Editing – Preparing for an exhibition

I am hectically preparing for a solo exhibition here in France which will commence on August 24th.  It is amazing how much work there is  to do to get an exhibition off the ground. Site visits to understand the layout and lighting of the location, invitations, brochures, availability of prints, books etc for punters to buy. The single most important activity, though, is the selection and subsequent preparation of the shots to use.  I have also just completed this site’s first photo essay, The Changing Face of China, so editing is very much on my mind at the moment.  As many people have asked me in the past how I do this, I thought I would share my method here.

Editing, to put it bluntly, is the process of culling those photos that won’t survive in the wild – distilling a set of photos down to the best shots and then chucking out the rest. I hate to tell you  but there is no rocket science here, just grim determination by the photographer to ensure that only the best work survives. It is tempting to keep everything on the basis that disk space is cheap, or that tomorrow you may gain skills or knowledge that turns today’s second rate photo into a prize winner. The reality is somewhat different. New skills may help you get more out of a good shot, but they won’t save a weak composition, poor focus or bad technique.  Moreover, cluttering your mind and catalogue with shots you will never use is just a waste of time and resources. What is more likely is that over time you raise the bar on the definition of best image and yesterday’s keepers no longer make the grade.

“Ah but what if I have two similar shots, and they are both brilliant…” I hear you cry. Will your client be able to use both shots ? Will the newspaper print both shots on the front page ? Will the fine art market thank you for a limited edition print run of two almost identical shots ?  Would you hang both of them on your wall ? If the answer is yes then keep them both, otherwise make a determination as to which one is best and nuke the other.

Editing, to me, is not a one step deal, it is an ongoing process until the final set of images have been determined. Nor is it a undirected process in that I don’t tend to shoot completely randomly. I am usually shooting for a project. The project may be as simple as a blog post, but it may also be a commercial shoot or even an exhibition. Whatever the project is, it provides a context for editing that helps in deciding what images to keep.

So here is how I do it:

Step 1:  The initial cull

I sometimes delete photos in the camera, but for the most part I just load them all up into Lightroom and start the initial edit. Using the grid view, I then

  • Flag as rejects any images that are not good enough. For the most part this means focus, composition and unrecoverable exposure errors but there are other elements that could render an image un-usable such as the expression on a subject’s face.
  • Rate as 3 stars those images that I am immediately short listing for post processing.
  • Rate as 2 stars those  images that I need to investigate further before shortlisting.

While I take my time at this and zoom in to 100% when required to be sure I am making a reasonable call on each photo, this stage can be completed very quickly. At the end of this step all rejected images are deleted and all unrated images are retained for the time being.

Step 2: Final Shortlisting prior to post processing

This stage takes a little longer and results in the largest cull of images, but the goal is to produce a final shortlist for post processing. Looking at the 2* and 3* images only. The primary thing I look at here is how the images work individually within the goal or brief of the shoot/project if one exists. In this step duplicates/similar images are reduced to a single selected image. The strongest images are rated as 3 and go forward to post processing as required. Others are rated 2.

Step 3: Final image selection

After post processing I go through one more edit. Here I am looking for style and colour consistency across a range of shots, again within the context of the brief of the shoot. Four stars are awarded to the best shots, with an extra star for what I think are outstanding shots that work well on their own and/or are suitable for an exhibition for instance. Three stars are awarded to those that I want to keep but which may not see the light of day outside my office. These typically are shots that I think may work in the context of another project, for instance a gear review, shots that I can learn from or shots that I just plain like but are otherwise not strong enough.

At the end of this step I delete all shots that are not rated 3 or above.

So those are the steps, but in practice its a little less regimented than that. For instance, when going through step one any really standout shots may get four or five stars straight away.  I do try to be as savage as I can, though, when it comes to weeding out the weak shots. As an example, on my return from Nanjing I had just over 1000 images taken with the Fujifilm X100s from about 5 nights of shooting in the streets and 1 day on the tourist trail. Roughly  550 of those can be discounted, as I shot in jpeg and RAW, and there were about 100 family album/memento photos taken while visiting the sites. So 450 serious shots in total. After editing down, I am left with just 32 photos. 10 are rated 3*s, four images got a 5* rating and the rest are 4*. You can see 10 of these shots on the Photo Essay: The Changing face of China. So thats about a 7% keeper rate.  However a note of caution. While going through the editing phase, a second story line started to evolve in my mind revolving around food. So before I delete all the 2*s and below, I will take one more look to see if there is a worthwhile photo essay there.

On a recent commercial shoot for Scaramouche Ice Cream I edited down the shoot to a 4% keeper rate (including test shots in the total). While the studio environment is more controllable the keeper rate reflects that for product shots you tend to take a large number of similar or even duplicated shots. Also ice cream tends to melt when you least want it to 🙂

I have no idea what other photographer’s keeper rates are like, but I seem to recall reading somewhere that Ansel Adams reckoned that if he got one exhibition shot per year he was doing well. So I guess I have a ways to go 🙂

I hope this helps.

Related posts:

  1. Studio Lighting – Scaramouche Ice Cream
  2. The changing face of China – Part 1
  3. Photo Essay: The changing face of China

4 thoughts on “Editing – Preparing for an exhibition

  1. Pingback: The changing face of China – part 1 | The Wideangle Cafe

  2. Pingback: Editing - Preparing for an exhibition | Wideang...

  3. Pingback: Night run | The Wideangle Cafe

  4. Pingback: Focus Peaking Part 1: Fuji Xpro1 and Voigtländer 35mm f2.5 Color Skopar | The Wideangle Cafe

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