How to edit photo stories

How to edit photo stories

By Josh Lustig 14/04/14

If only editing photography was as simple as separating wheat and chaff. Josh Lustig is outgoing Assignments Editor at Panos Pictures and photographer and publisher at Tartaruga. He asks Panos photographers for their tips on telling a story – and keeping it short and sweet…

Listen to other people

The fact is, you’re not the best editor of your own pictures.

“Some photos stick to you like honey,” says Spanish photographer Alfredo Caliz. “They may not be the best pictures, but they stay for complex reasons.” You spend weeks, months, or even years working on a project, and every frame has a story behind it. These memories can often blind you to the value and impact of an individual image.

Having fellow professionals that you can turn to for advice is important. Espen Rasmussen, a Norwegian photographer and picture editor at Norway’s biggest daily, VG, has a strong team behind him: “I find a lot of good feedback among colleagues, both photographers and writers. One of my favourites is Ronny Berg, a feature writer with a very different look at the world. My partner Hilde, who is also a photographer, gives me maybe the most honest feedback.” 


Be brutal

“I always try not to repeat anything in a story,” says Espen. “If two images say almost the same thing or look similar in content, composition or feeling, I take one out. It’s hard to be this strict in the editing process, but a story will never be better than the weakest image.”

It can often be a challenge when working to tight deadlines, but giving yourself time can help immensely in the editing process. Espen says: “I put [the work] aside for a while and then re-look at it. This often helps, because after having a break from a story, it’s easier to see the images that don't fit, or that are repetitive.”

British, Istanbul-based photographer Guy Martin believes a story can be told in 6-12 images. He says, “I have no problem in getting work down to 10-12 pictures, the hardest part for me is the sequencing and flow of the edit.”


Get your flow right

Sequencing can be as tough as the edit itself, and is very hard to apply rules to. For Alfredo Caliz there are two main variables: “one is the shape, colour and composition, and the other is the content or meaning. I move from one to the other trying to balance both in the final edit.”

“I try to find a start for a story that is something of a surprise,” says Espen. “It’s important to me that the images fit together. If one or two pictures have a different feel to them, they will destroy the story. Each image should take me deeper into the story. I often try to find an open ending to a story. An edit should not only explain for the viewer, it should also raise questions. Other times I try to find an end image that naturally leads back to the first image in the story, so the story ends up almost as a circle.”


Make prints 

Nothing helps editing as much as having physical prints. These can be cheap, small, flimsy things, but laying your images out on the floor and standing over them will give you (quite literally) a new perspective on your work. 

“Little cheap 6x4s are vital to the working process for me,” says Guy. “I regularly travel around with a little box of prints and work through edits on the planes and trains of the world. I have no idea how people do it on a screen.” 

When I was editing my book The Marshes, I had all the images and text tacked onto my bedroom wall. I was constantly shifting things around, removing and adding. I lived with the images for as long as I could bear to.


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