choosing your best photos

Choosing your best work isn’t easy. After all, clients hire photographers for their eye AND editing ability. While we might take 3,000 images at a given shoot, the process of narrowing down to the best 10 or 15 images takes intuition, practice, and talent.

Yesterday I put myself out there… shared 24 of my selections for the ISPWP 2010 Photo Contest, something I’ve never done before, on Facebook here.

Sure, there will be some losers. And perhaps some winners. While I have a love/hate relationship with any contest, I found the process intriguing on how I choose these 24 images from a collection at least 50,000 images I’ve taken over the course of about 3 months:
wpid-picking_best_images-2010-10-12-08-15.jpgAfter shooting weddings for 5 years, I’m still at the point where selecting the best versus favorite photos isn’t easy. After all, the process is subjective, right?

Or is it?

Four critical decisions are made every time you see an image published, entered into a contest, or hung in a gallery. We we are cognizant of these decisions, perhaps our willingness to make the best decision becomes easier.

1. THE DECISION TO CLICK THE SHUTTER
Producing innovative work is time-consuming and risky. The moment we click the shutter is where it all starts.

If we listen to our gut, the most critical decision we make to create our best images happens the moment the shutter goes click. You know there’s something special once it happens. Kind of like falling in love.

When I first got into weddings, I would shoot more images in the hopes of getting more “keepers.”  I ended up with way to many bad images.

Then I started taking less images, and wondered why I didn’t have the variety I was looking for. Now, I’ve settled into a balance from the two extremes. A little luck and pre-visualization doesn’t hurt either.

Following my gut yields me my favorite images. “Spray and pray” can work if you listen to your gut and know your shooting style. But you can’t over-analyze this process. “Finding yourself” doesn’t take a year backpacking abroad, or a two week road trip, or a divorce. It comes with refining what you like to create.

Tip: Go with your gut and take that shot.

2. THE DECISION TO SELECT THE IMAGE
Choosing you favorite images from 15, or 50 near identical images isn’t for the weak. Sometimes it’s like picking a needle from a hack stack. Other times, the winner jumps off the screen.

We all choose images, some great, some not. If you edit only for your clients, you WILL burn out. If you edit only for yourself, you WILL loose clients.

Choosing what YOU like, and if your clients hire both your photographic eye and editorial skill, choosing the right path becomes instinctively easier/smoother.

Here’s the million dollar question: Who defines what is best? You? Your client(s)? Or a blend of both? My answer: the delicate blend between pleasing yourself and the client.

The process of selecting images for a wedding album design differs from the process of choosing images for a portfolio which differs than choosing images for a contest. I’d like to think that the clients choose their favorite images for their wedding album by how it makes them feel. Magazine editors choose their favorite photos by how it propels the mission of the magazine to sell more magazines. Judges of photo contests choose images they’ve never seen before and just ‘like.’ We choose our best portfolio images by the images that represent our chosen style (which should differ from the next photographer down the road). At the end of the day, the common denominator is how an image makes us feel.

My selection process goes something like this:

Immediately after the shoot, I tag the few photos that excite me right away and jump into editing them. Then I move on to the rest of the culling. When it comes down to choosing the best of the best, I recommend viewing your selects  in a thumbnail context ofyour image browser. Viewing images in a smaller format forces our to eye to focus on things like composition, contrast, and perspective.

And choose your favorites of the photos that pop: those represent potential winners. There are always exceptions. Eliminate or add-in from there.

Take your time. Sometimes I’ll let a set of images sit for days then return to them with a fresh set of eyes. And a few times I’ve been glad I did. When I’m droppy-eyed, I can easily gloss over a hidden gem.

Tip: Choose the ‘important image’ you like.

3. THE DECISION ON HOW TO EDIT/PROCESS THE IMAGE
Close your eyes and think of the moment when the shutter clicked. Edit with that visual snapshot in the back of your mind without overanalyzing too much. I usually go with what I feel and edit the image accordingly. If I wanted a timeless, grainy, PJ look: I go for it.

I WANT to edit those images that first gave me a bit of sheer excitement. Remember than energy in the darkroom in anticipation of printing your first image from a film negative? That same passion for the ‘fun’ of editing our images should still stay alive in our digital workflow (hopefully).

Experiment and edit a single image 4-5 different ways, perhaps using versioning and make a copy of the image. If i know a particular image might make a better B&W image, I will edit it fully in color, then explore various B&W conversations as needed. Let your images sit and return later with fresh pair of eyes.

Tip: Experiment and have fun in your processing, which is still 50% of the art.

4. THE DECISION TO SHOW THE IMAGE
This is where a tight edit becomes the impossible. The best photographers aren’t always the best editors. A tight edit is never easy, especially when your “picker” is broken.

I’ve found being a consistent editor doesn’t mean doing the same thing over and over. Being consistently creative means you know how to toss the junk that amazed you last year.

Artists will never thrive in a vacuum. Which is why we rely on mentors and our (artist) friends for feedback. Even if all it takes is a comment like, “You are on to something… keep at it”… moving outside your sphere of influence is a good thing. Art is a two-way dialog which requires others to appreciate.

By showing an image, you are taking that courageous step of putting yourself out there. I can remember getting ripped on (pretty bad) in undergrad art classes. It sucked. But it made me stronger and helped me grow a thick skin. Today, that pressure shapes my art. I’ve found contests not only a great avenue for showing my work to a broader audience, but gives me a deadline to re-invent myself. I think this is the secret to living 100 years as an artist.

How to show the image is important. 90% of art is the presentation. I learned that in my first coffee shop art show when I saw people buy stuff they liked to display. Turns out, this notion of “objecthood” in art has been long debated (see Michael Fried). Long story short: know how your intended output shapes your work. Sharpening an image for the web, prepping for CMYK output, or creating a 16 x 20 print all require specific skill sets to do well.

Tip: Establish a small network of artists you trust and respect. When in doubt, seek them out. Just don’t be too influenced by what they say.

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