Matt: Always Be Editing – And Edit Ruthlessly

That’s my name. You know why, mister? You drove a Hyundai to get here. I drove an eighty-thousand dollar BMW. THAT’S my name. And your name is you’re wanting. You can’t play in the man’s game, you can’t close them – go home and tell your wife your troubles. Because only one thing counts in this life: Get them to sign on the line which is dotted. You hear me? A-B-C. A-Always, B-Be, C-Closing. Always be closing. ALWAYS BE CLOSING. – Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

Picture me as Alec Baldwin (minus the BMW) screaming at you to ALWAYS BE EDITING. I’m not talking about cropping, toning, sharpening, or any other post processing, just where you put the line between the pictures you show others and the ones you don’t. It may not be as important to photographers as selling is to salesmen, but editing is a close second to actually making pictures. In this post, we’re going to take a look at getting more out of each shoot by editing in-camera, and then ruthlessly editing after the shoot to make sure that your final product reflects as well on you as possible.

Using your camera’s LCD to review pictures is looked down upon in many circles. That the act was named “chimping” certainly didn’t help, but make no mistake, professional sports photographers use their LCDs. With the caveat that it’s critical to avoid jumping on the screen after a big play and missing the reaction, using the LCD can be a big help to refining your plan to get a complete take on your shoot. In last month’s Training Ground we critiqued a racing picture where the photographer was trying to make a picture out of a tiny detail, and it reminded me of the first time I shot NASCAR. A friend who had shot the race at the same track told me to make sure I got some pictures of a certain turn where the cars cut over a curb and briefly go up on two wheels. Somehow I ended up spending a whole 90 minute practice session shooting the same turn, varying only the fence cut I was using to get a very slightly different angle. I didn’t look at the LCD (the cars were coming by constantly and I shot every one) and when I got back to the media center, I realized that I had about 400 copies of more-or-less the same boring-ass picture.

Had I been editing in-camera, I would have realized that 1) it really wasn’t a very interesting picture, and 2) I didn’t need any more than one picture of each car from that spot, especially when there was so much more going on at different places on the track, including – most frustratingly – a better version of the picture I was trying to get in the very next turn. Too bad I had to wait until the next race to get it:

So you can figure out what you’re doing after you’re done for the day, or you can do it during the shoot. Doing it during the shoot means that you can get certain pictures out of the way, stop chasing pictures that aren’t going to work, and move on to more creative possibilities.

After you’ve done your real-time editing, it’s time to choose what pictures from the shoot are going to make the cut. Whether it’s sending pictures to a wire, loading them into a set on Flickr or putting them onto a proof CD for clients to review, you need to be ruthless in what you show to others. This point came up in an exchange I had with one of our listeners, and it’s applicable to every single photographer out there, albeit much more for those who want to eventually shoot professionally than those who are content just shooting for fun. Don’t show pictures that suck. Don’t show pictures that are marginal. Don’t show a bunch of pictures of the same person doing the same thing. Don’t show pictures that you have to talk yourself into showing. Don’t show pictures that would have been awesome if the subject hadn’t been blinking. Don’t show pictures solely because they have an interesting backstory or were difficult to get.

You can shoot 1000 frames at a football game, 960 of them awful, but if you only show the 40 winners, it will look like you had a great game. This, of course, isn’t ideal because you’re spending a lot of time making and then setting aside 96% of your pictures, but if you can learn from the bad pictures, don’t repeat the mistakes and figure out how to get better, then it’s part of a learning process. But if you show 60 crappy pictures along with the 40 winners, it’s going to look like you don’t know what you’re doing no matter how awesome the 40 winners are. Bad pictures drag down good ones, NEVER the reverse. Be ruthless, show your best pictures, and put a couple of the bad ones in that month’s Training Ground and we’ll do our best to help.

I do want to address the case of photographers who sell directly to parents/schools/clubs because on the surface the incentives might appear different. While a photographer on an assignment only needs the pictures his/her editor demands, selling directly means that you can’t sell the pictures you delete. But if the goal is getting better, building a reputation, and strengthening your pricing power, then you’re better off not selling a bad picture even if it means passing up the money from time to time. Just because parents are willing to by a bad picture because it’s of their baby, doesn’t mean you need to sell it. Eventually you (or another photographer) will sell them a quality picture and the bad one will look worse in comparison.

Finally, when it comes to your portfolio, you need to be even more ruthless. Lose all the duplicates, lose everything that isn’t the very best you can do at the moment, and yes, lose even the great pictures that don’t fit. Above, I mentioned pictures where the backstory mattered or where the degree of difficulty is the only great thing about them. Again, I’ll use myself and one of my own pictures as an example:

This picture was made at a San Jose Earthquakes match. I left the sideline for a bit and went into the section reserved for the Earthquakes supporters group 1906 Ultras with a wide angle lens and an off camera flash. It was very rowdy, and many of the Ultras are ex-cons, and somehow I managed to get the picture that pretty much nailed what it was like to be in that section that night. I left, thinking that it would go straight into my portfolio. A few days later, I ran it by someone I trust, and the upshot was that as a sports photograph, it was devoid of context, and if you have to read the caption to get it, it doesn’t go into the portfolio.

As a photographer your pictures speak for you. Your editing skills determine which pictures do the talking. If you’re not where you want to be as a photographer or an editor, put pictures into the Training Ground posts, and we’ll set you straight. On the plus side, neither Ryu or I can fire you, but then again we’re not giving away a Cadillac Eldorado or an ancient sharpened knife either.

Matt

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8 thoughts on “Matt: Always Be Editing – And Edit Ruthlessly

  1. Very nice Matt.Its not easy to go hard on yourself but if one wants to progress ,that needs to be done.This is one of the reasons Im linking the training ground section so much, if it werent for you guys , some of us would have had a really hard time to show those pictures to another person with a good deal of knowledge about photography.I learned this some time ago, and realized that I should not seek critiques from friends,because they will probably like all of yours photos but the cant give you constructive and serious criticism because they dont know any better.

  2. Great post, Matt. Your description of the NASCAR shot was exactly where my mind was when I did the same thing. It was easy to get caught up in capturing a minor split-second detail just to prove I could, but in reality I wasted a lot of time getting a bad image. Fortunately I also came home with many tight action shots of drivers and cars that I’m quite happy with, to go along with the lesson on shooting insignificant details. It makes me feel better to know I wasn’t the only one who has ever done that.

    The advice on editing and portfolio selection is priceless. Since I have been listening to and reading the advice on BLFS, I have become more critical of my work than ever… but still nowhere near critical enough. After shooting hundreds and hundreds of frames at an event it is getting easier to cut them down to 30 or 40 good images, but still pretty hard to cut it to 3 or 4 great ones. I know that I must go back into my image catalog often and cut out the weak photos as my skills and eye improve, then do it over and over again to get only the best. I can see that’s a crucial discipline that one must learn and refine to be taken seriously as a sports photographer.

    As Eli stated, it is very helpful to get honest feedback in the Training Ground sessions. I would welcome any feedback on images I post into the BLFS Flickr group too if anyone is inclined to comment.

    Thanks again for an awesome post!

  3. My pleasure Ken. We’re happy with the reaction that Training Ground is getting, and will be spending more time each month on it.

    As far as editing, try imagining that the pictures were made by someone else, a guy you don’t know who was also shooting the game. Do those marginal pictures still look as good…?

  4. Great post, thanks for sharing! I’m just a momtographer to a young athlete, but your Nascar point got to me. I’ll spend a lot of time during my son’s game trying to get one shot that I’ve taken a hundred times at a hundred other games. This post reminds me to expand myself and not spend all my time trying to capture one thing!

    I’m really enjoying Big Lens Fast Shutter. You guys have shown me a wealth of information that really has helped me take better sports photography. I love seeing new posts and I can’t wait to learn more!

  5. Matt, great post and I think this goes along with the one about “Letting the air out.” I’ve been going to a lot of local high school, house and lower level college hockey games over the last couple of years and have gone from doing what you did in the NASCAR example to using the access to try different things. I have a little black book that I keep shot information in, notes about where I shot from, what settings I used and ideas for future shoots. This has helped me on the rare occasion when I have managed to procure press credentials. You guys have a great thing going here, I haven’t been able to listen as much as I would like, but I read every post you put up here. It’s always great to hear from professionals in the field.

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