Editing: The Top 3 Method

Editing can be both the most rewarding and most frustrating part of the photography process. For some, it’s like choosing a favorite child. For others, it’s a struggle to overcome overwhelming self-criticism to identify anything – anything at all – positive about their work.

Not only have I been there, but I’m still there. Beyond capturing that decisive moment, editing is the thing which still leaves me struggling. Forget about creating a compelling narrative out of a group of photos, I’m often still stuck working on which of my shots are any good. That said, I’ve developed a system – and it’s helped me a lot.

The Top 3 Method

For me, talking about photographs always involves talking about prints. I don’t do a lot of printing – that’s one of the key benefits of digital in a lot of ways, keeping the costs of consumables such as film and paper down. That said, I think it’s a great idea to regularly print a few of your key photos. For the Top 3 Method, printing is essential. Let me explain.

Once you’ve developed a small body of work for the year – let’s say it’s February or March – pick your top three. I’m not going to tell you how to pick them, but I will say this; be ruthless. Take an afternoon and pick the three images you like the most. Perhaps they are technically brilliant, perhaps they involved overcoming a huge challenge to capture, perhaps they just make you smile. I don’t care, just pick three.

Once you’ve got that done, go and get them printed (or print them yourself). Small is fine. I totally endorse going to your local cheapo photo place and getting these printed in the most cost effective way possible, although I strongly advocate that you support high-quality local photography businesses (if available in your area).

Now you’ve got your prints. The next thing you need is a cheap and easy way in which to display these, hopefully just by your monitor or otherwise close to your workspace. I use a pin-board near my desk.

Now you’re all set to begin! How does all this work? Let me explain…

At regular intervals (perhaps after every shoot, or maybe once a month), you’ll need to consider your new photos against your top three. Did anything you shot today knock anything out of those top prints? Is there something in your output for this month that puts one of those prints to shame? Well, here’s hoping. If there is, you need to print that bad boy and stick it on the board / in the clip / on the wall or however you’re doing it and retire the print it replaces.

It’s that simple.

The underlying idea is that rather than working towards an abstract notion of what is good and what isn’t, the top three method means you set the bar where it should be – against your own work. While it’s great to seek inspiration and guidance from the greats, it can be discouraging when you discover how long it takes to get photos of similar quality and impact. If you let that get to you, it’s easy to lose motivation and over time shoot less and less.