How to Edit a Photographic Project

"Father-Daughter"  -  London, England

London, England

I wrote a piece a while back about how to start a photographic project. This could be considered the second installment in that series, and will cover how to stay consistent, how to edit, and how to prepare for the final step–actually finishing the project. For the first post I wrote I used a project of mine that was in the very early stages of development, which helped to illustrate the themes I was talking about, and helped me to wrap my head around the ideas I was attempting to convey. At this point, I am going to use a project that I am working on that is nearing completion, and for the final installment I will illustrate my points with a project that is signed, sealed, and delivered.

The beginning of the project can be difficult. Finding an idea and then discovering the means to properly illustrate that idea and make photographs that convey your intent is not simple. In many ways, the next part–the middle section–is the easiest, but is also the one that is often overlooked or neglected. I won’t pretend to be the definitive authority on this process, and can really only speak about my personal experiences. Still, I hope this is helpful for those of you needing a boost with your project or are thinking of starting a project but are intimidated by all that can happen along the way.

Anchorage, Alaska

Once I’ve started a project and begun shooting images, I generally file them away and don’t do much with them. Of course, this can vary based on the time constraints you have for the project in question; it might also be impacted by the medium you choose for the project. Exposed film might be left to sit for a while, but the same is true of digital images. Simply load them onto your computer and file them according to whatever system you use. Then, do nothing. Leave them alone and let them sit is my recommendation. I generally let my film sit for a while, as I finds that this helps me to keep an emotional distance from the images themselves and to evaluate them more objectively. This is the same reason Garry Winogrand used to let film sit after exposure for a year, or longer even. He argued the same thing essentially, that the emotions a photographer has that drives them to capture the image need time to fade. Otherwise, the photographer ends up evaluating, or being influenced by, the emotions, rather than the images themselves.

For the project that is in this post, there are no pre-determined start- and end-points, meaning that it could conceivably go on indefinitely. This means that while I have the luxury of allowing the images to sit and breathe, it also means that I have to be the one to finally call time on the project when I feel it’s time. But more on that in the final installment of this series.

London, England

Editing during this middle phase of a long-term project does not need to be overly difficult or lengthy, but it is important to help you stay on track. For me, I like to go through the images routinely to see if there is something I’m missing for my vision of the project, if there is something I meant to include and haven’t, if I’ve been repeating myself too much and need to take a fresh look at the whole idea, or anything else that I might get from browsing through the set. I also take the opportunity to remove any images from the set that I feel don’t add to the set, or images that don’t stand up to a quick look through.

You may review more or less frequently, depending on what you’re shooting with. If you’re shooting with a large format camera, you may want to review more often, as each shot is more difficult to set up, and more expensive to process and print, let alone to pay for the film. If you’re shooting digital, however, you may be shooting thousands of frames, at which point you may require a regular “pruning” of your project to make sure you don’t end up with too many images to sift through in the final stages.

Minneapolis, MN

When the set starts to come together, and you feel like you’re really getting to have a solid set together, is when you need another pair of eyes to take a look through the photographs. I generally don’t like to have others view the project until I’m getting close to the end. This helps me to keep me true to the vision that I started with. Now, that’s not to say that I won’t discuss my idea or vision with anyone else–in fact, I do that routinely. What I mean is that I don’t share the photographs that are part of the project until later on, as I like to reserve most of the critique for the end when I’m editing the set down to the final selection. I only ask for critique when I’m early on or in the middle of a project from people that I trust completely; people who know me and my work, and who’s opinions on photography I trust, and who’s advice I respect. This is when the project is at its most sensitive, and needs to be treated carefully.

When reviewing your images, you may find that the project has gone in a new direction that you didn’t intend. The images may convey a feeling previously unintended but that fits; or it may be that this new direction was one that hadn’t been considered before but that just fits. After all, if you allow yourself to let go and shoot you may find that the results surprise even you. It is impossible to plan a project out completely. I have found that the best things develop organically if you let them.

Porto, Portugal

Start with an idea, review your images regularly to make sure you’re on the right track, and see where it takes you. There is a fine line between leaving your images sit too long, and reviewing them too frequently, but it’s a line that each photographer has to navigate on their own. This varies each time and depends on what you’re shooting, how long you’ve got to accomplish the project, and the medium you choose to shoot with.

I have found that the projects that have developed naturally like this have been my strongest work. Start with an idea and figure out the specifics of how you’ll go about shooting it: stylistically, what format you’ll choose, and what other parameters you decide to use to contain your project (the things that I covered in the first post). The central theme needs to come through in the images, and they need to convey the feeling of the project; when viewed as a set, the intent should be clear enough to not be ambiguous, but not heavy-handed. Being too obvious can turn away the viewer.

But again, more on that in the next post.

London, England

At some point you have to end the project, which is the final part of this series that I will post soon enough.

If you have questions, let me know in the comment field below.

5 Comments

  1. The method you described is thorough and makes perfect sense.

    I also agree completely on your statement “…the best things develop organically if you let them…” That is true and doesn’t mean that one can’t have an initial guideline in mind, of course.

    With time and experience, proper methodology to build up a good series becomes second nature. I, myself – and I speak as a mere enthusiast with yet much to learn – feel that I don’t need to put my photos to rest to achieve emotional distance and be able to judge them better. Well, at least, not for too long, anyway. The (necessary) emotional connection with the subject becomes limited to the subject itself – and not to the photographic representation of it – and lasts merely for some minutes after the shot was taken.
    I arrive to this conclusion by recognizing that I’m becoming more and more demanding towards my own shots, to the point of discarding them almost on the spot if I feel that I can’t find any angle of interest for them. I’m doing this a lot these days and find it a bit frustrating but I can’t help myself. I rarely use photos that were “forgotten” in my computer’s hard drive. I may like to revive them, of course, but I feel they became things of the pass and not material I would want to use for an ongoing new project…

    Reply

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