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The Art of the Edit

Over the years in which I have been involved with professional photography I have edited literally thousands of images—and that is how you learn how to edit. You have to look at photographs, lots of photographs, created by other photographers; you cannot learn to edit by looking purely at your own work. It is often said that photographers are the worst editors of their own work and that’s why God invented art directors and photo editors. This is mainly said by art directors and photo editors. I agree, but there is more than a nugget of truth in this tongue-in-cheek statement.

The problem with photographers editing their own work can often be the baggage they bring with them to that edit. Their editing is too often subjective, and effective editing has to be completely objective. The image has to be judged on its photographic qualities and its photographic qualities only. What those qualities are and what value they have to different people cannot be pre-determined. In photography two plus two rarely makes four; there are no rules—and there shouldn’t be—when it comes to the appreciation of a photographic image. However, to be a good editor does require at least a basic level visual understanding and the ability to voice and explain the reasons behind your editing decisions.

When asked if I like a picture, I always refuse to answer. It does not matter if I like or dislike a picture; that’s a subjective opinion, which has no relevance to the chosen edited image I am being shown. What is important is the context in which that image is proposed to sit. On a gallery wall, in a portfolio or a magazine, in an advertising campaign or a family album: The context is what defines the appropriateness of an image. Once I know the context, I can voice my opinion as to whether I think the image will work or not in the proposed context. An image may work well in one context but not in another; therefore, before editing your images you have to be sure of the environment in which you want it to be placed.

Similarly, the art of editing relies on an understanding of what works and what does not. This does not necessarily mean what works on a technical basis but it does mean what works in context and intention. What did you intend to say with the photographs you have taken? And what have you captured that brings unexpected meaning to your subject? These are the questions you have to ask yourself when editing. The more images you look at – especially if you are looking at other photographers’ work – the more questions you will ask and the easier the answers will come. The art of editing then becomes a simple process of deciding what works and what doesn’t. Simple, really!

Credit: © Grant Scott (

Caption: This series of analogue contact sheets from a portrait sitting with the writer William Donaldson shows not only the progression of the shoot, but also the process of the edit in deciding upon a final single image.

For more expert advice from Grant Scott, check out Self-Promotion for Professional Photographers, a free ebook brought to you by Focal Press. Download your copy today!

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