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A Technique for Editing Your Photography…

Not just another task

Steve Coleman

Steve Coleman is an Australian landscape photographer and was the creative director of one of Australia’s most successful design agencies for over 25 years.

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I’d like to share some thoughts on editing, from my own perspective.

You may have your own methods, for your own purpose. For each of us, these might be very different. I hope these thoughts below might add something to your own thinking and workflow.

There is no one way, or right way, to edit your photography.

Editing, for me, is not just an after task. Editing is a constant activity, on a continuum. It starts before I pick up a camera, it is present while I work my camera and it continues at any time I need to review, sort, select or arrange my finished photographs.

I am not talking here about retouching or the functional aspects of editing, which you might do in Photoshop. That is a different type of editing from which I speak of.

When I talk about editing, I am talking about the making of considered choices which drive my whole process of planning, capturing, finishing and presenting a photograph or body of work. It is about the how and the why I make those choices, and it is about the effect such choices have in helping to build and shape the photos I take. That is what I mean by editing.

Fundamental to me having a good editing process is my having a set of values and beliefs about photography. These are the foundations which guide the choices I make throughout my workflow and which influence the photographs I make.

Editing to me is as much about intent, and what drives that intent.

Let me explain...

My editing process could be described as having three stages;

  • Pre-camera editing; stepping into a location prepared with my own beliefs and values which will guide and tutor me in my choice of subject matter, and the style, tone-of-voice and creativity I might use to create a photograph and in the visual story I might wish to tell.
  • In-camera editing; the making of decisions about the specific visual elements I can see and will explore through my camera’s viewfinder. The searching for, considering, choosing and combining of these elements so that I can make a photograph which will have meaning in relation to the vision I wish to share.
  • Post-camera editing;  selecting and distilling a wide range of images into a smaller and tighter group of photographs, or reaching a single photograph.  The purpose of which is to create a strong and distinct body of work, or photograph, which has purpose, meaning,  a unity of spirit and voice,  from which the work might best engage viewers and speak.

Of course, these three steps can be broken down further, but it is not my intention to go into too much detail here.

All of this is not to suggest that I step into a location with a rigid plan of what or how I might shoot. Not at all. In fact, I like my shooting style to be open and agile and I am willing to change tack at any moment.

What I am suggesting here, by way of my own beliefs and values below, is that it will help you if you have your own deep foundation as to why and how you photograph, and what you consider to be important in any photograph you take.  Such a foundation can drive the editing decisions you make, and will help make you a better photographer.

Again, let me explain further…

Here are some examples of my beliefs and values,  and how and why they inform my photography;

1. Will the photo be interesting?:  Making a picture interesting is the most fundamental of my beliefs.

So I’d like to spend some time explaining this thought in relation to taking photographs of the landscape.

An interesting picture is, well, interesting. Interesting adds value, and I don’t mean value in the monetary sense.  It draws people in, it holds them, it brings them back, and it gets them thinking.  Interesting has a voice and gives a photograph a sustainable life force of it’s own, which can live on over time. With “un-interesting" a photograph is soon forgotten and dies.  And, if it’s not going to be interesting, then why am I doing it?

Of course “interesting” is subjective. When I talk about “interesting", I’m talking about something cognitive; thinking and ideas interesting. The observation and communication of intelligent minds kind of interesting.  Not decorative or pretty picture interesting.  A pretty sunset is mostly not going to be cognitive.  Of course, you might be able to shoot a sunset in a way that transforms it into something that is cognitive, but that’s difficult to do. Almost impossible without words to support the picture.  While I find pretty picture landscapes beautiful and decorative, I don’t find them that interesting.

A clue here. Interesting pictures are often “about something", there is thoughtful intent and meaning, as opposed to pictures that are "of something". The first is deep and requires more of the photographer and the viewer. “About" peels away at the obvious. It often involves a concept that is separate from the subject but informs how the subject is photographed. It takes the viewer on an intellectual and thoughtful journey.  A photograph “of something" is far more surface, obvious and skin deep. Here there is little of deeper value, we all too quickly move on, a conveyor belt of photographs where nothing is special.

And don’t assume that the subject in and of itself needs to be interesting. That might be so, but not necessarily so. It’s the thinking captured in the photo that is the hero.  It’s up to the photographer to make it so and bring that out.

I will say here that interesting in the context of landscape photography is among the hardest of pictures to take. I think too many photographers are happy to let the landscape do all of the work and they just stop at the beauty or drama they see.  A big beautiful vista, lovely light and some photoshop plugins are just all too easy and too tempting. Pretty yes, decorative yes. Interesting? No, not really. I think a lot of photographers confuse being interested in something, with their photo of that something, being interesting. There’s a big difference.

Often landscape photographs get their “interesting" from words. Stories that are associated with the project or photograph, where the photography needs to be explained. But here’s the thing, the danger is that the photographs become ancillary to the words, and the photographs are often not very good. Words are fine, but what I am talking about here is making pictures that are interesting in their own right. Stand alone interesting.

“Interesting" is an important value to me.  It is the most fundamental ideal of all my beliefs and it has a huge influence over all editing decisions throughout my workflow. If you can learn to make pictures that are genuinely interesting in a thoughtful way you will become a better photographer, your work will have more value and live on beyond the next flicker stream.

2. The second of my key beliefs and values is “Show me something I have not seen before”:

When I am photographing, I work hard at trying to bring a new look, or a new perspective, to any subject I photograph. I try to capture a scene in such a way that it looks different, or offers something different, from how other photographers have captured the same subject. This mindset energises my whole outlook on photography. It keeps my eyes fresh and creates in me a restless creative mind.

Creating something different in the context of the landscape is easier said than done. Different is perhaps possible. Unique, in terms of the landscape, I think is almost impossible.  Yet, such a value is a ‘spark’ to my creativity and vision.

3. I am the photographer, not my camera:  I make a conscious decision to work mostly with manual low tech film cameras.

This forces me to do more work at visualising and calculating in my head.   This is very empowering to the creative process. It helps train my mind to visualise and evaluate what my photographs might look like with any number of possible changes I might make to settings or shooting adjustments. It ultimately requires me to be so familiar with my camera settings and so experienced in making the camera capture the images I want, that working the camera becomes completely instinctive and transparent. Almost as if the camera ceases to exist as I shoot.  Mind and camera become one.  I find if I give too much control over to my camera and allow my camera to make too many decisions for me,  I start to lose this ‘hardwired’ connection between my mind and the making of the photograph. I think a lot of photographers give lip service to this concept while they actually let their camera’s smarts do a lot of the work.

4. I am not a photocopier:   It is part of my beliefs and values that I choose not to photograph just a copy of what I see in front of me.

My vision is that I wish to capture and present an interpretation of, or make a statement about, my subjects and thoughts.

What’s important here is that as I work my camera I am making ‘considered choices’ so that I might cut through the obvious, find and present a photograph beyond a copy.  I am in fact editing! I am choosing, condensing, modifying, arranging, removing, highlighting and more. I am making decisions about focus, depth-of-field, speed of exposure, angle of view, cropping, movement, light, shape, texture, sharpness, colour, tone, contrast, temperature of light, visual elements, story, tone of voice, gestures, emphasis and more. But above all, I am thinking about how thought can imbue the picture, and about how I can give the picture it’s own thoughtfulness.  At best I am trying to make an interesting picture.  At a minimum, I am trying to find and present a unique interpretation of what I see. Where possible I try and do both. Often achieving just one, let alone both, is impossible. That I don’t want to be a photocopier, this is my kind of editing.

A lot of landscape photographers use this concept to justify their heavy use of photoshop and such like to make their pictures on computer. That’s an easy, and I think a somewhat false, use of this concept. I think turning up the saturation, painting in colours,  combining and manipulating the image does not mean you are not a photocopier photographer. It’s probably just a different type of photocopy.  I prefer the more difficult path of trying to get past even the more enhanced view I see in front of me and find something more, and to do this as a stand alone picture without words.  With what is often a big vista this is very hard to do and I mostly fail at this.  As landscape photographers, we all say that we try and imbue our photographs with what we feel, or what we believe about what we see. I try and do more than this.

I think that art requires me to put something of myself into what I create and to make decisions about how and what I want to share. But don’t interpret this to mean that I don’t or won’t make a true to life capture of what I see. I will, if that is my purpose.

5.  Experimenting and making mistakes: My own photography started conservatively. I am now starting to push my own boundaries and I am increasingly willing to work outside my comfort zone.

An eagerness to experiment and being ok with making mistakes has become a part of my values and is impacting positively on the decisions I make throughout my workflow.

6.  Personal passion: I am not a commercial working photographer. Photography for me is personal.

Therefore personal passion is an important part of the values which influence my editing decisions. I don’t enter awards and competitions, I don’t try to shoot what might please the judges. I don’t actively sell my work, so I’m not tempted to predict and capture what I think might sell. And I am not trying to build any kind of reputation or chase gallery representation. And I am not ‘social media’ needy’. So I am free to take pictures that I wish to take for my own reasons. If others like them that is good, but it’s not necessary that they do. That is freedom. I do understand that some photographers will have an economic imperative driving their work which might require them to make different editing decisions.

There are many other things which make up my beliefs, vision and values about photography; a need for my photographs to be poetic, and need to see that light is at work in a photograph, a need for me to capture as much in-camera without the need of software support,  and so much more.

My aim here is not to give you my own running list. Your values, and your purpose might be very different from my own. The point of this article is that I wanted to share with you one particular perspective on editing which might add to your own thoughts about your workflow. That is this; that the making of considered choices throughout your whole workflow is all part of the editing process. And, if your choices can be based upon your own set of beliefs and values,  then it will help you to build and shape your art,  and bring your vision to life in a way that is more uniquely your own and with a depth that has a story to tell.

When I first became interested in landscape photography I found this quote by Elliot Erwitt to be very confronting, and yet I now understand him completely.

Quality doesn't mean deep blacks and whatever tonal range. That's not quality, that's a kind of quality. The pictures of Robert Frank might strike someone as being sloppy, the tone range isn't right and things like that, but they're far superior to the pictures of Ansel Adams with regard to quality, because the quality of Ansel Adams, if I may say so, is essentially the quality of a postcard. But the quality of Robert Frank is a quality that has something to do with what he's doing, what his mind is. It's not balancing out the sky to the sand and so forth. It's got to do with intention.

Elliott Erwitt

I think it's impossible to edit well or with purpose if you don’t have some strong bases from which you can make decisions.

I am convinced that the skill of editing is much more important than our skill and experience in using our cameras as a technical instrument. So much focus on discussions about photography ends up in discussions about technology and equipment and how to use a camera, that the concept of editing is often overlooked or relegated to a place of lesser importance. To become a good photographer you need to get past that point.

I am reminded of Charlie Chaplin’s quote… “Genius is in the editing.” These five simple words are perhaps the best advice any artist might contemplate. But “editing” might be much more than you think.

Often the most successful photographers are not the ones who are the best at taking-the-picture. Rather, the most successful are those who combined a whole host of skills and talents, among which is editing, which I would put at or near the top of the list of any critical skills to have.

Do I think that I and my work meet the benchmarks that my beliefs and values set? No. But I try. It gives me intent and goals to strive for. It pushes and pulls my creativity forward.

You can see examples of my photography on my website here: www.lightinframe.com.



  • Paul Radford

    Interesting thoughts, although for me ‘editing’ is not the term I would use. I see it more as ‘evaluation’. For me ‘editing’ is post event and deals with a finite set of options whereas photography has a far broader brush to work with.

    • Many thanks Paul. I chose “editing” because it’s a term that has a locked-in meaning for many people, and I wanted to rattle that rigidity a bit. It does indeed have a very post event mindset and yet for me I am actively editing all the time. Which in part was my point. (Sorry I did not reply earlier, I’ve been away and off line.) Cheers, S

  • Peter Stevens

    A really thought provoking article Steve.
    There is clearly a lot of ‘brain work’ going on when you make are your photographs and I’m wondering if this all goes on consciously, which would presumably take some time and preplanning, or more intuitively, which would allow for a more spontaneous response to the subject.
    I also think it would have been helpful to illustrate these ideas by showing actual photographs.
    I do agree that landscape is a much more difficult subject to convey any kind of original meaning or interpretation.

    • Thanks Peter. I think a lot of intent and work straddles the conscious and the unconscious. I’m finding the more I shoot then the more intuition seems to just take over. It’s as if I have done a lot of the work and thinking already and now I just put myself into a place and take pictures. It’s as if the camera and all the functional stuff just disappears.

      I didn’t want to show many pictures because I didn’t want the work to influence the thoughts I was trying to share. It was the words and thoughts that were important and people need to find their own interpretation (work wise) to what I am saying.

      Sorry I did not reply earlier, I’ve been away and off line.

  • emma pigott

    A really interesting article. You manage to put into words feelings that I have had about photography, and art, for a long time but have struggled to explain to others. I like the idea that values and beliefs are an important stage in the editing process. When I teach classes I often find that photographers struggle to explain why they take certain shots, making this process conscious can only make your work better.

    • Glad you found it interesting Emma.
      Photography is the easiest thing in the world to do. That’s what makes it so difficult. Then, when you throw in all the emotion and creative feelings and energy it gets rather complex, and the struggle shows itself. (Sorry I did not reply earlier, I’ve been away and off line.) Cheers, S

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