Its all in the edit (delete at your peril)

I’ve been teaching photography in various ways for over 20 years, and embraced the digital revolution for all the reasons we all have, but also because of the ways it enabled me to show a novice photographer a technique in ‘real time’ and see the result on the lcd screen. Learning is quicker and more fun this way. But one thing that I’ve tried to encourage people not to do when learning, and which digital makes easy to do, is delete in the field.

I’ve tried to encourage a process of editing in the computer, and looking at the work as a whole, and seeing how the images that you might like have been arrived at, by studying the progression of images as you shot ‘through’ the subject over a period of time.

Yes just like the contact sheets we used to make in the good old film days (and some people still do).



I think there’s a lot to be learned from doing this, not just technical lessons, but aesthetic too. But I’ve come to realize that there’s another aspect to this thats really important. Its that for many inexperienced photographers it’s actually quite difficult to determine what actually constitutes a ‘good’ or ‘successful’ image and that too often its the technical qualities that are the defining ones, overriding any other less tangible considerations.

I was teaching photography for a community association adult group over a recent winter, all beginners, mostly using basic digital compacts. Simple class structure – an ‘assignment’ to undertake in the intervening week, and a group review of the class images from the tasks for the first hour of each successive session.

One woman class member Susan was struggling to find the particular images she wanted to show us on her laptop, and as she flicked through several others she said “not sharp, not sharp, not sharp, sorry these are ones I meant to delete“.

“Whoa!” says I. And she stopped and backed up as I requested, through numerous images, until we came to a few pictures I’d spotted as she’d flicked through.  One was simply beautiful (although the original was in colour, but with a horrible colour cast).

Village Hall, Strathconon. © Susan McLennan


I asked what she thought of it. “Not sharp, didn’t work“, she replied. And again said “I meant to delete these“. I asked the class what they thought and the same comment was made by several of them about the image not being sharp..

And so I told them what I thought. That this was a wonderfully evocative image of a highland village hall, the timber lining, the tall windows, and the pictures on the wall of the local laird (estate owner) and his wife at their wedding, the stag heads, all of it just shouting ‘village hall’ and giving it a real sense of place, but with that wee bit of additional magic –  the children. Moving around as they played during the long exposure, they had recorded as a slightly ethereal presence, wispy and transparent, almost ghostlike. And I explained how for me this evoked the presence of past children, and future children, and because they were virtually unidentifiable they were ‘any child’, and that this was a timeless image which should be celebrated and enjoyed and certainly not deleted.

The class were well up for the discussion that followed and enjoyed having their preconceptions about what constituted ‘good’ work challenged.  And many of them found the concept of ’emotional content’ a revelation, and the realization that it is a quality totally independent of the technical aspects of an image, to be a very liberating thing.

We all have to start the learning curve of photography somewhere, and it’s been a continuing source of delight to me that with some guidance (and even without) the vast majority of people have something to say ‘visually’, and can often take a really really good image to illustrate it. Truth is that taking ‘good’ images is very easy, but the difficulty is that they are invariably surrounded by a mass of work of lesser value.   How does one discern the good from bad? If you’re a novice photographer how can you tell the difference? I often wonder how many real gems never see the the light of day because they are simply deleted?

In one subsequent class an even more emotive moment occurred. The class task was to photograph something you like or something you dislike. One woman class member showed an image of a leg, clearly badly smashed up and surrounded by a metal cage, obviously in a hospital context with a nurse’s hand visible at the bottom of the frame holding the leg. She explained this was an image she hated because it was her partner’s leg, taken after they’d decided to move 500 miles to Scotland and she’d relocated and got a job whilst her partner worked out his notice in the south. However he’d had a serious accident and was now in hospital down south for at least 6 months, until his leg healed. And this meant the new life they’d planned together was on hold because of the accident, he was down there, she was up here, hundreds of miles away “and this photo – well I hate it, I just hate it because of what it signifies, the separation and his absence” she said with an emotional crack to her voice.

After a moment I asked the class what they thought, and there was a subdued range of nods of agreement, and sympathetic murmurs. This image and its meaning had obviously struck them all as being a little ‘heavier’ and more emotional than they’d expected. So I asked a question:

“What attitude do you think that nurse’s hand displays?“.

Silence. So I asked again for everyone to look at the hand and tell me what it looked like. Still silence.  I gave some guidance, and suggested that what they had responded to so emotionally was the verbal description of the image’s meaning to the author, NOT to the image’s actual content.  And then asked them did they think it looked like a caring hand or an aggressive hand in the photo. After a few moment one of the bolder folks (bearing in mind this is only week 2 of our course) said “er….um….well…..caring I think“.  I pressed on “why caring?“.  And then several of them started to look, to see, and to think, and answers flowed, such as “it’s hard to say, it’s just well the way it looks” and  “it’s the way it’s touching the leg, sort of delicately” and so on.

I added “yes, we all recognize aggressive actions, stances, bodily shapes, and equally we recognize passive, caring, tender attitudes and actions, whether we are aware of this or not. For me this hand sums up ‘care’, and ‘tenderness’ and ‘healing’, and I’d suggest that rather than hate this image you should perhaps love this image because what it demonstrates is that in your absence someone else is looking after the person you love with a great degree of care, and dare I say it, tenderness. And at the beginning of your description you described how well looked after your partner was, that the staff were really caring”.

There was a silence then a little tearful sniff, and “Oh my, you’re right, I’d not realized. I didn’t see. Yes, the staff are so caring….Oh my…I’d , I’m…..I’m…I see now. Phew. Ohhh!” . The hugely absorbing discussion that followed took us in a wide arc through a range of topics, about emotional content, visual literacy, cognitive dissonance and much more and left the class somewhat drained, but much much wiser; and acutely aware that images can be ‘read’ and interpreted in widely differing ways.

I think its vital that you share your work with people you know. Discussing why it was made, and what it makes you feel like, is a hugely valuable thing to do. It’s an even more valuable thing to do with people you don’t know, because they’re less likely to care about offending you by saying they don’t like a particular image.

Every image has a story. Telling that story, about how you felt that day, why you pointed the camera in a particular direction, what it felt like for you then and what it feels like for you now, all help to articulate the worth of your work, and can make you think carefully about the content.

But what others will see in your images might sometimes surprise you.

You can learn a lot by sharing.

Wondering whether or not to press that delete button?  Might be better to wait.

Author — John Macpherson

John MacPherson was born and lives in the Scottish Highlands. He trained as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, before completing an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and then qualified as a Social Worker in Disability Services. Along the way he has cooked on canal barges, trained as an Alpine Ski Leader & worked as an Instructor for Skiers with disabilities, been a canoe instructor, and tutor of night classes in carpentry, stained glass design and manufacture, and archery. He has travelled extensively on various continents, undertaking solo trips by bicycle, or motorcycle. He has had narrow escapes from an ambush by terrorists, been hit by lightning, caught in an erupting volcano, trapped in a mobile home by a tornado, kidnapped by a dog's hairdresser, rammed by a basking shark and was once bitten by a wild otter. He has combined all this with professional photography, which he has practised for over 35 years. He teaches photography and acts as a photography guide & tutor in the UK and abroad. His biggest challenge is keeping his 30 year old Land Rover 110 on the road. He loves telling and hearing stories.

Discussion (14 Comments)

  1. thanks so much for this discussion .

    It is really great to go back to images taken previously whether it be weeks or years and see how you ‘see’ it with a different frame of mind and with more experience.

    I have on numerous occasions been surprised by some images I have never printed (from negs) that I should now.

  2. Thanks Hilary. It’s all too easy to see in images what you want to see and miss other aspects that even a casual observer will point out. And you’re right – the magnifying glass of experience is quite often sharper, clearer and closer focusing!

  3. Jeff Chadwick says:

    Great article John. It makes you wonder if digital had been around for the last 100 years how many iconic images we may have lost to the delete button.

  4. Thank you Jeff. Glad it struck a chord.

    I’ve seen too many workshop participants delete as they go and later regret that they lost the ‘thread’ that got them to the pics that finally worked, as they later tried to figure out how they got there!

  5. Catherine says:

    A timely post for me to read John – being towards the end of my first module on a course with OCA. I’m so used to whizzing through Adobe Bridge when I’ve downloaded and looking for the ones that are ‘correctly exposed’ that I rarely stop to look at the others.

  6. Hello Catherine. Thanks for the reply, glad it’s useful!

    It took me literally years to learn to ‘read’ and properly understand images in the editing process. It really is a skill to develop, separate from the button pressing that creates images.

    Its hard to describe but it’s trying to see the worth of the single image, but also keep in mind the context that it might find itself being used later. A good example is multimedia where a single image that’s not quite made the edit, later finds a use as a linking shot between two really strong and striking photos which would be too much one after the other, but the use of the ‘softer’ image in between gives some ‘relief’ from the first image, and allows the third to carry real impact.

  7. Mark Bolster says:

    Sorry, but I guess I’m old skool….My feelings on photos are that if you have to explain to the viewer what they are looking at or why you wanted to make it, it’s probably a boring photo. Photos should be able to stand on their own without a narrative. Not that narratives are a bad thing, but only if asked.

  8. Hi Mark, thanks for commenting. I couldn’t agree more with you.

    However what I’m touching on here is not about the need for ‘explanation’ of the work by the creator, rather its more about ‘interpretation’ of it by the viewer, and how that can vary; and I think thats a wholly different thing.

    But the wider consideration is that work, especially that created by novices, can have intrinsic merit and value beyond that which the creator ‘sees’. And discussing your work with your peers is a good thing to do because the insight an objective eye can bring can often be really useful.

  9. Ellen says:

    Wonderful post! I can’t remember the last time I deleted a photo, exactly for the reasons you described above. I’m almost obsessive about not deleting any photo, no matter how blurry, overexposed, underexposed, or just plain “bad” it is, because at some point, sooner or later, I can always find something to do with it, whether it ends up being inspiration or reference for a painting, or I discover a new editing technique that just works.

    And I have to say, some of my favourite photos are the ones that were, from a technical standpoint, “bad”. There’s one in particular I can think of off the top of my head. A pair of mounted police officers, taken during a parade, shot from behind, at a low angle, as they were walking more or less towards the sun – it turned out terribly out of focus, but there’s something about it that I absolutely love. Had it turned out perfectly sharp, I can’t help but think it would’ve been a terribly boring photo, but with it being out of focus, it seemed to take on a life and emotion that it wouldn’t have had otherwise. It struck me as being just a little bit sad, or maybe nostalgic – which I discovered later was somewhat appropriate, as one of those horses was retired shortly after, and that parade was her last “public appearance,” so to speak.

  10. Thanks for the feedback Ellen. That sounds like a great horse image!

    Yes it’s good to be able to capture life in perfect (technical) sharpness, but often there’s a little something extra evoked by a slight sense of movement whether thats defocus or shutter-induced blur. I can’t paint, so my painting is done in-camera, using deliberate defocus with shallow d.o.f. and long lenses, and shooting ‘through’ other objects which tend to break-up the details in the main subject. Gives a painterly feel that can be quite evocative.

    And I guess as far as emotional content is concerned, when we weep we rarely see things sharply, and some slight sense of distortion might evoke a response in viewers that would otherwise be absent. I guess it’s about deciding whether you want to show the subject as it looks, or as it makes you feel.

  11. duckrabbit says:

    Great post John (as ever). Thanks for sharing.

  12. Mimi says:

    Hi John
    Did you read “A short history of the photographic error” by Clement Cheroux?
    I find his writings very insightful, informative and indeed inspirational. I though this reading would fit very well your delightful discussion, to which I entirely agree.

    Me too, on my workshops i always try to force the students to look beyond the esthetics of an image in order to search for its significance.

    I think that digital technology, for as useful and progressive as it is, lacks the ability to suggest a substantial creative freedom to the new photographers. The shots come out clinically “clean” and standardised. There is indeed less room for the new “digital” photographers to come to realise that photography is not only and merely a fidel and at times antiseptic reproduction of reality. Knowing how to control the exposure, developing your films, printing your contacts and choosing your final images influences also the choice of our subject matter. If we loose touch with these processes, we might risk to trade our freedom to doubt, to wonder and to “create”, for the illusion of being super functional and confortable in our goals to achieve a shallow standard.

  13. Hi Mimi -thanks for the response. No, have not come across the work by Cheroux – will put on my list and seek it out, thank you.

    I think the editing process is even more important with digital because the ‘freedom’ of expression it enables also brings with it a ‘constraint’ and thats the one of volume. It’s incredibly easy to shoot 10 frames a second, to come back from an event with a huge amount of material that requires whittling down to the ‘best’.

    And thats a painful job if you want to consider every single frame, check the expressions on faces, where eyes are looking, all the little details that can make or break an image. I think a lot of people lose a lot of work because they just don’t have the time to carefully edit, and they probably miss some useful work. I know I’ve come across little gems I missed first, second and third time around because there was so much other stuff.

  14. ….and meant to add…………..which is a compelling reason to shoot less and in a more considered manner.

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