The Art of the Edit

Editing is a huge factor, in today’s photography more than ever before and like photography, its a skill that improves with experience and practice. Essentially, an edit just boils down to a very long series of decisions, everyone of which can mean the difference between beauty and disaster. And the final decision, what you decide to actually show the client or share with the world, is one of the most important.

When I refer to editing I’m talking about ‘selection’ and ‘processing’. The best film photographers of days gone by, employed skilled darkroom printers who would labour for hours over special prints and digital photography now offers levels of control they could only dream of. With selection, digital means that inevitably we shoot more than we did on film so we end up with a lot more work to discard. But all those files to weed out and all that control we have means one thing, more work! They say if you love what you do, it doesn’t feel like work, but if you’ve just spent a month photographing a country and you have to turn 13,000 files into a perfectly edited selection of 800 for your publisher, even the most passionate of photographers may disagree! 

I’ve partly written this to show new clients a little of what’s involved in the process of producing their photographs. A portrait session for example, may only take a few hours to shoot but invariably the edit can take much longer. Turning a typical headshot from the RAW file into something I’d be happy showing a client would usually involve at least 30 minutes of work, regardless of whether they were a professional model or person off the street. The more commercially orientated a photographer becomes, the less time they want to spend on editing, so many end up farming this work out to others, or worse still, resort to using the kind of editing software that makes quick work of portraiture but more often than not results in the kind of disgusting atrocities that give digital photography a bad name. 

I’m currently in a transitional period, starting to shoot more commissioned work, mainly in portraiture. Its my intention to stay ‘boutique’ and ‘high end’ and never to become a ‘volume’ business. This decision hopefully means I can spend the time doing the job properly. I can focus on quality rather than quantity, promising clients a handful of beautiful pictures as opposed to a whole CD of crap. But my plan is flawed as inevitably, if I end up with 5 or 10 additional good shots, all of which seem to offer something unique and worthwhile, I have to confess I find it a big challenge not to edit them fully and include them in the final selection. 


I’m going to stick with portraiture for the purposes of this article, as it probably represents, in my opinion, the biggest challenges in terms of editing. The first job is a relatively easy one, removing images which just don’t make the grade technically or the client is just looking ‘wrong’. Blinking, squinting, looking ‘evil’ ‘silly’ or ‘gormless’ are all quite common looks you can capture, even with the most composed of clients. Moderately under or overexposed files stay in for now as if you shoot in RAW, these should be quite saveable. After the first cull is over, I like to put some time between myself and the job. I either work on something else or I leave the desk entirely and go off to engage in the real world. For some reason the time spent away seems to result in a fresher perspective when you sit down to continue. 

The next task involves rating the pictures you think are possible contenders. This part really does become easier with experience. Clients will often want to ‘see everything’. They may think that you’ll overlook that one perfect shot. But invariably clients, like the rest of us, come with baggage, egos, insecurities, an image in our minds of the way we would like to be portrayed. When they look at their image in a photograph, they bring all of that to the table and it gives them a highly subjective viewpoint. The photographer sees hundreds or thousands of images and can be more objective in his selection. He or she should instinctively know what works and with more experience a photographer can recognise the personality traits each image suggests. Photographers know when a picture makes a client look strong or vulnerable, in control or indecisive, beautiful or not quite as beautiful. A good photographer will recognise the unique character of an individual and hopefully capture the essence of that character. The photographer isn’t factoring in ‘that day in the playground’ 30 years ago when someone made fun of their big ears or pointy nose which has haunted them ever since. Its your job at the outset before a picture has even been shot, to convince clients that your selection is final, absolute and to be trusted. If they really like your work, they’ll trust you anyway, but if they think your’e just ‘one of the many’, they’ll want to see everything.

Most portrait shoots will comprise of a number of smaller sets and within these sets there will often be much duplication. When you have 6 images, all good, of the same set, it can easily be the hardest part of the edit to differentiate between these and select just one. This is where more time away from the job is, I find, really paramount. At this stage I’ll often leave it a day or two and then as if by magic, when I return to the task, it suddenly seems quite obvious which is the best shot.

Finally, we end up with a selection of images, each offering something unique and each representing the best of each set. At this point, these ‘best of’ shots begin to compete for attention and you may find that images which were selected with careful consideration may be overshadowed by the glow of the front runners. So I might end up with five or six images but even at this stage, I’m very aware that I’m just looking at the raw data and each of these will undergo further processing to enhance them and, to coin a loathsome but highly appropriate phrase, make them the ‘best they can be’.


Image processing is by far the most contentious, controversial and downright dangerous aspect of the editing process. Everyone seems to have their own idea of how far to go with processing, we all have our own acceptable boundaries and others who exceed them are obviously just ‘hacks’!. Additionally, and as with photography in general, image processing is a continual learning experience. I know that I’m certainly guilty of having gone a bit overboard in my early days but I like to think I’ve found a good balance now between reality and enhanced reality. Just because you can do something, doesn’t always mean you should!

In the world of landscape photography for example, image processing in one style or another becomes fashionable and acceptable depending on its use. Many fine art landscapes maintain an almost presbyterian level of understated, muted reality. Popular fashion culture magazines went through a big phase of cross-processing and desaturating just about everything in sight, seemingly trying to out-instagram, instagram. Whereas on the world wide web, the worlds ‘most followed photographer’ uses fairly extreme levels of punchy clarity and highly saturated colours, not to mention levels of dynamic range that to me, take those images into the realms of a completely new genre I call ‘fantasy bollocks’. Whether such images make me want to divest my stomach of last night’s pork chops is neither here nor there, millions of people love them and want to make pictures just like them! 

With portraiture, you have the extremes too. At one end, the beauty industry presents an unrealistic portrayal of perfection, perfect skin, zero blemishes, perfect shiny hair etc. And at the other end you have broadsheet journalism and conservative sectors of the fine art world producing clinical, unvarnished, low impact, portraits. Somewhere in between lies the work of the overenthusiastic enthusiast who wants to emulate the work of the beauty industry but only has 10 minutes to spend on it and commonly uses a model with more ‘booty than beauty’. 

Like all of us, I have my own ideas on where you should draw the line.  My opinion is that your objective should be simply to enhance an image with subtlety and restraint, trying always to maintain character and authenticity. Images should look believable and credible. As a general rule of thumb, colour images need to be handled with greater care. I’m not saying that B&W images require less attention but they can be processed far more aggressively and still maintain an appearance of credibility. I’m not going to go into a complete ‘how to’ guide on techniques here, as that would probably best be done in person, in a skype session or a video. What I want to address and what is just as important are the main decisions that you’ll face in the processing of a picture. 

The Geeky stuff

General exposure and contrast is dealt with in Lightroom. Here my objective is not to reach a pleasing end result but just to get a reasonable canvas to work on, this usually means getting to an image which is not too contrasty and not too dark. Exporting to Photoshop is my preferred next step, with the intention of doing any pixel level adjustments that need attention. This usually means removing most but not all, distracting or unsightly skin blemishes, lightly sharpening the highlights on the eyes, lessening the effect of any shadows under the eyes and lightly dodging the eyes (like 3% midtones lightly). 

It would be very rare that any liquify work would be warranted as this kind of face sculpting will invariably result in a barely perceptible (to us) change in the subjects character. Such a change would be much more noticeable to the subject and people who know the subject. The same can be said for general retouching. The whole point of painstakingly doing it by hand is to maintain skin texture and avoid the kind of stretched polythene effect that cheap software options result in. Equally, removing too many imperfections can remove a persons visual character. That wrinkle they have on their nose or the slight droop of their eyelids may be part and parcel of their character and ‘correcting’ these and other features will almost certainly alter them beyond credibility to all who know them.

My next port of call is either Nik software’s Silver Effex Pro (SEP) or Colour Effex Pro (CEP) depending on whether I want a monochrome or colour image. If I want both, I’ll start in Colour Effex Pro. CEP lets me decide how I want the image to look in very general terms. Very often the image itself will be telling me where it wants to go. The subject,  lighting, colours or mood will dictate the feel of the picture and all you need to do is enhance that impression. The image may be served best by giving it a darker low key feel. If I use a filter to implement this, I may often mask areas like the eyes that I do not want to be made darker. I may want to bring out some detail but usually the ‘detail extractor’ is too strong a look to tolerate so I may use bleach bypass’ but maintaining the original colour and using the opacity slider to reduce this harsh filter to about 5-10% strength. In fact, I find that wang-ing the opacity slider around in most filters gives you the control to end up with a realistic image that does not look ‘overcooked’. As with all processing software, I try to stick to global adjustments which are far less obvious than local adjustments.

If I’m working in B&W I will usually start by increasing the contrast and trying out the amplify blacks and amplify whites to see what they give me. Structure, dynamic contrast, negative soft contrast and colour channel toning are all aspects that I may play with until the picture looks right. More than any other, B&W images allow you to be very creative with the emotional feel of an image. I often add a little grain to detract from the sometimes sterile ‘digital look’ and give the image a more organic analogue appearance. 

Back in Lightroom, with a colour image, I will sometimes make minor colour adjustments in the luminance area which can darken skies or lift colours out of any dark shadows. I will rarely do any global sharpening or noise reduction. People get so hung up on 100% viewing and the noise which they can see at this level of magnification. In my experience with my EM1 files, even high ISO files (3200) when reduced to web size lose all traces of noise and printing these files even at A3+ size never shows any noise. As far as sharpening is concerned, I only ever use the export sharpening in lightroom. I will sometimes add a light and subtle vignette remembering to slide the highlights slider all the way to the right, which ensures the vignette is not obvious. 

So that’s my take on editing, if you like the results I get and you want to learn more about my techniques, you can book me for a half-day or full days, where I can explain things it in real time in the comfort of your own home or here in Winchester. Drop me a line for more details.

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