sitting for long hours waiting for the “moment”, of wearing summer clothes for a heat wave and then having 4 inches of snow descend in a freak snow storm. We know all about the sacrifices and trouble it takes to make an image.
Forget about it. Check it at the door. Give it up and let it go. When editing images, let go of the emotional side, the stories, and the memories, and look at the image as if you were visiting an art gallery or museum. An editor or viewer won’t know and doesn’t care about how hard the image was to get. Visiting the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, you certainly aren’t going to think about how long Leonardo Da Vinci took to paint it, how his arm and back hurt, how the mosquites kept biting his legs, how he would have preferred to be building more flying machines, how the model kept sneezing or yawning, or anything like that. You simply stand there and admire the painting. The image must speak for itself and stand the test of time alone – without you standing next to it giving a full report.
Throw Them Away
Throwing away your photographs can be painful. Most people hang onto every image they’ve ever created. Unfortunately, few of us have homes big enough to accommodate all of them, so some editing and tossing must happen. To make the process begin as simply and quickly as possible, here are the steps, in order, we take to process our work.
- Bad Stuff
- If it is truly bad, toss it. Black end strips and overexposed-to-clear slides should be tossed immediately. We all have them, and there is no reason to keep them.
- Sometimes mistakes turn out to be lucky breaks, but the serious mistakes need pitching. The shot of your finger over the lens or the closed eyes pictures aren’t worth keeping. We do a lot of bird photography and have tossed out more than our share of beautifully composed but out of focus flight shots. You know what your mistakes look like. Unless they are lucky breaks, toss them.
- Over and under exposed images go immediately. We save a few good examples of bad exposure from time to time to use in our teaching programs. In general, slides can only handle about two stops in either direction of “average” so photographs several stops off, more black or white than color, need to go into the can right away.
At this point it is time to ask yourself if your original intention in taking the photograph was met. Does it match the end result? From the images that remain on your light table, put aside sentimentality and let the images talk to you. This is the hardest part of the process. You may use your close-up loupe to more precisely evaluate each image. Start two piles of keepers, the best and the maybes. Everything else goes into the trash.
- Is the image tack sharp? Are the things in focus as you intended or did the focus change as you worked? With birds and other wildlife, their high speed movements can sometimes beat our auto focus camera and we miss. Look closely to see if the images are as sharp as they can be. Anything that might be fuzzy or soft, put it in the maybe pile or toss it.
- Evaluate the exposure again. Is the image slightly over or under exposed? Some images will take a little exposure latitude, but some won’t. Take your time and ask yourself if this exposure is really right for this image. Toss what doesn’t match your expectations.
- If the composition is uncomfortable, or just not satisfying, is it worth keeping? Is everything straight and lined up the way it needs to be? Is the horizon straight? Is the deer looking into the picture and not out of it? Study how the subject is placed in the frame and how all the parts relate to each other. Is this what you intended?
- Distracting Elements
- Is that tree branch hanging into the frame really distracting or can you work with it? In the excitement of capturing the moment, there are often little details overlooked. Is everything in the frame what you wanted to be there? Look around the edges for things poking in. Did you notice that piece of garbage lying in the foreground? What about distracting bright lights or shadows in the background? Do they really add to the image or are they distracting?
After discarding the obvious failures and choosing the technically excellent ones as keeprs, the last filter we send our images through is the “can we sell it” process. This process comes from experience and research. We do a lot of research into what is selling and the trends towards what will sell. When we evaluate our images for their marketability, we further cull out images into the maybe pile. As tastes change, these may be usable in the future. Ones that make it through this process are the ones we sell first to our customers. Your market may be different from ours, the editorial market, so your criteria will be specific to your industry.
- Hand of Man
- We work with some nature publications which will not reproduce images showing the hand of man. This is evidence of man’s impact on nature. It can be as simple as a power line cutting across the sky or something most people would miss like a log cut with a chain saw in the foreground, not broken off “naturally”. Animals with tags or markings are usually only in demand in a few educational or trade publications. We look carefully for the signs of man and sort our work accordingly.
- Is the color even and appropriate? Slide film is very exacting and a shift in exposure, even a 1/2 stop, can change a color by fading or darkening it. Look very closely to see if the color rendition is what you want.
- We photograph with publication in mind. With a still subject we photograph horizontals, verticals, and move the subject around in the frame to the different corners. Creating such an inventory allows buyers to pick which “look” they like and editors like the room for writing text over the photograph, saving column space and adding versatility.
- The Eyes
- Is there a catch light in the eyes? If not, wildlife tends to look dead or artificial. We watch closely when photographing, but sometimes a little turn of the head or a cloud blocking the sun can lose that sparkle for just a moment. Look for the spark of “life” in your images.
- We work hard to photograph wildlife at their best. Large mammals are best photographed in the fall when their coats are thick and shining and they are full from a summer of feeding. In the spring, they are molting and look pretty sad, but their babies are fresh and new and lovely to photograph. We like photographing images people enjoy looking at.
- Who will buy?
- As we edit, we keep asking ourselves where we can sell this photograph. Is there an article that springs to mind? We jot it down in our idea file. Will this image work for the stationery market, looking lovely on a note card with some nice words on it? Or will it only sell to the educational market for use in text books? Will it work on the cover of a magazine? How many ways can one image be used? This process narrows down our choices. If it really won’t sell and I’m hanging onto the image for sentimental value, then it is definitely for the maybe pile.
- Throw it back
- Lastly, if ever we are in doubt, tired, or frustrated, we put the remaining slides back into their box, return it to the stack of slides to be edited and keep going on the next batch. Later we will return to the edited box of slides and go through the process again with a fresh perspective.
Every time we pick up a magazine, there is usually one photograph or collection of images published that make Brent and I want to shake our heads and ask, “What were they thinking?” Sometimes editors publish images because they don’t have a lot of choice. Others do so because they don’t know any better and haven’t learned what really makes a good, reproducible-in-print image. As much as we’d like to blame the magazine and those responsible for it, we really know the responsibility lies with the photographers. They are the ones who let crap out their front door into the public eye. We hope that you will learn from our experience, toss mediocrity in the trash bin, and compete with us to only bring excellence to the public eye.