June 12, 2009 / Photography

The photo editing process

Written by Bruce Konkle

Student photographers are not just “shooters,” they must also be meticulous editors of their work and the work of their “friends”.

The Whole Shebang
In the working profession of photojournalism, most publications have photojournalists who do most of the shooting and photo editors who select, crop, size and assist with layout and design of pages and spreads. In scholastic photojournalism, however, each individual photographer often serves in both roles, shooting assignments as well as assisting staffers in the selection of the most appropriate photos for a publication.

And therein lies the overriding problem or concern with scholastic photojournalism: All photographers must understand their photo equipment, photo compositional elements, film processing and printing techniques, AND the overall photo editing process. That is a lot to ask of a beginning photographer but it is, indeed, exactly what we do ask of them.

Technology Wizard, Too
That is before we interject the latest technology concerns such as the use of digital cameras, electronic darkrooms and photography software programs. And what about the ethical situations that may arise now that photojournalists, and editors, can manipulate the composition in a photo, altering the reality of the original action captured in the lens of the camera.

But wait. Put aside some of these concerns and concentrate on the basic role of a student photojournalist. Consider only the editing role of a student photojournalist and the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel can be seen a bit brighter for advisers and publication staffers alike.

Picture Editing Process
The picture editing process basically involves the actual selection, cropping, sizing and layout concerns of the original photographer or, if the size of a staff allows, a designated photography editor. Since it also involves the design/layout process, publication staffers, as well, must understand the overall picture editing process.

The selection process is simply choosing the right photo to tell the accurate story of an event, keeping in mind the story angle that will be used and selecting photos that have strong composition and are technically reprintable in the publication image.

Cropping involves meticulously looking at a photo and determining what needs to be taken out, off the sides, top or bottom, to enhance the overall visual impact of the image. Tight cropping can dramatically enhance the dominant element within a photo; many photographers prefer to initially photograph their subjects this way anyway, leaving an editor little room for altering a photo by injudicious cropping of it.

Sizing photos means matching the dimension of the original photograph to the scaled-down proportions of the page or spread layout. Obviously a horizontal photo cannot fit into a vertical space; some horizontal photos might be able to first be cropped into a vertical shape, but if it is definitely a photo that can only be displayed horizontally, trying to crop and then size it vertically will only destroy its photocompositional elements.

Addressing layout concerns is also critical. All photographers must understand basic layout and design techniques so they can assist in getting their photographs placed in the most effective and visually enhancing places on pages and spreads. If a single photo, does the eye flow of the photo lead the reader back into a page or into the story it accompanies? If it’s part of a photo essay, does a dominant photo draw the reader into the photos while other photos of varying shapes and sizes lead them around the page or spread? Have cutlines or captions been placed appropriately to assist in the telling of the stories beyond the photo images themselves?

Most page or spread designers would benefit from listening to noted national publication design experts such as Mario Garcia, author of graphic and design books: “If properly integrated, photographs help pull a design together. The designer’s primary task is to create order through the placement of photographs.” Which simply means to design pages around visual elements, including photos, and to better understand that contemporary publication designs rely on larger, more graphic use of photos as integral parts of the total design package.

Tim Harrower, author of The Newspaper Designer’s Handbook, a book that has lots of design implications for yearbook staffs as well, also emphasizes the importance of photographs in any scholastic publication: “Every photo is unique; every image needs special consideration before you size it and shove it in a convenient slot…Unlike mug shots, full-sized photos require thoughtful anaylsis.”

But Unfortunately…
Unfortunately, scholastic publication staffs often have to use photographs that are not of the best technical quality nor do they have storytelling or interesting compositional qualities to them. That can be expected, especially when noting the technical nature of photography and the time it truly takes for beginning photo students to understand their camera, limitations of shooting situations, effective angles to photograph their subjects from, film processing and printing techniques, and, lastly, their role as photo editors.

Take the Time
What we can ask as publication staffers, however, is that student photographers take the time to not only learn the technical sides of photography but also the importance of photo editing to the integrity of the publication. Student photographers should want to be involved in the selection, cropping and sizing of photos as well as the designing of pages. It is their photos staffers are using to tell the visual stories of the year. Photographers should be able to select their best photos from a technical as well as an aesthetic viewpoint; they should be able to assist staffers in the selection process because they are, or are becoming, visual experts.

Basic photo editing in its most rudimentary definition simply means the choosing of appropriate photos for a publication. Whether it is photos for a newspaper, where single photos are most often used, or for newsmagazines and yearbooks, where photo essays are the norm, selecting the most effective story-telling photos is so critical if the publication is to be the photojournalism forum it’s meant to be.

Team Work Approach
No doubt there will continue to be technical problems related to photography; no doubt there will be compositional problems with student photographs; and, no doubt, there will be problems with photo placement on pages and spreads. But all of these can be minimized if photographers and designers work together on the coordinating of shooting assignments, selecting story-telling and worthwhile photos, and designing pages and spreads that enhance, not detract from, the quality of individual photographs.

Photo editor is just one of the hats a student photographer must wear. In this case, one hat probably fits all student photographers since they must shoot assignments, process film, select photos from contacts, print quality prints, AND work with designers on the display of their photos. Live with it, and gain by the multiple experiences.

  • mathew lavalley

    this article was good it had a lot of interesting points. If i could i would seat down and read this one and more like this one all day.

Bruce Konkle

Dr. Bruce Konkle's previous work experience includes being a journalism teacher and publications adviser at Homestead High School in Fort Wayne, Ind. He is the former director of the South Carolina Scholastic Press Association and former director of the Carolina Journalism Institute.