Sitting time, objectivity, and always check your B roll…

H51-B0008525 copy

How often do we either a) edit the results of a shoot immediately after said shoot, or b) leave the curation so long that we forgot what we shot – and worse still, forget of the post processing intentions and final vision we might have had at the time? Too often, I think. Either eagerness leads to the former, or time pressure to the latter. I know a friend who’s still got images from more than a year back he hasn’t looked at – yet he keeps shooting more. I’ve also shot with people who are done with everything – curation, post processing and posting to social media – before they go to bed on the same day as the shoot, no matter how late that might be or how many images had to pass. I try and find some balance, personally – enough time to have a bit more objectivity, but not so long that I forget why I wanted to make that image. Yet occasionally, one slips through…

The image in this post is one such unicorn. It was shot during the evening flight over Francois Peron National Park, Useless Loop, and Dirk Hartog Island. I don’t remember the location exactly, because I was concentrating on the view through the finder more than the map; I had approximately 45min of useful shooting time, and I of course intended to make the most out of it – anything less and we might as well have been burning money as fuel. Normally, I’ll sneak a quick look at the camera back to check exposure and focus – but in such situations, this mostly goes out the window as there simply isn’t time. I pace my shooting to try not to hit buffer limits, and take a couple of shots to bracket focus and exposure – though for aerials, I’ve got the camera in shutter priority, at the maximum 1/800s shutter speed in this case, and the focus locked at infinity. ISO and aperture float to make that shutter speed workable, though I’ll keep an eye on it to make sure I don’t get into very noisy or very diffracted territory.

Between that, watching my edges, trying not to drop lenses out of the aircraft while changing them (or lens caps, or anything else for that matter) and panning against the motion of the plane to keep the composition locked in – whilst of course trying to adjust the balance of said composition to compensate for the change in perspective of the moving aircraft, and trying several variations – there’s not a lot of mental capacity left for anything else. Certainly, any semblance of timekeeping goes out the window; either you find you’re back on final approach and on the ground much sooner than you expect, or worse, you find that you’ve got significant cost overruns on your charter bill.

In short, curation is very much the last thing on your mind when you’re up in the air – it’s simply not worth wasting any time or focus on something that you can do later; certainly not once you’re happy with your test exposures and have everything locked down. It’s one of the few times where if I’m in doubt I’ll shoot more and curate afterwards.

Curation, after all, is the photographers’ final gatekeeper: we control what we show, and in turn what our audience can see. It should keep the substandard stuff out of play, and catch any mistakes before going to press – so to speak. The more rounds of curation, the better; typically, I’ll do one high level cull in-camera for focus and exposure; another round later on if I have downtime between locations for obvious compositional misses; one round of rating and selection when I’ve imported the images to the computer. Finally, as I’m postprocessing in order of highest to lowest rating, another round – some may not work or be able to achieve the creative intention I had in mind. Usually, this means 1, 2, 3 and 4-star ratings; the 3s and 4s almost all get processed, with the 4s generally being portfolio grade. Most of the 2s also get processed. I don’t bother with the 1s and below, as training to make me shoot better. Good isn’t good enough, and all that.

But what about the ones that slip through the net? For the last few months, I’ve started to make a habit of going through the 0s and 1s again – for the simple reason that I don’t usually have the luxury of enough sitting time owing to engagement pressures and client delivery deadlines. Stuff slips through the cracks, and more often than I’d like to admit; usually these are images that you don’t really remember shooting because they were instinctive grabs and very low effort to capture. (In contrast, something you’ve set up, sat and waited for is likely to have far too much weight/merit assigned to it because you remember the effort more than judge the actual result.) The featured image for this post was one of those – I honestly don’t remember composing and shooting it; and unlike just about every other frame, there’s only a single shot instead of a couple of variations. It is not cropped in any way, and it pops at the pixel level. I only wish I could shoot this way more often, but it seems that overthinking things is the complete opposite of what’s required to achieve such results.

I have a theory about this: when we’re in the zone, in flow, or whatever you want to call it – the subconscious part of our minds takes over, and it’s a lot more creatively liberated than the conscious, rational part. The inhibitions and restraints we are normally subject to become secondary and we are responding instinctively to what we see and what appeals to us. Shutter timing is governed by reflex action. Perhaps the reason I don’t remember the images is because I’m not really focusing or looking at any one detail; I do know I can in a way stare past the scene in a somewhat defocused way and just see it as coloured blobs. Train yourself enough, and you’ll adjust the camera slightly to compensate for edges and balance without thinking about it; in a way, seeing the scene as color and form is perfect for this because one isn’t giving too much weight to an element because of it’s nature – visual form takes priority.

There were a few other good images that were salvaged from near-deletion, but this was by far the best of them. This shoot took place in April; since then, I’ve applied the same principles to many other shoots and found the same thing: there are always one or two gems that should have made the first cut, but didn’t. As objective as we try to be, we must also remember that the whole business of photography and image making is highly subjective to begin with; and we cannot be emotionally detached. It is this emotional attachment that makes for some very strong images, but at the same time, it’s also what makes us need to take a step back and circle around again. I’ve got a 24″ print of this on my office wall as a reminder… MT


This image is available as an Ultraprint available on request here


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  1. Robert E Good says:

    Love the color and pattern in your image.

    I seldom go back to review images but I did today before sending out some prints to a friend. I found a good shot not in the high rated set. How did I miss that! Working too fast I guess.

    Most of the time, I edit immediately after shooting picking out the obvious keepers as fast as possible and as a result I sometimes overlook good shots. Sometimes my wife will ask about an image she thought I took but I didn’t print and that’s how I often find good overlooked shots that perhaps I didn’t immediately see how to edit to good effect. Some images require thought and reflection to see their potential.

    • “Some images require thought and reflection to see their potential.”
      This raises a good point: sometimes I wonder if that much effort is required, then perhaps the audience impact might not be there anyway since few are willing to invest the required concentration…

  2. Herman Zwaag says:

    Hello Ming,
    A fine post!. Even before reading it in its entirety, it struck me that the featured image is, to me, definitely one of your more interesting, and much more beautiful ones.
    I have a business/management (thus: rationally biased) background just as you have, and have similar tendencies to thinking over my photography quite a bit before and during the making of it. Which is fine, in a number of situations. Yet I also find that many of the actual gems are the intuitive ones (‘instinctual grabs’ as you call them). And/or the situations where I spend an hour or more to carefully set up the heavy 4×5 on a pre-determined subject–and then jerk it around on its tripod because something happens in the corner of my eye and gets the exposure instead.
    Another quite honest and interesting share of yours was your recent post on an assumed lack (better: your search of) soul in your images. You probably have already, so just to be sure: May I suggest you to pick up ‘intuition’ and ‘(slightly) subconscious’ as huge road signs directing you to Soul?!
    Allowing yourself (and daring–courage plays a huge part in this, in particular for us rationally-inclined people) to work from these levels of being makes your work much more You, inviting spontaneity and authenticity in. Allows you to do justice and pay respect to your subjects–whatever these are–and present them from your commitment and connection to them.

    • Thanks Herman – without risk there can be no reward (or even concept of reward, actually). The discussion of soul wasn’t because I felt something was missing; it was to understand how people think; this is a fundamental underpinning of the interpretation and success of images (and I suspect that went over the heads of almost all commenters). My intuition and thinking process is different to yours is different to somebody else’s: there’s nothing wrong with that, other than a difference in perspective and expectation.

  3. I bought my first “non point-and-shoot” camera two years ago. I shot around 100Gb since (not that much for a 16mpx, but at least I shot) and I’m still shooting. Sadly, none of them has been post processed. I never took the time or most probably, I was too afraid to see the result. Now, I’m in a vicious circle of when to begin with that load of work: I’m freezing. I’m quite far from what you describe…

    • David Lupton says:

      Hi Thierry

      if I could offer a possible suggestion.

      Don’t stop shooting but redirect to a project that you would love to do nothing to grand or epic something that you will enjoy, slow down your image taking and edit as you go. First check for sharpness…no not just sharp images rather the sharpness of ideas, a soft image can have a sharpness of vision about it which is more important.

      Keep your editing simple, its project driven so does fit within what your doing, if you have shot more than one image of the same thing which is the good which is the better…pick the one you like. Watch out for those discordant colours objects edges that fracture the composition, some will work in a good way some will not. Where does your eye end up? Inside frames we create visual journeys, some journeys are more simple more pleasing for the eye to follow than others, and when its complete where does the eye rest? Areas or lines that lead your eye into an area that is empty say like a black hole…this black hole could be white or a colour toneless or textured anything really, or it might lead the eye out of the frame never to return both killing the appeal of the image. Look for colours and objects that take over the image and reduce what your working to express…basically look for an image that please the eye and the heart, there are no rules more useful observations on the good and better around what you are trying to express and what hinders, if it helps its good, if it hinders not so good.

      Keep your project small you might only want 20 final images that will push learning to edit as you practice it. If your not sure ask someone else often someone who knows less than more is useful they will see without the baggage like a child and say refreshingly simply if it works or not. Its helpful to find someone who has skills to help but you have to trust them so pick wisely.

      My thinking is work like this build some skills then work backwards through your collection and quickly the good and the better will become obvious. I would treat all those gigabits as learning when you find good images tag and save them into a new folder of your best work, then make a few prints from the ones you love. Just potter away at them once your editing skills improve you will be surprised how fast you can rock through images.

      Don’t tweak your images while you edit the good and the bad will be that no matter what you do unless your intention is to create a silk purse out of a sows ear with photoshop…learn to edit and you will learn to photograph at the same time, editing is a great teacher.

      When you pick a project keep it really simple to start, it could be as simple as winter trees, cloudscapes a set of environmental portraits whatever, writing it down as simple as I have can keep you on track!

      On your journey when you see other things that light your fire, grab them and get back to the project, file them in a folder of “other stuff I like” or similar… and edit these as you go, this is the work that will lead to magical unexpected place! Don’t let the weight of what you have built up and not got to crush your passion.

      Gary Winograd never developed his film straight away he waited a year or so… he would be more objective about what he did he wanted to drop the emotional baggage of the moment so when he got around to processing he could see edit choose better…a bit like being in love it colours the world beautiful even when its not!

      This is the most important lesson and the hardest to learn when editing…have no favourites don’t let your love for the thing the energy and effort you invested into the image to capture it get in the way of what is good and better!

      Hope this helps.


      • David Lupton says:

        One other thought editing is is deciding in a sense between what is good better best as you build a body of work or gather single imagery if thats your thing, curating is bringing together a collection of that work its quite a different idea and requires a different set of tools and skills.

        • Agreed; curation is something entirely different and requires discipline to ensure you stick to the brief – no matter how good the alternative images might be, if they don’t fit: they don’t fit.

    • Wow – that’s pretty interesting. You also can’t leave processing too long otherwise a) you don’t know what can or has to be done in PS vs in camera, making visualising a result difficult; and b) you’re going to go blind when you eventually do get around to it. There’s also quite a bit to be gained from the feedback process itself…

      • David Lupton says:

        The first thing I do whenI get home is clean my gear charge batteries download, then eat or grab a coffee in that order, then do a fast edit tagging what I like, then group that selection and do a quick process, if they don’t need shifting quickly I walk away for a bit and do something else or get up early and come back with fresh eyes then do a final process and export. Often in that initial digital darkroom work I overplay my hand so a second look I find invaluable.

        Editing is where I learn the most from mistakes and success, I think editing is harder than using a camera creating an image, you have to be ruthless with yourself…it is hard to learn this I feel.

        In the darkroom it was simple, you make contact sheets, working prints, soft proofs and final prints, spending time with the work was important and helpful, digital we rush without spending time seeing the work like this and have less of a relationship with our efforts I feel talking me here!

        I don’t mind leaving images for a month or two if I am working on a body of work, I have made the selections as I go, however I find as I play ponder dip in and out I improve on that initial seeing over time in the digital darkroom. When I come to process the images for the end use I am in quite a different and better space to interpret what I have done. I have spent the time dabbling thinking making work prints etc just like my darkroom and again that relational time time with the imagery really helps to interpret it in a better way. It also refines the unshot imagery as I work my way through the ideas or body of work, I know what I need to flesh an area out or to reshoot and strengthen or to go and chase a new direction or thought inspired by some off beat image!

        This helps curating a body of work no end being familiar, sometimes I will go back and grab an image not in my initial selection because it has a value that adds to a collection of work being familiar… I know what other possibilities I have at hand.

        Its a mission fun but a mission!!!!

        • Dear David,

          It took a while before I post my answer… that’s because you made me think a lot!
          “Don’t let the weight of what you have built up and not got to crush your passion.”

          First, I really want to thank you for the time you spent to write. I appreciated. You definitively sum it up. You gave me more than a method; you gave me the boost needed to break the ice…

          Your suggestion makes great sense to me. Considering that I have a health issue, my project options are limited. So, I decided to concentrate on objects already at home. I don’t own any lighting material, so I will have to use natural light or a simple tungsten. What do you think? Hope that will make it easier to be, as you say, “sharp”.

          I will keep a copy of your message and read it again later on.

          Thank you again,


          By the way, are you David Lupton, the illustrator?

  4. I always use a subfolder setup. First computer folder gets all the images. Then I add a subfolder for the “first pass,” which is anything I think has some merit. On a 1-4 scale, these could be 2+. Finally, I slowly review all of the photos in this subfolder and decide which are either “the best” or could be good for secondary uses. There seems to be a benefit of reviewing images a second time – as if the first time I’m asking “is this a good photo” and the second time I’m asking myself “is this a great photo – and I’m I sure?”

    It’s the method to my madness. For what it’s worth, if I start with 200 photos, I’m likely to then drop to 40 good shots and about 10 great ones after reviewing the 40. Sometimes only 1 or 2…some days are like that.

    • You can also use the star rating and subsequent sort in Bridge or LR to save time moving stuff around – I do the same and will usually go through the first two levels to process, then make a second check of the third – just in case.

  5. Jonathan Hodder says:

    Beautiful image, Ming. You inspired me to go back to my old snaps and the strangest thing happened. I am very much into streetphotography, and I often return to my favourite streets in and around South East Asia every 1-2 years. Sometimes, while I am out on the streets, I recognise familiar faces (like a market vendor) of those I had captured a year ago. Tonight the opposite happened. While scanning pictures from 2 years ago, I saw in the background 2-3 people who I had just las month captured as foreground subjects for what I thought was the first time. I know this was bound to happen, but it was a pleasant surprise nevertheless – a little like watching Chungking Express. I know this wasn’t the intention of your article, but it made me smile. Thank you.

  6. I came back from Greenland a month ago, and did the curation when i got back. Now i’m relooking at every pictures i’ve made, and like you said, some were push away at the time, and now seems far better than i remember it was.

    Very thoughtfull post, thank you again for writting ! Keep up, it’s always a good read !

    Cheers !

  7. A super image and a very timely post because I have just been going through a slew of images I took in Venice almost exactly a year ago. And, yes, there are several I missed selecting, though I would hesitate to call them jewellery of any kind. I’ve found it rewarding to go back over old collections because this almost always happens. Perhaps there is a tension between selecting for what I thought I was trying to achieve at the time and, much later, realizing that in fact I need to select for what I actually saw (in photographic terms) which might not have been the same thing at all. Ah, the old subconscious …

    • Thanks – for me, generally the surprises aren’t quite this stark though – hence the underlying prompting to write this article. I’d like to think it’s not because my curation is slipping, of course!

  8. Stephen King says:

    Nice post Ming and nice shot. I think you mean minimum of 1/800 shutter speed, not maximum?

    • The leaf shutter on the H5/old lenses max out at 1/800s; the H6 and X1D are 1/2000s with the new lenses. Didn’t have any of those on the trip, but I do now (and if I were to do it again, I’d use the H6 and 35-90mm – perhaps even try the 150mm…) 🙂

      • Good that you could get it sharp at 1/800. I find that I usually need at least 1/1000 from the heli, 1/2000 to be safe. Look forward to seeing some with the H6!

  9. Hi Ming
    What strikes me about this photo compared to most of the aerial shots you have shown from Shark Bay, is that it is more traditional or scenic, rather than abstract. In addition the shadows are not as clearly defined and strong in regard to texture and pattern.

    Do you think you may have passed over the image because it is a bit less distinctively Shark Bay abstract and a bit more generically scenic?
    Perhaps not as clearly identifiable or unique, or perhaps not belonging photographically with your abstract images.

    • No, I think it’s because I honestly don’t recall shooting it – it’s a single frame without a couple of variations as the plane passed overhead, unlike the other compositions I was shooting. I think that might have been the reason – either that or I was talking to the pilot to direct him to the next site on the horizon…

      The other images were deliberately curated together to be similar. I’ve got more large scale images that will be in a later post.

  10. richard majchrzak says:

    Yes, liked the second to last paragraph. sums it up to me. No more explanation needed. in the zone..sweet and nice

  11. I usually wait around 1 month to go back to my pictures and work on them, I find it’s a reasonable balance, but going back to discarded images from long ago it’s definitely a very revealing exercise and it helps see one own’s work in very different lights.

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