Making the Cut – Rory’s Editing Tips

A Portrait Photographer has a toolkit of skills that need to be in tip top condition in order to produce excellent work. One of the most important skills is learning how to transform a huge number of images into a concise collection that tells the story you wish to deliver. This is more than just quality control, selection is key to the editing process, and it is essential to make the right cut.

Whether your client is a private individual or an editorial journalist, no one has the time or inclination to sift through hundreds of frames. However, if you deliver too few and the story becomes patchy, the message becomes disjointed, and the result is a service that ends up poor value for money. Send too many and your overall quality can look mediocre by including poor quality images. It’s a fine line to tread and takes experience and skill to navigate.

Making the Cut

Efficiency is key. Back in the days of film processing, photographers had no choice but to be more selective with their frames from the moment the sitting commenced. However, now photographers are in the digital age it’s easy to get trigger-happy and shoot a continuous set of frames, making the edit an incredibly important part of the process.

Brent Spinner 01

Of course, with digital photography has come excellent processing software that can help. Photoshop Bridge and Adobe Lightroom can help us make speedy assessments of images as well as including tools to support different styles of working. I also recommend a good monitor, Calumet offer Eizo, BenQ and N.E.C monitors which give you an accurate representation of your digital images.

Throughout the editing process, the essence is to capture and convey the message of the shoot. The task starts off simply enough, with two metaphoric piles of love and hate, but as the process goes on it gets harder and harder. Keep or reject? The project is continually balancing on your answer to that question.

For your own personal projects things are made simpler as you can listen to your heart. But when you are working for a client you need to get inside their shoes and their mind set to ensure they get what they desire from the sitting. The client’s needs must come before your own vanity. It can be difficult to let go of an image you love because it doesn’t have a place on the storyboard of this particular brief; it doesn’t tell the story your client is looking for.


A way to make headway is to recall elements from the photoshoot itself. Drawing on an attentive memory from the sitting, recalling the key moments, seeing and feeling again what you did then can help immeasurably. What I tend to look out for at first are those images that I remember shooting with the most clarity.

Once the images are loaded into Adobe Lightroom I commence a labelling process with my first impressions. From here I produce print contact sheets of those selected and physically place them on the desk in front of me. This enables me to see how they work together and how they flow with the narrative of the story I am trying to tell. This is particularly important for editorial assignments, even at this point asking for the opinions of the journalists involved.

The more experienced photographer realises that this stage is such a crucial part of a successful shoot, and your skills here can make or break a sitting’s success, can make or break who you are as a photographer. As you grow and adapt as a photographer you can see this by going back to old shoots and discovering hidden gems that you once overlooked.

Therefore, much can be gained from taking the time to go back over old shoots and producing new edits and variations. Time and distance no doubt also helps this process. I believe you begin to notice more about the people you have photographed and can therefore pat greater attention to subtleties and complexities of their personalities and expressions.

This whole realisation makes editing in itself an art form that mustn’t be neglected. There are photographers, myself included, who are guilty of putting too many images in a project, letting the easier road of indecisiveness rule the day. However, I think one of my best pieces of editing was for my book Expressive, where I successfully narrowed down 1000 images from 30 portrait sittings to just 38 images to be featured in the book. Making these tough choices added to the clarity of the story behind the actors whose faces make up the final book.

Of course, there will be times when you need to be more ruthless than you like. Aim not to give your client more than one view of a particular shot or pose unless they have specifically asked for variation. Get in their shoes and ask yourself, which image will they value most? And don’t be afraid to get a fresh pair of eyes to have a look in order to help you decide.

Editing is such a vital skill, one that is as subjective as shooting and retouching. It is an equally valuable part of the shooting process, a key link to holistically make a shoot successful. It’s much more than simple quality control – it’s the essence of the story. Don’t let the digital age overwhelm you and bog you down, hone your editing skills so that the product you deliver is concise and true to your aims.

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