Simon Griffee


24 January 2011 · 3 minute read

In photography the word ‘editing’ traditionally means selecting the best photos from a set. This usually involves a large number of small pictures — ‘contact’ or ‘proof’ prints — laid out on a table, pinned to a wall, clipped to a string, or displayed in a user interface on a computer screen. The editor looks at the pictures, moves them around, culls the bad ones, keeps the best ones.

Frame 13, Looking In: Robert Frank’s “The Americans”

In the digital era the primary meaning of the word ‘editing’ when applied to the word ‘photographs’ has unfortunately become ‘the manipulation of an image with photo editing software such as Photoshop’. Traditional editing became ‘photo organizing’ or ‘photo management’.

Editing means culling, improving, condensing, simplifying — removing the unnecessary, leaving the best. In this sense, when applied to photographs, and if you want to improve your photography, I think ‘editing’ is a better word than ‘organizing’ or ‘management’, and it should be embraced in its traditional sense.

Endlessly manipulating a photograph with graphics software will not make it a better photograph or you a better photographer. Taking more pictures, looking at them,1 and choosing the best, will.

Despite much mythology such as Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment, the photographic act consists of two things: Shooting pictures and choosing which pictures to show.2 Most people only do the first, but editing is at least as important as shooting. As in many things in life, you have to choose, difficult as it may be.

To be honest, most of my pictures suck. The saving grace of that admission is that most of your pictures suck, too. How could I possibly know such a thing? Because most of everybody’s pictures suck, that’s how. I’ve seen Cartier-Bresson’s contact sheets, and most of his pictures sucked. One of my teachers said that it was an epiphany for him when he took a class from Garry Winogrand and learned that most of Winogrand’s exposures sucked. It’s the way it is.

— Mike Johnston, The Magic Bullet

Dear Internet, a request: We need an online photo editing site specialized in the traditional editing process of culling a collection of photos. This site would let you upload a set of pictures, choose the best ones, arrange them in a sequence and save a unique URL with the new ‘edit’ to be sent to others for discussion. It could be built with a web framework such as Django combined with revision control software such as Git. Please make this, or I may have to!

  1. Good advice: have prints of pictures you think you like hanging somewhere where you see them often. Pinned to a board on a wall, tacked to a mirror, taped to your monitor, anything. After living with the pictures for some time, you eventually ‘see’ the ones you really like, and the others fall away.
  2. A third thing could be ‘how to show the pictures’: Single print, book, gallery wall space, projection, website, and so on.