Photo Grants & Funding

Veteran Photo Editor Mike Davis on Editing Your Own Work

March 15, 2017

By David Walker

The award-winning picture editor and Alexia Tsairis Chair for Documentary Photography at Syracuse University explains how to select images for books, competitions and grants.

PDN: Why is editing your own work so difficult?
Mike Davis: The experience of making the pictures [interferes with] decisions about the value of individual photographs. Another [consideration] is the informational layer [versus] the qualitative layer of the images. Is a photograph valuable because of what it makes you understand, or because of what it makes you feel?

PDN: Which one should photographers be editing for?
MD: They’re both valuable in documentary. But the more important aspect is what you feel from the images.

PDN: What’s the strategy for selecting?
MD: There’s a five-step process. The first step is waiting a day or two at least, after having made the photographs, [to look at them.] Then look at a contact sheet view. That gives you a more distant view of your general approach, as opposed to responding to individual images.

PDN: What should you look for in that contact sheet view?
MD: You’ll get a sense of the flow of light. Is the color working as a group? Is there much range in distance of the subjects? But there’s no judgment at this point: Not, “Wow, that sucks,” and “That’s great.” It’s more of an assessment: “Wow, it’s all like this,” and “There’s no variability in that.”

The second step is to look at each image large, but still without judgment. Like: “OK, I remember making that picture. Why isn’t it better?” But not dwelling on it at all.

PDN: What’s your goal in the second step?
MD: It’s really a matter of removing yourself from having made the picture. So you’re not addressing it as an experience, but as a photograph, in the most minimal way. It’s like: Oh! OK, next. OK, next.

PDN: Does that lead to the third step?
MD: If you can put time between each of the steps, that’s the best.

PDN: How long? A day or two?
MD: If you can. If not, go have a cup of coffee. Then, on the third pass, you’re just saying: Do I ever want to see this photograph again? Again, there’s no huge judgment. It’s just: Does this image meet the minimal standards? If so, give it one star.

There are specific ways of slowing your brain down and making that judgment. First, Do you feel something from the image? Only the images that rise above presenting information are going to have significance. Then secondarily, ask: Does the color convey [contribute] to that quality? Does the light convey to that quality? Is the composition helping? That means: Is it a three-dimensional space I’ve expressed? And then there’s: Is the moment value an important part of the frame?

Photos © Sol Neelman

The cover and opening image from Sol Neelman’s 2014 book Weird Sports 2 (Kehrer), which Davis helped edit. When sequencing images, Davis looks for a “third effect,” the “interaction between two images that makes you feel something that is more than either of them would have been alone,” he says. Photos © Sol Neelman

PDN: What do you mean by “moment value”?
MD: It is more than just: Is there an instant that happened and I captured it? It’s about the coming together of all elements in the frame. The more there are, the higher the moment value. That doesn’t mean there has to be a ton of crap happening. It’s more [about] the way Cartier-Bresson expresses the decisive moment.

PDN: So the assessment about feeling, color, light, composition, moment value—this is all still part of step three?
MD: Right. The [last part of the step 3 assessment] is distance between the camera and what you were photographing. Most photographers don’t think [enough] about that. If you only use one distance, you’re only using one voice.

PDN: What’s step four?
MD: Ideally you [step away from it again] then come back to that first set of selects, and set the bar higher. If you decide one image is slightly better than all of the others—if the quality of light is stronger, or the composition is more complete, or any of those five things make it rise above the others, then it gets another star.

You keep doing that until you’ve created a complete hierarchy. Usually four to five rounds will get you to what I call the working set—the images with three stars. [That’s] the set of images from which you’ll produce all future edits.

PDN: So there’s no final edit, but different edits for different situations?
MD: If you’re doing an edit for a book, or for World Press, an Alexia Grant, or whatever, it’s going to be a different edit. That’s because there are different numbers of images expected, or you need to deal with one aspect more than another for a given usage—you can be more lyrical with one, and more informational with another.

PDN: Is there a rule of thumb for the number of images in the working set?
MD: Typically you have to have at least twice the number that you want to end up with. For a book with 60 to 100 images, [the working set] should be at least 200 images. For a contest entry in the 12-image range, you probably want to start in the 24 to 30 or your strongest images.

PDN: What’s your advice for selecting for a competition?
MD: I think the biggest mistake photographers make is that they tend to choose images based on the captions—the informational aspect. And judges respond purely to what they feel. The critical thing is choosing the first image that sets the stage for all others.

PDN: Do you have any advice for choosing that first image?
MD: You have to feel something from it. It has to engage you and make you want more. But it can’t be too esoteric. If it asks too many questions, or you’re left wondering: “What the hell is this about?” people will [tune out].

PDN: How do you get the rest of the sequence right?
MD: I suggest choosing that first image, putting it on the left side of the screen, and then scrolling through all of the other images on the right side in split view, and wait for a third effect.

PDN: What does that mean?
MD: “Third effect” is a term [former LIFE executive editor] Wilson Hicks coined in 1936. It’s the interaction between two images that makes you feel something that is more than either of them would have conveyed alone. You keep [adding images to the sequence in that manner] until you start repeating, or you run out of images.

PDN: What about the last image? Is there some special consideration for that?
MD: The last image can connect back to the one you started with, or you can ask a question, or you can answer a question. The typical thing to do is answer all the questions at the end. I find that boring. There’s a parallel with movies. Sequencing is very similar to film where you’re creating drama, tension, release points, and then you decide at the end: Am I going to resolve, or leave it unresolved?

PDN: Can you think of examples of famous photo stories that stand out for their sequencing?
MD: I think generally that Gene Richards is one of the best sequencers on the planet. There’s a lyricism to the way he puts one image next to the previous one.

[Photo editor] Amy Pereira has praised Moises Saman’s Discordia for being a powerful sequence. And the way Jason Eskenazi plays with images is really interesting. I’m thinking of [his project] “Wonderland.”

PDN: What other advice do you have for editing your own work?
MD: The last step is, once you’ve gotten a sequence, run it as a slideshow, sit back and let yourself feel the images. It’s like listening to music, and if you hit a note that doesn’t make sense, or is discordant, the sequencing is bad.

PDN: How do you avoid overlooking problems because you’re too invested in your sequencing?
MD: One way is to watch somebody else watch [the slideshow]. That seems to create a dynamic that makes you understand the work better. Another way is to look at the sequence in a different setting or medium. If you’ve looked on a big screen, look on a small one, or make the prints and spread them across your dining room table, and let them sit there for a while.

Time is the biggest gift. If you can, let your final edit sit there for a week, and look at again. You’ll have fresh eyes.

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