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Weekly Nine – Editing Photographs

Several Years ago I had the good fortune of being in the New York Times photo department when the images for this story http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/16/nyregion/16building.html?pagewanted=all

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 http://www.rockymountainnews.com/special-reports/final-salute/. 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 (see illustration below).

    editorial_S6_images_1 – This is an example of a right-facing shot. The information and energy move your right to left
    editorial_S6_images_2 – This is an example of a right-facing shot. The information and energy move your right to left

    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.


If you are in this course you expect something more from your photography than images to email to friends and family, post to your Flickr account or put on your refrigerator. Your aim is to photograph for a broader audience. In today’s publications, online and off, photographs do many things in addition to the editorial image or essay. They illustrate articles. They advertise products.  They also work as graphic cues to move the reader through pages in the form of teasers — small images that point to more content on a different page.

Editors want what they think readers want and Eyetrack research, studies that monitor how readers’ eyes move across a page, http://www.ojr.org/ojr/stories/070312ruel/ demonstrates that readers stay with images longer if they are colorful and graphically complex. These readers more often go on to read the caption, the headline and then the text. Studies show that readers prefer human interest (feature) pictures to news pictures. In other words, upbeat pictures of babies and fashion models are more popular than images of politician and protests. Celebrity and entertainment photography are an increasingly significant part of news coverage as well. The reality of the professional world of photography is that you need to keep this in mind while also pursuing stories of interest to you, which brings us to the next point.

For editorial purposes, I like to think of images as falling into three categories:

Thumbnails, teasers and graphics – These are all the non-editorial photographs that appear in publication. The small images that are displayed in the table of context in print. The thumbnails that appear as or with a link to another page/story on the web. They might also be images used as part of an infographic.

One-shot photos – As the name implies these single images that appear to illustrate a written story. We talked about it last week in the context of the photo essay as a signature photo, the one photo that best summaries the whole story. The majority of images published are one shot assignments. Of course, the photographer usually shoots many more, but one is selected based on image quality, space and a host of other factors. One shots might also be standalone photos. Photos that appear without an accompanying article (and sometimes with other photos shot by other photographers in a ‘photo of the week’ lineup).

The photo essay – Essays typically have anywhere from three to 16 images. These are editorial photo essays and what we will be talking about below.

Though we’re going to focus on the editorial essay it helps photographers to understand how images are used in a publication. We’ll talk more about this below when we talk about shooting for design/layout. For example TIME Magazine used to always run a thumbnail on it’s index page. I learned to always shoot an image that would serve this purpose. It had to make visual sense even though it would not appear a more than about 1.5 inches (less than 3cm) and it had to visually symbolize the core what the story was about. The image below was a index image about the Rose Revolution in the Republic of Georgia in 2003. These days thumbnails for web display need to be approached the same way.


Getting strong photos out of an edit starts with getting strong photos in the camera, and getting strong photos in the camera starts with the photographer. The Times editor had a ringer in Todd Heisler, which made the process of editing easier.

As photographer you are a storyteller and you need to approach everything you shoot that way.

Photographers need to inform themselves about the subjects and issues they photograph. This means be informed and do research: who are the experts on this issue and can contact them? what other photographers have addressed this theme? What hasn’t been covered? What can I do that is new or unique?

As a general assignment news photographer I often had to shoot subject I knew little about and in which I had little interest. The real pros cover topics unimportant to them with near the same level of performance as things they feel strongly about. However, photographers that feel strongly about they issues they shoot will do a better job. For example, the AP knew I liked education-related issues and sought to give me those stories when they came up.

You need to identify themes important to you and begin to build a body of work around those themes. Remember: the best editorial photography is an investigation. Meaning, shooting an issue should be a process of informed discovery. You go in with some ideas about your topic that you wish to communicate but the act of photographing it should take you — and the audience — beyond your initial assumptions.


The impact of a good photo can be magical but the process by which it is made and selected for publication is not magic. Photographers and photo editors need to think about their work in a very structured way. That structure begins with having a vocabulary with which to describe photographs. We’ve used many of the terms below already. I want to reiterate them here.

  • The rule of thirds:  The rule of thirds is a Medieval European painting concept. It divides a canvas into nine equal rectangles. A good painting (photo) uses ALL of the rectangles in its composition. Further, the strongest graphic elements of the picture often appear at the intersections of lines rather than in the center of the picture. The important thing to understand here is the idea of balance. Balance from top to bottom and from side to side. The importance of the horizon line. Your frame is a canvas and you need to use all nine rectangles of that frame in your composition.

  • Working the layers: Good photos make two dimensions work as three: foreground, middle-ground and background. Avoid flat, two-dimensional images. Photos should use the layers to illustrate different elements of the story, most commonly subject in the foreground, context in the background.

  • The decisive moment: Good photographs capitalize on drama. The decisive moment is the moment of peak action. Even a simple podium shot of a politician has a moment of peak action – when the politician is looking up at the audience, speaking and perhaps gesturing.

  • Patterns, color and perspective: At their most basic, news photos work on a narrative level – they tell a story. But photos also work on a graphic level, almost as abstract art. The viewer’s eye – and mind – will be drawn to a graphically powerful image. The visual strength of colors, shapes, patterns, and use of perspective in an image should all factor into whether or not an image selected for publication. Think about declining perspective. Think about angle of view. Think about natural frames and leading lines in your images.

  • Movement: Eyetrak studies confirm that stimulating image engage the visual cortex. Without getting too scientific, the idea is that compelling images move your eye around a lot within the image — push it from one compositional element to another without pushing it out of the frame. Photographers and editors will talk about movement in an image.


Good editorial photo essays tell a story. They grab the viewer’s through a combination of information, action, vivid color and solid composition. The world’s top photo editors are always looking for novelty in the photos they choose, photos with eye-popping appeal.

While no absolute equation for good photo editing exists, many photo editors use the hierarchy below as a basic measuring stick when selecting photos. The best editorial images have all four characteristics.

  1. Information: informative pictures are the “lowest common denominator” of the editorial photo hierarchy. They relay information about an event or issue on the most basic level: who, what, where, when. The best editorial photo does more than just document. It also expresses why the subject is interesting and important.

  2. Action/Drama: You want to move away from posed, static images. Human actions tells story. Think peak action – the moment at an event when the subject is most animated or demonstrative. Remember: interaction and reaction to an event can be as powerful as the even itself.

  3. Graphic Strength: A good photo works on a graphic level as well as a narrative level. Pictures with graphic strength are very appealing to the eye. Use color to drive your compositions. Make use of declining perspective, strong shapes, geometric balance  and color in how you compose your shot. Universal human empathy: The best photos have the hard-to-define quality of making the viewer feel close to event or people covered. These are the pictures that move us through their ability to get past the superficial and give us an intimate glimpse into an event.

In recent years editor have begun to work with the assumption that the audience, especially online, has a higher degree of visual literacy than in the past. This means that photo editors are increasingly willing to take risks and be experimental in the kinds of images they run. In practice for the photographer this often mean that is OK to sacrifice a bit of the informative (1 above) value of a photo as well as some of the action/drama (2 above) in the interest of creating images that have more graphic strength (3 above) and human empathy( 4 above).

Here are two more images from a story in the Republic of Georgia. The story was for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In short, the story was about how the U.S. State of Georgia sent Air National Guard pilots to train Georgian pilots on NATO helicopters. Following the revolution the U.S. hoped to bring the Republic of Georgia — and the oil pipeline that runs through it from Azerbaijan — into the Western sphere of influence.  I filed the more conventional photo below and the one with the more unusual composition. The AJC ran the more unusual photo.


How an individual image is cropped can turn a mediocre shot into a powerful image or turn a powerful image into a dud. When a photo comes out the camera it is essentially a rough draft. How you color correct and crop an image can dramatically impact its effectiveness.

Good cropping starts in the camera. Most photographers prefer to compose carefully and crop very little.

However, bad photographs and the realities of layout require that sometimes images need to be cropped more or differently than how they were shot. Here are a few tips for good composition and cropping.

Crop ruthlessly with the rule-of-thirds in mind. Cut any excess or meaningless space from the frame. It distracts the viewer from the important elements of the picture and diminished its impact. The entire frame should be working to tell the story.

That said, do not crop so much that context is lost. Leave elements that relay environment and mood. If the subject is clearly engaged or concentrating on something be sure to leave it in the frame. Don’t leave the reader wondering what the subject was looking at or crying about.

As pointed out above, in addition telling a literal story photographs work on a graphic level. Colors and shapes are important. When possible let shapes complete themselves in the frame. Shapes help draw the reader’s eye into the picture, and a completed shape helps keep it there.

Do not amputate. Related to the point, above be careful about cropping people at awkward points, most notable cutting off hands and feet.


We’ve already talked quite a bit about editing an essay in this section and in sections three and five. I’d like to pull it all together here.  There are many good examples in the Kobre book’s chapter on photo editing (p. 124)

1. Editing well starts with shooting well and shooting well is about being invested in your story and having lots of images in the variety of categories below from which it choose:

  • Signature photo: A photo that summarizes the entire issue and illustrates essential elements of the story.

  • Establishing or overall shot: a wide-angle (sometimes even aerial) shot to establish the scene. Close-up: A detail shot to highlight a specific element of the story. Close-up, sometimes called detail shots, don’t carry a lot of narrative. Meaning, they often don’t do a lot to inform the viewer on a literal level but they do a great deal to dramatize a story.

  • Portrait: this can be either a tight head shot or a more environment portrait in a context relevant to the story. As mentioned above, photo essays are build around characters. You need to have good portrait that introduces the viewers to the character. I always shoot a variety of portraits, some candids and some posed.

  • Interaction: focuses on the subject in a group during an activity. Images of your character interacting. Think about reactions too.

  • How-to sequence: This is photo or group of photos that offer a how-to about some specific element of the story or process. Not really relevant to all stories

  • The Clincher: A photo that can be used to close the story, one that says “the end.”

2. The process of editing, as illustrate at the top of this section, 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.


It is not within the scope of the editorial class to address technology and workflow. However, because workflow and metadata are essential parts of editing I want to make a few quick points:

Workflow – I cannot overstate how important it is to develop a solid, consistent workflow — an almost mechanical process you use to import, edit and manage your images. Programs like Adobe Lightroom make it comparatively easy to do this. Take advantage of it.

Naming conventions – Different news organizations and publications have different systems for naming, tagging and keywording images. The important thing is that you develop a system for yourself to allow you navigate your archive. Over the course of your career you will likely take tens-of-thousands of pictures. You need to develop a system for yourself so that then years from now you can find the one picture you took yesterday of the sunset.

Archiving – Back your images up. I have to copies of every digital image I have ever made. I have a closet shelf full of external storage disks. No single digital device is dependable. Back your images up.