“Do you know," Peter asked, "why swallows build in the eaves of houses? It is to listen to the stories.” ~ J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan


The Lost art of editing

Warning. This is a long one.

A few evenings back I attended a reception for a friend of mine celebrating his new photography exhibit at our local art museum. A photographer from the local newspaper was there (possibly two - I couldn't tell for sure who was who and who was with what publication) snapping away - photos of my friend, candids of people enjoying the night, etc. etc. The usual thing. The next day the images were posted on the newspaper's website. All of them. I mean all of them. I mean all of them. Images I would be ashamed to acknowledge as mine, one terribly overexposed, many just poorly exposed - one shot of a couple in attendance was really a picture of the empty wall between them as they (apparently) passed by the photographer. It was laughable. Out loud laughable and shameful. Did no one look at this stuff before posting it?, I wondered. Because surely, surely that person would have deleted the bad stuff. That overexposed image I mentioned was 1 of 3 images of the same pose of the same 2 people - it wasn't needed, there were 2 perfectly fine shots. Why post it? Because that would mean someone would have to look at the stuff? Make that decision to delete? Actually push a button to do the dirty deed? Too much trouble? My assumption is that the photographer just handed over his/her camera card to someone, or perhaps downloaded it himself/herself and hey, lickety split, just like that, we got us some pictures on the internet. My assumption is that it was laziness.

Back in the day when we (here at our business) printed from film, back in the day when we printed for professional photographers - weddings, portraits, etc. - back when those photographers would drop off their film for proofing and then use those proofs as you know, proofs, to show to their customers, to sell those customers enlargements or packages, we were always amused when those photographers would then show back up to order those enlargements or packages they'd managed to sell and complain that the customer had picked the one that needed the wrinkle on the dress retouched, or the one that was poorly exposed, or the one that just looked bad, and could we fix that? They would complain and we would laugh - why did you show it? we would ask. Why didn't you toss it? There was always an acknowledgment that yes, it should never have been shown, but it never stopped them from doing it again. And I guarantee you, I promise you - and I have been in this business a long time - the customer will always choose the image you don't want them to choose if you show it to them. Always. Always. I will call it Michael's Law, for the ever-wonderful Michael, who got such a kick out of it, understood that it was laziness, that the photographers were just showing every image they'd taken. Or that it was fear, insecurity - it depended on the particular photographer. The more money they charged for their services, the more likely they were to actually edit their work; the less they charged, the less secure they were, and, well, they just didn't edit at all. And the more insecure they were, the more images they shot. Again, it was out loud laughable.

So many things seem to play into this evolution, and evolution I think it is. I have a feeling that back when people were shooting plates, or 8x10 film, or 5x7 film, or 4x5 film, back when they weren't wasting shots, it happened less because they weren't that many bad shots to begin with. I think even with 120 or 220 film, it happened less, especially if the photographer was using a camera that showed everything backwards - photographers had to really pay attention to what they were doing. I think what happened was 35mm.

I became a camera salesperson right before the big 35mm boom - right before everyone could afford one - I watched the shift in attitudes, the change in picture-taking behaviour. It was around that time also that video cameras began to replace movie cameras - where people once shot 3 minute films (because that's how long the roll of film they purchased would last), suddenly they had 3 hours of videotape in their hands, and oh my, it was just too irresistible, and they shot everything. Everything. Every boring, miserable, loooong detail. And that 35mm? Oh Lordy, the 36 exposure roll, please, and could I have a motor drive with that? What about long roll capability? Good for me, good for all us commission salespeople, but bad for picture taking quality. But still, back then the cameras were all manual - you had to focus, you had to understand ASA/ISO, depth of field, aperture, shutter speed, all that photography stuff. You had to do it yourself even if you were unnecessarily firing off 36 rounds of your daughter approaching her high school stage to receive her diploma, only to find yourself changing the roll of film when she was actually on the stage, missing that shot. Then came more automatic cameras - more people bought cameras as it became easier to get a halfway decent shot, and then those people decided they were photographers. (You don't have to take a test or obtain a license, you just hang your shingle over your door, and obtain a tax #. Another post for another day.) I was there - I saw it happen - I dealt with those people. They shot a few weddings, and the money was okay, it added a bit of income on the weekends, but their shots weren't as good as the real professionals who used bigger cameras, and eventually they would decide to move on up - to purchase a Hasselblad or a Mamiya, something that shot 120 film. They'd get 10-15 shots depending on the camera they purchased. A big shock. A 220 back would be purchased and then they'd get 20-30 shots. Dang. That's all? But they got used to it, complained about the film cost, called themselves photographers, and some got better, and some went back to 35mm. But regardless of what equipment they now used, they still had that 36 shot motor drive mind set - the more I take, the better I am. And they were afraid to not prove to their customers that they'd taken tons.

And then came digital. Eventually good digital - at first, it didn't even compare with film. Now it's wonderful and as someone in a working photo lab, I thank God for it every day. I would never go back to film, and don't understand the nostalgia for it, but I've been there, done that. And with the even easier process of obtaining final images that look okay, people have become even lazier. You should hear the excuses I hear for bad photos - you would laugh, yes, right out loud. It doesn't even matter if you own only one camera card or memory stick or thumb drive or whatever you use - you can download all those jillion pictures into your computer, delete them from your card or stick or whatever, and start all over again. You end up with thousands of pictures, which is just fine - I myself have tons and tons; hopefully you will not show all of them. You keep them, but learn to edit. We all do it every day when we post just one picture or 2 or 4 on our blogs. You knew I wasn't talking about you, right?

But why keep them at all? Well, okay, throw out the obviously bad shots, but think about this. When digital had first become the rage among photojournalists, I watched a show on PBS about photography, and remember an interview with a photographer who was still shooting film. President Clinton had been caught wagging his finger at all of America and lying to us while looking straight into the camera. Busted. I don't think yet impeached, but he would soon lie to a grand jury and then it was just a matter of time. The photographer being interviewed said when he first saw Monica Lewinsky on television, he thought to himself, I've seen that girl. I've photographed that girl. So he hired someone to go through his images - he kept them all, whether he showed them or not, because you just never know, and he was, after all, a professional journalist - and eventually Miss Lewinsky showed up. It was that famous picture we all remember - the one in the black beret, her hugging the President as he stood in a receiving line, she beaming up at him. You know the one. The photographer made a ton of money because 1. he kept the image, 2. he had a good memory, and 3. he was organized. He pointed out in the interview that he was sure many other photographers got that same image, said he was surrounded by cameras firing off those proverbial 36 rounds +, but those other cameras, he said, were digital. He was sure that when the other photographers got back to their computers, they flipped through the images - actually looking at them - deciding what could be deleted, not wanting to use storage space on their hard drives for unnecessary stuff, and deleted that little Lewinsky gold mine, deeming it unimportant. Of course, this was before zip drives and cds and dvds and external hard drives and more storage space built into the internal hard drives. Now we have all that. Now we can keep everything. And dear Lord, we do. We do. We just don't have to show it all.

We do, however, need to look,
need to learn to make decisions,
need to be serious about what we want our names on.
If I show you an out of focus image,
you can be sure it's on purpose.

I hope my local newspaper is listening.
I doubt it.
They even had the story wrong.
of course


  1. Girlfriend, you are absolutely correct and obviously a pro at picture developing & cameras. I'm guilty as charged of keeping all my digital photos on my camera - good, bad and ugly. Hence, I will edit and go back and re-edit and re-edit some more until I have saved just my best (which are probably your worst). Thank you for this tutorial on editing.

  2. Vickie - Lordy. Don't delete anything you really want. I wasn't trying to get anyone to delete anything - truly I wasn't. As a blogger, I think you practice editing all the time - otherwise, you'd have everything up for us all to see, and I know that not to be the case. Be careful!

    :) Debi

  3. I keep almost all of my images - and have started keywording them religiously so I can sift through them easily - love Lightroom!
    And you're right - customers always choose the worst version of whatever it is your offering them - I've seen it so many times in the sign business - breaks my little designer's heart sometimes.

  4. Raine - Michael's law. Always. LOL!

    :) Debi

  5. Love this post Debi. All so true. I worked in a photo lab for a time(remember those photographers) ... took photo classes(just because) ... hate doing on-demand work (too self conscious) ... would much rather doodle with my camera and not worry about who likes or doesn't like my images. Save waaaaayyyy to many images, and have no clue why, except that I love to play with a camera. I also love to just stare at the wonder of other people's talents and skill in making them. (: Yours are always wonderful. I love your banner! Vicki

  6. excellent points! what a good read. Another place folks put up unedited photos is Facebook, I run a mile when I see this one lady coming cause she will put up every, and even awful photo on her FB and then tag you! I enjoyed reading your take on film and digital...


  7. love, love this my friend. i erase everything. almost believing i don't keep enough of anything. i just don't like excess. so many good points you have here.

  8. I saw that same show on PBS and think about it quite often...there is definitely an impermanence to digital that wasn't there with film.

    And you are SO RIGHT...they ALWAYS ALWAYS choose the one image you aren't so proud of...always. I have learned the hard way, not to show clients those pics...but for me, I have shown them in the past because usually there is something about that photo that is really good, that I really love...I have captured the most perfect expression or something, even if it is a wee bit blurry.
    No more...if the quality isn't good..they don't see. No matter how pretty the smile.
    That seems to be another frustrating law of the universe...why is it that my most favorite shot is the one that comes out fuzzy???

  9. this is really good stuff. i recently had this discussion with a friend who shot a lot of large format film once upon a time. and as you know, i dabble a bit with the film cameras and i think the reason is that i want to learn more and i think that it's the best way, because you can't trick the film. but i do love my digital camera(s) at the same time as i think they've changed photography. and it's not all good, but it's not all bad either.

    i have started throwing away the ones that don't work. but only recently. it's a disease, tho' i don't think i'm keeping them because i might have one of the next monica lewinsky. if i did, it would only be her feet anyway...

  10. Thank you for providing the link to this. Truer words have not often been spoken. So incredibly -- and sadly -- true. Drives me crazy!!


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