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Week Six – Photo Editing and Strobe

“Photographers mistake the emotion they feel while taking the picture as judgment that the photograph is good.”

                                                                                                                                                                                        — Garry Winogrand


Several Years ago I had the good fortune of being in the New York Times photo department when the images for this story
by photographer Todd Heisler
came in. Heisler is a terrific and hard-working photographer who won a Pulitzer Prize while at the Rocky Mountain News for his essay ‘Final Salute,’ about the Marine Honor Guard. He spent the night in the apartment building and his investment paid off (the dog in the top image bit him!)  —  the 30 or so images he presented for an edit were very powerful.

I honestly do not remember the photo editors name but I was immediately struck by the intensity with which she and Todd and a couple others reviewed the images.  Photo editing is a skill unto itself. Editing our own work can be a real struggle and a good photo editor can be a photographers best friend.

She approached the edit like this:

1) First she identified the strongest images with almost no regard to the story, about which at that point she knew very little, or concern about how she would sequence them later.  She cared only about the core emotional and graphic strength of each image she selected. She identified about 15 images.
2) She then quizzed Todd and the reporter, Manny Fernandez — detailed questions about the story itself and who among the people photographed would figure most prominently in the article. As she did this she move images around and began to rate them in order of significance.
3) She then began to sequence the images to create a story line. The image of the two men in bed with the dog was her immediate favorite and she worked from there. She said it symbolize what the story was about and made her “feel the cold.” She used words like “unusual” and “tender” and “intriguing” to describe it. She then began to select  images around the important elements of the story, deleting images that either did nothing to advance the story or were redundant to other, stronger images among her selects. For example, there were several images of people using the stove to stay warm. She picked only one. She was careful not to sequence the images in a way that was chronologically odd — moving from night to day and back to night  in an unnatural order. She was also conscious of the ‘flow’ of images, letting color move the viewer from one image to the next or moving from a tight shot to wide shot and then back to a tight shot. She also worked to using images that were both right-facing and left-facing.The process was very much a negotiation with Todd, but the editor held final veto power, especially around images that had a strong meaning to Todd but did little to impress the editor.
4) Finally she, identified which images would be used in print, on the website and in the multimedia video. The Times tries to avoid using the same images over and over in its different media when possible.

This is how editing works. An edit needs to be very focused on story and sensitive to how the images will be presented. At the same time, the process of selecting image is is often one of elimination, one in which photo editors often say you have to be willing to ‘kill your babies.’ By this they mean you have to be willing to get rid of everything that is not essential no matter how attached to the image you are as the photographer. If it is not making your story stronger it is making it weaker.

The process of editing, as illustrate above, works like this:

— Edit for a specific audience and/or publication – Don’t edit into a void. About how many images are you shooting for in your final edit? Are you editing for online or in print? If online you might want to avoid verticals. If in print you might want to identify a dominant photo, the one that will run largest or kick off the essay, and the order of supporting photos.
— Editing is essentially a process of elimination. Get rid of redundant images. Get rid of the near misses. Select only your best images and be willing to throw out images that you don’t need. Just because the image has meaning to you as the photographer doesn’t mean it’s going to have meaning to viewers. Kill your babies.
— Stay tightly focused on the story you want to tell in your edit. In a sentence, what is it that you want to say with your story? Why is it important or interesting? Do your selected images illustrate that and only that? Images that are not advancing the story or sending in a different direction are working against it.
—  Sequencing images for both logic and flow is essential. What kind of story is this — process, day-in-the-life, highlights? When sequencing images you are working on two levels at the same time: the narrative and the graphic. On the narrative level you need the sequence to be logical to the story. On the graphic level you want enough variety and modulation to keep the viewer interested. Sameness from image to image kills a photo essay. You want to move from tight to wide, from left-facing to right-facing. The color of one image can move the viewer into the next.
— Throughout the process consistent and efficient workflow is essential. Think naming conventions, captions, keywords/tags, etc.


There are few things more vexing about camera technology to beginning photographers than the flash. Even veterans avoid flash except as a last resort. There are also those photographers who opt never to use flash because they think it in authentic or believe that it can only overwhelm the mood of the ambient light (I suspect many of these photographers just don’t know how to use a flash).

A camera is a very limited light-gathering device compared to the human eye. Even at higher ISOs, especially if there is movement, it can be hard to get a solid exposure without a flash even if there is sufficient light for your naked eye. Images can appear blown out and white where the burst is strongest and then quickly fall off to appear darker than the location actually is. Or, there are looming shadows, unwanted reflections and distracting glare. Yet another problem: red eye, which is caused by the light reflecting of the back of the eye through the subject’s dilated pupil.

Here is the good news: Flash technology has improved dramatically in the last five years. Newer flash units sync electronically with cameras for more accurate exposure. They also allow you to reduce output to a sliver of full power, often just enough to get a solid exposure without overwhelming the tone of the ambient light. Flashes can also be bounced to soften ‘the fall’ of the light, set remotely from an off-camera position and placed in shoe-mount softboxes.

The biggest challenge to good flash photography today is the photographer.  The essential elements of better flash are these: reduce flash output to maximize ambient light and control the fall or spread of the light from the flash.

Below are few things to know about flash and tips for using flash successfully. In the end, there is no substitute for practice and knowing how best to use your individual unit. NOTE: I suggest you read the manual (yes, that’s right READ THE MANUAL) to figure out how your individual flash works.


— Flash Modes – Most newer shoe-mount flashes (flash heads that fit onto the your camera) have several different ‘modes’ or setting that define how the flash decides output. Below are the basic three. Some cameras will have more modes or variations on what appears here.

TTL – TTL stands for ‘through the lens.’ In TTL mode the flash is talking to the camera and using the exposure information collected by the camera to set the flash output. Arguably the most sophisticated way to meter flash output. It requires that the flash and and camera be ‘dedicatedIt’ made by the same manufacturer (or a after market manufacturer for that brand) so they can talk to each other.  In TTL the Flash will compensate for how you have the ISO, shutter and aperture set up on your camera. Good for fast-moving situations, especially when used with flash exposure compensation (discussed below)

Auto – In Auto the flash is metering the exposure itself independent of the camera. The photographer inputs information like ISO and distance to subject and the flash sets the output. Good if you are not using a flash that is dedicated to the camera or older equipment

Manual – In manual you are selecting the output. If the camera is in manual mode, you will be shown output as a fraction of a whole, ranging from 1/1 to 1/128th power. I use  manual most often — unless the subject is moving  in a way that is dramatically changing the distance. In that case I use TTL.
— Flash Exposure Compensation – Most flash units allow you control the output to some degree even in TTL and auto modes. This is called flash exposure compensation. The universal symbol for this feature is :  By using the slider you can increase or decrease (the latter being far more common) flash output by up to three stops.
— The built-in flash – Most built-in flash units are problematic because you can not bounce the light, they cannot be set to manual and because they are so close to the lens red eye is frequent issue. They are also only good for up to about 9 feet and have a very narrow ‘throw’ (angle of light fall).  However, they can sometime be good for fill light (discussed below) and most cameras will allow you to reduce output of the built-in flash with flash exposure compensation. On the rare occasions I use a built-in flash  I almost always reduce the output by two or three f/stops.
— Rotating Flash Head – Full-size, shoe-mounted flash units have heads that both tilt and rotate. This allows the photographer a great deal of control over the fall of light. More on this below.
Other Flash settings – Below are some additional flash features and setting that it are helpful to understand
— Rear curtain sync – one of the most pleasing flash effects can be light trials. We’ll talk about this more in class 9, but the effect is created by using a flash in combination with a slow shutter speed.
If the subject is moving from right to frame left (or the other way around), you likely want the light trails behind the subject. To do this you need to set the camera so the flash fires at the end of the exposure cycle rather than the beginning. This is called rear curtain sync and most flash units have a rear curtain sync setting.
focus light – many flash units have a built-in focus light that shoots an infrared pattern onto a subject to allow the flash to gauge the distance to the subject. This can also help the camera to focus in low light situations than can cause a camera to ‘hunt’ — rack in and out without being able to find a focal point.
wide-angle screen/built-in bounce cards. Many flash units have a built-in bounce card, which is a small piece of white plastic that can help control the throw of light. They also have a built-in wide angle adapter that works to give the light from the flash a wider through when using wide-angle lenses.


  • Manual – As mentioned above I almost always set the flash to manual. I typically use it at anywhere from ⅛ to 1/34 it output — just enough to get the exposure I need and no more. The exception is in a fast-moving news situation where I do not have the time monitor the flash and do not care so much about artful lighting.
  • Bounce – I always bounce the flash. By this I mean I tilt the flash head at an angle so it is not pointing directly at my subject. Ideally I am in a place with a ceiling off of which the light will bounce. Light behaves much like water and by bouncing the flash I get a much softer, wider throw of light with a much more natural effect and fewer stark shadows. In some cases I will also use a bound card. NOTE: You need to experiment. The angle of the flash head, objects in the lights path and even color of the surface you are bouncing off of can all lead to weird shadows and color cast in your shots.
  • Open the Aperture – One of the key elements of using flash well is balancing it with the ambient light. Assuming you are in a low light situation or you would not need the flash, be sure the aperture is open and the shutter is as slow as you can make it to let in the most amount of ambient.
  • Diffusers – There is a huge variety of diffusers, domes and even small softboxes for flashes to further soften flash output.  Most are odd looking and not very effective. Here is what turned up with a quick Google search:
    However, I often use the simple diffuser dome that came with my flash unit. After-market manufactures make diffusers like this one for almost every flash unit.
  • Fill flash – In the image below, taken in an asylum for the mentally ill in the Republic of Georgia,  I used a flash to balance the light of the woman standing in a hallway with the light of the other figures in a large room with a window. At a very low level of output flash can very helpful in dealing with bright, contrasty light. This is called fill flash.
  • Slow shutter speeds – Another benefit of using flash is that the burst of light from the flash has the effect of freezing motion. The image of the French World Cup fans was shot at 1/8th of second. I suspect that had I used a flash at 1/30th of second the woman would have been almost perfectly frozen despite her jumping around. Without a flash she would have been blurry at anything less than 1/125th sec.
  • Color temperature –  The light from a flash is balanced roughly to daylight (5500k). You need to keep that mind when lighting scenes with different color temperatures or different lighting all together — red stage light for example.  Some photographers carry gels that fit over the flash head to adjust it to the color temperature of the ambient light. In my experience more often the native color temperature of the flash can help balance weird or mixed lighting conditions.