How to Edit Photographs for Presentation


If you’ve been taking photographs regularly over time, chances are you’ve amassed an appreciable number of photographs that when asked, you gladly share with others. The trouble starts when you haul out a cubit-thick pile of unedited prints, which even for the staunchest of family and friends, can be as agonizing as a trip to the dentist.

Editing one’s own work is tricky business. As the old guy on yonder hill once said, “He who edits his (her) own work has a fool for an editor.” But chestnuts aside, there are a few good rules that can help you whittle down the pile to a manageable—and enjoyably viewable—size.

Part One of the process is to identify the criteria in pictures worth showing to others, and a good starting point is noting the level of sharpness of the photographs under consideration. If the picture isn’t sharp, or if it’s blurry, eliminate it. Now that’s not to say every picture must be 100% sharp and display zero signs of blur because, truth be told, some of the most celebrated photographs in the world are not 100% sharp or are blurry in part or even in their entirety, but this is an aesthetic judgment call that must be made on a case-by-case basis. If you’re not sure about a photograph, ask someone whose aesthetic values you trust, such as a more experienced photographer or teacher. Just keep in mind that a photo that’s almost-but-not-quite a cigar shouldn’t represent your good name.

A second criterion is exposure. If the native exposure is too dark, too light or beyond the correction capabilities of Photoshop, deep-six the photograph. Here too, you have to make a judgment call because there’s a big difference between a technically correct exposure and an aesthetically correct exposure. Depending on a number of variables including your choice of metering mode, exposure compensation, and the focal length of your lens, you can easily end up with an exposure that’s aesthetically too light or too dark. Landscapes captured at sunrise and sunset often fall into this iffy area. Here too, follow your gut or run the photo by someone whose sense of aesthetics you trust. And always keep in mind the correct exposure is not always the best exposure.

Cropping is another item one should consider when whittling down the print count. It’s not unusual to have a photograph that’s almost, but not quite “there,” and often cropping out a wee bit of extraneous and/or distracting visual detritus can greatly enhance the dynamic impact of the photograph in question.

Once you’ve winnowed your pile of photographs down using the criteria mentioned above, it’s time to get down to the part I call “halving,” but first a tip from B. Martin Pedersen, a well-known graphic designer who’s thumbed through thousands of portfolios over the years. Early in my career he told me the rules of the road for a successful portfolio:

  1. Be judicious. If in doubt, toss it out, because if you’re iffy in your gut about an image, there’s a good chance the voices in the back of your head are trying to tell you something.
  2. More is not necessarily better. If anything it’s a far better idea to show a dozen or so powerful images than a dozen or so powerful images peppered with or followed by an additional dozen or so less dynamic images to “fill out” the presentation. Filler should be reserved for stretching meatloaf, not portfolios.
  3. Just because there’s a great story behind the picture it doesn’t mean the picture is great. If the image needs a story line to carry it across the finish line, leave it out of the book, especially if you won’t be there to relate the story.
  4. Marty’s last bit of advice is perhaps the most important tip, especially for those preparing a portfolio for commercial purposes, and it goes like this:

No matter how many terrific pictures you have in your portfolio, anybody who reviews portfolios on a regular basis will always be looking out for the weakest image in your book because the way they see it, the weakest image in your book is indicative of the level of work you’re willing to settle for when shooting an assigned project, regardless of how wonderful the rest of your portfolio samples may be. Take heed all you newbies!  

So now we come to the part that for some will be a painful but necessary part of the process. I use the word “painful” because we tend to get attached to our images and take it personally when it’s time to let go, especially for we “creative” types. But the truth of the matter is too many images tire the viewer, so here goes.

Take your images and spread them out. If you’re editing prints, tack them onto a blank wall or spread them out across a (clean) floor—the more the merrier. If you’re editing digital image files, view them in “slide sheet” form in your favorite image-editing application. Now here’s the fun part: eliminate half of the pictures. Go through each and every one of them and say “yea” or “nay.” If in doubt, let it be, but chances are it will get the axe on the next go around. If you started with 60 images you’re now down to 30 images—and good ones at that. Now go take a walk around the block, check your messages, tell everybody what you just did on Twitter and come back to the scene of the crime.

Assuming you’ve whittled the pile down to 30 images we’ll pull back on the throttles this time around and cull the herd down to a tidy twenty. Granted, it’s going to be a bit tougher this time, but since you already have blood on your hands (figuratively, of course) it’s going to be a bit easier on this round. Again, compare each shot to those around it and weigh each image’s qualities as objectively as you can. At this point you are probably thinking about my earlier comment about so-so pictures with great stories behind them not being all that good… and realizing this observation is true.

An alternative approach to this form of slash-and-burn editing is to break down your pile of imagery into smaller themed portfolios, which for those who have multiple avenues of interest, can be an effective way to present one’s work. Having multiple portfolios, each containing its own unique theme is far more effective than a single hodgepodge of imagery that leaves the viewer with no clear idea of what you’re passionate about. And if you think about it, if you were looking to hire someone to photograph cars, would you call someone who has a few car shots in his or her portfolio of someone who showed you a solid book of cars? Think about it.