The Fine Art of Editing Your Images

Nature photographers shoot a lot of images and at some point they have to wade through all of them and determine which are best for the markets. With digital photography it’s so easy to shoot massive amounts of images because the equipment is fast and there is relatively no cost.

In the days of shooting with a 4×5 view cameras, setting up and composing a scene took substantial effort. Film was expensive so there was much more of a tendency to work longer on composition, wait for perfect light, and to make sure the image worked. This slow process was in many ways editing in the field. You worked longer on each image, took a fewer of them, and had a higher rate of ‘keepers.’

With digital it is easy to blast away and many of us do it. The scenery perfect or the light is fading fast, so moving around with the camera to grab a lot of images is a natural response. Get it before the lights gone! The result is a lot of digital captures that have to be edited; at least when it comes to deciding what goes on your website for sale.

If you post your images on social sites and receive thumbs up from your followers, family and friends, you feel good about your work. But most people viewing your images on social sites are not buyers of photography in the commercial sense so those opinions carry less weight. If you are in the business of earning money from your work the only people who matter are clients.

Sample Selects, but not top images

Loving your own work also does not guarantee sales and in many ways we are our own worst enemy when it comes to what we present for sale. No matter how long you stare at a bad image, it won’t become a better image especially when you really know, deep down, it’s a poor photo.

A great image tells a solid story, conveys a powerful concept, and ideally licenses over and over. Scrutinizing all images from a shoot and finding the images that will be the most successful is the goal and this is why learning the fine art of editing is so crucial to business success.

The Edit

The first edit is the most challenging and when I do this I hope I see a few ‘killer images’ but more importantly, all the images with problems. I will immediately dump the obvious out-of-focus, un-sharp, bad exposures, and anything else that clearly shows a less than perfect image. Beyond those obvious images, one of the first things I learned long ago was to not make my final decision about an image upon first review. Maybe not on the second or third either.

We have an immediate attachment to images right after they have been shot and that emotional connection can sway our decision making. On the second and third reviews you might have a different perspective and especially if some time has passed since the shoot. If you have been off photographing other subjects, projects, or commitments and then return to editing, that emotional attachment tends to fade even after a short time. Then, if there is an image that still doesn’t cut it technically or aesthetically, despite how excited you were when you photographed it, you feel less bad about weeding it out.

What happens at this same time is the stars begin to shine, those great images rise to the top because you have weeded out their poor cousins and these stars get more of your attention.

Editing your images is a fine art as I like to call it because the definition of good photography is subjective. What one person loves another hates and I have seen it over and over and in many places. I recall numerous occasions when I used to send images off to my various stock agents. Before the internet, agencies reach was not as global as it is now, and you had the option of non-exclusive contracts meaning you could send the same images to stock photo agents on the East coast, another on the west coast, Midwest, the south, and anywhere you had contracts with them. There was not as much overlap as today.

While I would send one set of images to one agent, who loved them, I would send a second set to another and get a rejection and occasionally a note describing all the problems with the images. Which agent was right and which was wrong? Here in lies the problem with editing effectively when relying on others opinions to help you form yours. Social media Likes and +1’s are the worst way to determine what a marketable image is and what is not. (For clarification, I am not referencing selling prints to followers, rather ‘photo buyers’ in the commercial sense.)

The Mission

This makes the fine art of editing your images to find the best sellers a task reserved for you and it is one that takes time to learn. When choosing the ‘keepers’ you should strive to always be right since being wrong could be costly. Some photographers don’t weed out anything and its obvious when you look at their websites. There will be many of the same scenes showing higher angles, lower angles, zoom in and out, all on the same web page.

To photo buyers this can show inexperience. Some will think that the photographer really does not know what a good image is because they cannot pick one. Take a moment and look at a major stock agency website where you rarely see multiple images of the same scenes shot in a variety of ways on the same day by the same photographer.

It is fair to say in these markets saturated with nature photography, that most pros probably only create a handful of ‘good sellers’ every year. Sure, that is unsubstantiated and some photographers may do much better, but you have to be realistic as well. Putting every image shot on a website probably won’t achieve the desired results. A photo buyer might look through a page or two and if they don’t like what they see they are off to the next site.

Put a handful of killer images, uniquely different, all on the same site, making it look like a portfolio and there’s probably a better chance simply by the look and presentation of the site. A buyer will tend to look at more pages because they like what they are seeing- variety.

Western Arizona near Quartzite

For situations where it’s obvious that many images of the same scene are very marketable, place the best image on the website and stack the others in Lightroom or Bridge for easy access. When a client inquires about an image you can tell them you have more options of the same scene with slight variations and ask if they would like to see more.

So how do you master the fine art of editing? Remember the old saying: ‘If in doubt, throw it out.’ Once an stock photo agent told me to edit and edit and edit again, until I had only 10% from the shoot left and then submit them for review. From the agents perspectives, that 10% was a good shoot if they kept 2% of the images.

Weed out the ones that just don’t knock your socks off. You can store them for later review but don’t put them on your website. The rating systems of stars or labels or color codes are a great tool when editing. Every photographer has their own system that works for them and you can easily develop your own. I like the stars: NONE for poor images and 1-5 for the rest with 5 being the ‘killer.’ You can then sort by rating and evaluate your decisions and adjust if needed.

The more you edit ruthlessly the more you will learn and become proficient. Observe what you see published from magazines to the postcard rack, calendars and online sites. Know that in each published image the photographer likely captured many more of that scene and by analyzing all aspects of the publish image you begin to understand what made it ‘perfect’ enough to publish.

When editing your own images, force yourself to only pick one image from a scene, assuming it is worthy, and put that ONE on your website. That will be the image that tells the story best, is technically perfect, aesthetically pleasing, and might even make your ‘jaw drop.’

While there are no guidelines to make you a perfect editor of your own work, there is a concept behind it and that is to gain an understanding of what makes a marketable image. No matter how many Likes and +1’s you might receive through social media, the true measure of effective editing is the sales records of your images.

Have any tricks to your editing? Please leave a comment.

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