Conquering the weekly to-do list

It’s not very often that I get to the end of the week with everything checked off on my to-do list. Last Monday I saw a slight crack in the wall to wall schedule and made big plans to do some serious accomplishing. New work and anything that might distract me was immediately sent to the back burner.

It worked. I even managed to find moment to contribute to my local NPR station’s pledge drive. (Which you should too by the way.)

Things that had been hanging over my head since last Spring. I managed to connect with the owner of a restaurant owner that had rented nine of my large Italy photographs. Unfortunately the restaurant, fianco, had closed and we had been playing phone tag for months while I looked for a hole in my schedule to go pick them up when he would be in the now shuttered restaurant space.

I got the call on Friday and rushed over to get them. They were still on the walls where I had hung them 15 months earlier.  Much of the restaurant hadn’t changed. Except that it was now empty. It did great business on the weekends, just not enough during the week to stay open during the rough economy.

Too bad. The food was great and I really liked the atmosphere there.

But at least those photographs will live to see another day. That was my favorite accomplishment of the week.

The one ongoing project that is still in progress and will be for at least a little while longer is my continuing project of going through all of my photograph shoots since about 1993.

I was trying to explain my process to another photographer friend of mine who happens to be touring Asia at the moment. She’s in the challenging position of traveling extremely light and having to edit, meaning delete, photos as she goes, since her storage situation is extremely limited. Even when I have all the comforts of shooting in my studio or somewhere where I can bring plenty of storage, my personal philosophy is to never delete anything.

It certainly means I have to maintain an incredible amount of storage, especially when after editing and color correction, it’s not unusual for my photographs to end up being, on average, a half a gigabyte in size. I’m doing the same thing I used to do for hours in the darkroom with dodging and burning the negatives, but with digital images being as high resolution as they are today, they can get enormous. At least my hands don’t smell like chemical fixer anymore though. It’s a tradeoff.

So back to the explanation of my never delete anything philosophy. One thing I’ve learned is when I edit a photoshoot immediately after the fact, I’m looking for a very specific kind of image. So during that first round of editing, I might pass over an image, temporarily rejecting it because it doesn’t fit the specific criteria I was looking for during the shoot.

However, going back through that same shoot months or even years later almost always reveals something I missed the first time. Time and distance give me fresh eyes and a better objective approach. Going back to the shoot so much later allows me to look at the images without the baggage of the moment of the shoot, good or bad. All I can see is what is in the frame, not what I was hoping to capture or what I thought I captured.

Here’s one of those previously overlooked images. I was at a Cubs game in May of 2004 with a colleague of mine. I was looking to make some beautiful pictures of Wrigley Field Cubs baseball in the beautiful summer sun. Unfortunately, it rained that day and only after a long delay the game finally got underway, but it was far from the beautiful day in the park I was hoping for. It was overcast and chilly.

I hadn’t really looked at that shoot since that day. I wrote it off as a bad weather day and left it at that. However, when I looked at those images over six years later, I saw something else beautiful. Instead of a flat color image, I saw a dramatic brooding B&W image. Completely different than what I was trying to do when I shot that game.

I’ve found a few hunded more found images like that which I will be adding to the website shortly. All passed over the first time. But a fresh look gives them all a second chance.

And speaking of second chances, an abandoned city block in my West Loop neighborhood suddenly has a new look. I love living in a city when a new park suddenly springs up from the rubble. A year ago a large abandoned building and an empty parking lot full of weeks. Today a beautiful park with a misting sculpture in the middle and a playground and dog park. The whole neighborhood now has a new hangout.

The photograph of the park at the top of this blog is one I made on the way home on Friday evening with my iPhone. A great way to end a great week.

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3 thoughts

  1. Thanks for that post Billy. It does help me understand your thinking in your editing process better. But more so, it made me realize that I think totally differently when I edit my work. Perhaps because I am not shooting for a particular assignment, I don’t think I do look for anything specific when I edit a shoot. I am open to surprise. Perhaps that is why editing is so painful for me, because I do see potential in many images. I also NEVER deleted anything when I was at home, even the obviously bad ones.

    Then I read a blog post by Nevada Wier, a great travel photographer I’ve taken workshops from and who also teaches at the Santa Fe Workshops. She wrote that she deletes with gusto! I was so shocked! She did this in her film days and she continues that practice with her digital files. But then I thought, well maybe I should try it.

    I am the kind of shooter that can shoot 600-800 images in an afternoon! I will often explore all angles of a single composition or bracket a lot. Many are duplicates, or near duplicates because I tend to shoot on the hi-speed frame mode, a technique I use a lot for motion or in the absence of a tripod. So many frames truly are throw-aways. So I started with those. To my surprise I felt a certain load lightening as I saw my HD space increase and I think I am becoming a more critical editor, a skill I definitely do need to hone.

    It would be great to hear how other photographers approach editing their work.

  2. Christine! I certainly appreciate Nevada Wier’s approach to deleting. I just know that like you, I find the editing process challenging, especially in the heat of the immediate post shoot environment. There’s much to be said for what captures your eye the first go through, but some additional insight I have on that is my time spent as a film editor. The film editor is the fresh eyes for the director, who often is way too close too the footage to be as objective as the editor.

    Same with photography editing. My first edits are usually pretty spot on, but just as often, just like the director, no matter how objective I’m trying to be, I’m coloring my opinions with many other things so close to the shoot.

    It’s not that I don’t trust my first edits, but by keeping everything, I give myself the chance to go back with fresh eyes long after the shoot. Maybe I find something new, maybe I don’t, but it takes some of the pressure off to nail the edit immediately the first time around. I just go on instinct and it makes for a faster first edit because I know the first edit is just that and not life or death to any of my un-picked images.

    Another interesting comment of yours was how you use the high speed frame mode. I remember when I was just starting out and I saved up for my first motordrive for my Nikon F3 because all the footage that I’d seen of fashion photographers during a shoot were just, click, click, click, click, click. (See the Austin Powers’ take on this: Since then, I’ve tried to learn from some of my other photog friends who really look for the image before they click. They might only shoot six frames in an hour. But those six frames are pretty amazing. I try to remember that when shooting.

    I too will shoot off a lot of frames if what I’m shooting is moving and pulling focus is challenging or if I’m shooting at a borderline too slow shutter speed to help insure I get a clean sharp frame, but I’ve also tried to get away from Doug’s excellent term of the technique of spray and pray. Shooting off a dozen frames of an almost identical picture makes me feel like it’s less about the skill of finding the moment or composition and more counting on luck that you got it in one of those frames. I have to ask myself the question, do I trust myself as the photographer to find the right composition and moment, or do I hedge my bets because I trust that I am a better editor? Me, I’d rather trust my instincts as the photographer.

    I try to be more deliberate these days when shooting. I end up with fewer frames to edit and I feel like it keeps me more focused on finding a moment with my subject than just firing away with my fingers crossed. It just keeps my concentration up.

    With digital, it’s easy to just fire away because it doesn’t cost any more to shoot ten images instead of one, so I try to remember when I used to shoot more film how I really took more care with my exposures, because they cost more, and I had a limited supply of film with me each day. I try to remember those things when shooting digital. They made sense.

    Everyone has a different method, none necessarily better than another and mine continues to evolve. I’ve tried to take the best practices of shooting film and digital to try to find a happy medium.

  3. Hey Billy!

    Thanks for the insights on your editing process. I actually agree with everything you said. [See, we’re not that different after all. :-)] I am not deleting anything I think has potential, at least I hope I am not. Obviously bad or missed images, yes, and there are a surprising large number of them. Duplicates – many but not all of them.

    I remember asking a famous wildlife photographer what his “ratio” was i.e. how many images did he shoot before he got one he would print and sell in his gallery. That was something that at the time that made me feel better about where I was as a photographer. I thought that if a “pro” had to shoot 200-300 images before he “got one” worthy of putting in his gallery, then perhaps I wasn’t doing too bad myself. Of course at the time I was shooting film and my notion of a lot was perhaps 2-3 rolls a day, not knowing that he probably shot 20-30 rolls when out on safari. I realize now, that this ratio means nothing, other than which of your tens of thousands of images, do you put into a portfolio.

    So then perhaps the question is not how good of a photographer are you, but how good of an editor are you? Right along with the chain is as strong as the weakest link.

    I do feel too close to my shoots a lot. Especially now, when it can feel like there’s a picture every where you look, or sometimes the opposite, you know there’s a great image there, but you’re not quite getting it to your satisfaction. That’s when I absolutely love the instant feedback (and low cost) of digital. I’ll explore a situation or subject from many different angles and slightly different compositions until I think I “got it”. But I go thru the same heartache again when I see all the images on the computer screen. Which one is the best?

    Having feedback is of course great. I do value the “second eyes” of my Facebook fans who will sometimes give the thumbs up to images I almost did not include. And I have a growing collection of images on my iTouch which I will show to anybody interested. I take note of which images over time get the greatest response, which tells me something, even if the viewers are not photographers.

    As to the ‘spray and pray’ approach. No I’m not actually a fan. I use it like you do, for low-light situations without a tripod and for moving subjects to capture a sequence. I actually do want to shoot less so that I think much more about when I click the shutter. However, much of what I shoot is photojournalistic in nature. The moments are so fleeting and I don’t want to miss them. And then I do pray that I get a good image. I do have a film camera and film with me as a backup, but am fearful of using it for those exact same reasons. What if I don’t “get it”? What if I miss the moment? What if I run out of film? Questions that truly frighten me.

    Yes, digital does level the playing field. Pro photographers, espec. wedding photographers face this dilemma. At some point anybody can take a truly great picture or two, but that does not make them a great photographer. But the ratio of keepers vs. deleters is a good measuring stick for me as to how I am progressing as a photographer. I know that I am a good photographer now, but my goal has shifted. I now want to be a great photographer. 🙂 Learning how to edit my work better is a stepping stone. I think now I would want to take Doug’s class again as it was so focused on editing and finding your best images. I just didn’t quite understand the why’s in his editing process. That I want to learn more about.

    This last week I didn’t shoot at all. I felt guilty, bc after all I’m here in Vietnam and I’m a photographer. But I also needed a break. It felt so liberating to be able to walk out my hotel door with just my fanny pack containing my cash, passport and a notebook. As I focused on the writing, I discovered that I could see the pictures in my mind that should accompany what I wrote about it. That was a surprise to me. I still didn’t pick up my camera, but began searching for these images as I walked down the street and silently clicked them in my head. So perhaps that is my antidote and will help me with my next goal.


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