How to edit for your archive

Here’s a process for editing your photographs, from raw takes to a top tier of your archive that you can then quickly find and use as needed.

The goal is to separate the wheat from the chaff but to do so in a way that lets you approach different tiers of your photographs later. Using one, simple judgment to elevate your pictures doesn’t work because uses for pictures vary widely so you need to be able to select and structure the best of your work in a way that allows different types of photographs and different judgments to stay with you.

This approach goes back to my days of editing slides on a Garrett box while a picture editor at National Geographic and I refined the approach at several other places, in particular at the White House. Looking at 1,000 rolls of film for a Geographic story could be daunting. Facing several thousand digital files a day at the White House was even more so. I looked at every one of the more than 1,000,000 images that Eric Draper, Paul Morse, Susan Sterner and the other White House photographers made of the life of the presidency. Those photos could be used in a great range of ways so I had to come up with an editing approach that elevated the best work from a range of perspectives.

The process I’ll go through is not for a deadline effort, rather, the goal is to create a hierarchical set of pictures in your archive.

I’ll start with a raw take.

After ingesting, I sort by capture time, almost always within Photo Mechanic because it’s the most powerful tool for pushing through thousands of pictures. Comparing like images from like situations streamlines the process.

A key element: Don’t try to do too much at each step of the process.

The first pass through the pictures is like a contest judging. The question is whether each image holds together as a complete frame. My eye goes through each photograph until it hits a fatal flaw. If there are no such flaws, I tag the image.

A fatal flaw can be as simple as eyes closed, out of focus, lousy composition, the image before this one was a lot better one of the same thing, the light sucks ... you get the idea. Don’t over think at this point. Each photo either works or doesn’t as an image; don’t worry about the informational layer or how each image fits the story. Get in the zone of pure image judgment.

Another point is to always move forward through the steps, accept your previous judgments, don’t spend much time going back and forth through the different layers. Trust your judgments at each step. Although, a quick pass back through the outs after the initial pass is a good idea.

This first step usually cuts the work at least in half. Whether you keep the outs is your choice. I don’t keep the outs from my own work - that’s how bad the outs are at this point.

Now you’re moving forward with a greatly reduced set of pictures. I’d suggest tweaking captions and keywords at this point. Photo mechanic is fast for that process, too.

Then I pull images into the archive program, which for me is Aperture. There are several paths once photos are archived. There’s value in going through images again once or twice to elevate some images to a higher level - that will create a smaller, stratified layer of pictures when you search for specific subjects later.

This last step was critical at the White House. Imagine sorting thousands of pictures for a query related to cabinet meetings, for instance. So I created a three-tier rating - A, B and C.

You can do this with your work by making three passes. Each time, give the strongest images more stars. Use the same criteria as when making pictures. Those that have strong light, moment, composition, color, story telling move up. 

Then use color ratings to sort by topic, if your work falls into broad categories - stock, commercial, documentary, my story about frogs, blue photos, whatever represents your work.

All of this presumes you’ve arranged your storage logically - I discuss that elsewhere on the site.

Watching, and learning from, POYi

My week was fabulous