Taking Photos Is Only Half Way
How you select photos is as important as how you take them…
I believe photography is not only about pushing the shutter button, creating a scene or being in the right moment. Photography is also about selecting the right photo or order in which they are shown. And that is what I want to talk about a little and in the end, share some pieces of advice coming from my experience.
You can skip-jump straight to the advices if you find difficult reading my bad english.
Panning for Gold
I believe, how you select your photos — is what actually puts you apart from everyone else.
Selection (hope it’s a proper word, but if not, please bear with me) is one of the important, if not the the most important, part of the photography process.
The way you select your photos may reveal or hide you, it can show your intentions, it may represent your mood, your current progress as an artist or, let’s put it straight, lack of it.
How you select and layout photos may create a story or took the narrative part away. You can generate a rhythm with photography, or you can make noise. You can communicate, or you can baffle.
A lot of the time growing as a photographer lies not in perfecting your shooting skills or updating your gear. It lies in the way you select your photos.
My first experience of understanding the importance of selection was when I was still a student and my master asked me to lay down all the pictures I shot during a few days of the workshop. Everything supposed to be on the floor without filtering bad from good. So naturally, there were photos of flowers, sky, fellow students acting out, blurry shots, some street snaps and few portraits.
I remember I was very proud with a photo of electric wires (for which tokyo is famous) that looked like a spider-web, but my master did not even looked at it. Instead he pointed on a few portraits of my fellow students, especially the one where a guy was wrapped up in a rubber-hose that I did and remarked that it was interesting cause even though the situation was unnatural, the person in it looked very “himself”.
He encouraged me to take more photos in that direction. I asked him what he thinks about my other photos. He told me that they are good — but they not represent me, they only represent my infatuation with the process of photography. That is a bit old-school approach, common for shishashin generation of photographers, but it made me think a lot.
Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold. — Leo Tolstoy
My teacher saw right through me just by looking at my whole set of photos — that is how good he was in selecting photography, he pointed out not what he liked — but what represented me. He selected pictures that I could not at that point cause I was not mature enough.
At that time I thought nothing of it, but later I realized the reason I took that picture was because it was already imprinted in my memory, so I vaguely imitated that memory with my fellow student. What I was trying to unconsciously recreate was actually a portrait of Mishima Yukio by Hossoe Eikoh, and little did I know — that in few years time I will be standing with the Hossoe Eikoh himself discussing photography. But this is a story for another story…
There is another aspect of selection I want to discuss. How you select the order of your pictures, how you layout them — is of a great significance. And I feel like a lot of people forget about that.
In some cases what you thought what your best shot in layout process may not fit your narrative and may never see the light of day. And what you thought was not good enough, I don’t know, some blurry picture between the steady shots f.ex may become the most crucial piece of your story. But it all won’t work if you don’t know how to choose or how to put the photos together. This process of selection demands as much time and attention as the actual act of taking pictures, but often overlooked (and the fact that articles or youtube videos on this subject are often nonexistent demonstrates it).
Editing a story, working with layouts.
I firmly believe, as a photographer — that is where most of your efforts and attention in photography should be put in. That is what you should study. There is a lot of photographers who are not very good at lighting or technical aspects of things but are very talanted in layout and the way they create a narrative. Often these photographers are the ones who evolve creatively and carrier-wise and get the most praise.
So let’s get to actual advice I can give from my experience. We start with an obvious one.
Don’t delete your photos.
What you thinking is excellent now, may change with time. In my case what I considered a good portrait changed a lot and what I chose 5 years ago appears to me now as sub-par at best. I often find myself revisiting photo sessions of past and re-selecting the photos. This is how I evolve as an artist. But there are times when photos suck, and I can’t find what I am looking for — that is when I make a decision to delete them.
Make visual aspect secondary in your selecting process. Make content and inner story primary.
We often are burdened with stereotypes of what good photography supposed to be and I my advice is to throw your stereotypes away as soon as possible. Stop looking up to somebody else and start to talk in your own “words,” no matter how imperfect they may seem.
Of course, you need some kind of a standard, so throw away the ones that make you less honest. Subject in your photo may be out of focus, or not correctly exposed, it may be absolutely different than what you had in mind, — but give it a time or a narrative, and it may work to your advance.
Take your time.
Usually what I do is — I make the first selection based on my first impressions as soon as possible. And then I distance myself from the project and let it get better with time. If your work is pregnant with the seed of your soul — then it definitely needs time to grow and find its strength.
It all depends on what you are trying to achieve. Sometimes it’s good to be emotionally attached to the project and be as subjective as you can. But other times — you need time to get rid of the emotional attachment and keep in mind the concept or the goal of the work you do.
When lost — print them.
Index sheet was and is always a great way to choose. (Using a magnifying class to peep at frames is almost an imitation of the actual process of shooting itself.) Or just print all the photos, lay them down in some order, then try to shuffle them. You never know how one photo can connect with another.
Ask somebody to be present while you explain to them why you choose this or that. But don’t ask for an opinion unless it’s really necessary, cause it may mess up your mind.
Create a soundtrack for your story.
I just finished a book called “Shaman” that is about a process of metamorphosis and embodiment of unseen forces of nature. It took me a year before I actually sat and started to select the pictures.
Naturally, my first impressions of the complicated shoot that happened during the winter on the the most northern part of Japan were almost gone, but the music I was listening through those days was at my hand. Music immediately reminded me of what I was feeling while I was there. But later through the second selection, I had to change it — cause the words from the songs I was listening started to affect my choices. I made an effort and chose music that actually fitted my concept. It was especially beneficial during the process when I was revisiting the unselected stock. Now was it a great way to do it — I don’t know, but it helped me to actually finish the project.
Learn from the Masters.
The last one is maybe the most important.
Find those who you consider your masters and study their ways of editing and choosing pictures. Investigate what affects their process of selection. Study their photo books, go to the exhibitions. How do they decide which photo goes with which one?
Find out who your masters considered as their masters and study them. Maybe what you are looking for is way deeper than you imagined. Sometimes what you presumed you liked about your master is actually the presence of another one — and that is where all your answers may be hidden.
How do you approach the process of selection? Let me know in the comments below.