Carl's recent posts about editing and the comments they've evoked have brought up so many thoughts that I could probably write five long posts about it. If not ten. (If you just blurted out, "oh, no!" never fear, that wasn't actually a threat.)
One thing leapt to mind. I've been taking golf lessons recently for the first time in my life (it's never too late for golf; it is too late for platform diving), and one thing my pro keeps saying is "make it yours." That is, he wants me to work out things for myself. And of course, each of us needs to "make our own" a great many facets of our pursuit / passion / profession / hobby / diversion of photography, starting with how serious we're going to be about it and what our aims are. The comments to Carl's posts make it clear that a lot of people have developed their own methods of editing. Which of course doesn't mean that it still might not help to talk about it.
I wanted to post a sort of counterpoint to Carl's article, in order to point out that he's talking about working out a method and then following the method through. He's not saying, "use the software I use, follow my method slavishly."
Sorry about this overlong preamble, but I also need to make a disclaimer: I'm not a guru. My way is not the right way. So don't take what I'm about to tell you as gospel; don't even take it as a recommendation, unless you want to. I'm not trying to tell you the "right" way to do things, even if I believed there was such a thing, which I don't.
Get to the point, Mike!
Anyway, when I had my chops up, here's how I worked. I developed either one or two tanks of film (three rolls of 35 exposures* each per tank) once every few nights. (Less in winter, more in summer.) I'd hang the film in the closet to dry, clip it and put it into PrintFile pages the next morning (this was my most hated photographic chore, by the way), then, when dark fell, I'd make proof sheets. (My darkrooms, always crude affairs, were almost never light-tight enough to use when the sun was out.)
In looking at the proof sheets, I had a couple of rules for myself. First, I had to loupe every frame. Second, I had to mark between one and six pictures per roll. It didn't matter if it was the stupidest, ugliest roll of useless pictures I'd ever taken, I had to find at least one frame to workprint. And I strongly resisted making workprints of more than six frames per roll. Oh, of course if I really, really had to see that seventh or eighth frame, I'd do it; but the reason for the six-frames rule was that if I marked 20 frames or 25 frames on every roll, it would be too much work to workprint (and too expensive), and I'd procrastinate and never get to it. So I had a method: every frame that interested me under the loupe first got a single cross mark in the corner; if there were more than six, I had to winnow them down to six, then I would put a second cross-mark, making an "X", on the ones to be printed.
Do you see that those "rules" were just an effort to cope with my particular psychology, my personal weaknesses? I didn't want to be tempted to throw a roll aside just because there wasn't much good on it; I knew I'd miss some good frames that way. I had to force myself to deal with every roll when workprinting. And I didn't want to trigger my tendency to procrastinate. These are my own personal solutions to my own personal idiosyncrasies. They have no more significance than that.
I was an effing ninja at workprinting. I could make twenty prints in an hour just cruising; thirty to forty an hour if I was trying. After years in the darkroom, I had no trouble looking at the neg against the safelight and setting the time and contrast to "good enough" with nothing more than a glance. Most of my workprints look pretty good, too, if I do say so.
So here's the thing I started out to say: I have to have prints in order to edit.
And here's why. If I took, say, fifteen of those 8x10 workprints and taped them all up on the wall, they would all look more or less the same to me at first. And I'd look at them. Then I'd look at them some more. And some more. Gradually, I would start to get interested in a few of them more than others, and some would begin to drop into the don't-care category. And this is the mystery: after about three or four days of looking at a batch of workprints, chances are I would love two or three of them and not care at all about the rest.
How did this happen? I really have no idea. Still don't, to this day.
But I could depend on it.
I finally decided that it was just not entirely conscious. It's not like I was "deciding" which pictures were "good" and which weren't; it's just that some of them had that "it," whatever it is that I personally happen to find gratifying about photographs, and the others didn't.
There have been all kinds of things I've learned about myself along the way. For one thing, "good" pictures—the solid, good-looking, pictures-that-look-like-everybody-else's-good-pictures pictures—seldom made it for me. And, the things I liked were often quiet, sometimes too quiet for others.
I sometimes liked failures, too...pictures that were intriguing for some reason but...well, bad. I had a separate category for these, called "significant failures."
Sometimes I'd put 20 prints up and, after three days, it had become obvious that none of them were any good. That was always dispiriting, but it wasn't all that unusual.
So what accounts for that magical "sorting" process that almost always occurred half a week or so after I slapped a bunch of seemingly identical-quality workprints up on the wall and just looked and looked and looked? I just don't know. I only know that it was the way my brain worked when it came to photographs.
Paper is wealth
The end of the process was that when I could spare the time and the money (paper was wealth, for most of my adult life; I almost never had enough paper) I would go into the darkroom and make a fine (finished) print from the negative. I always had a reputation as a fine printer—it was how I made a good bit of my living for a good long stretch, and I'm happy to say that some prints made by me reside in some very prestigious museums and collections—but I never enjoyed this part quite as much. It was too final, and few fine prints were fine enough, if you get my drift. I probably only made "finished" fine prints out of, I don't know, maybe a third of my sorted "selects." In a sense, there was no reason to—I didn't have shows, and nobody bought them. I was just doing it because I liked it. (Same reason you play golf. Who cares except you?) But workprinting for me was the center around which everything else revolved. I loved seeing what the negatives looked like, and I loved anticipating the magic "editing" process that would follow.
I can't do the same thing on the computer screen. I have no good method there. That's not a value judgment, not an anti-digital comment. It's just a fact. I need prints on the wall. I need to be able to do lots of looking. It's just the way I am.
I've never counted exactly, but I believe I have about 85,000 negatives***, and although I've lost or left behind most of the workprints I've made, I probably have a few thousand of those hanging around the house. I really should be responsible to that work, and attempt to edit a book of pictures out of it—maybe even two. It's another one of those things I've always put off to "someday." That's the kind of task that requires that you be systematic and organized, and I am neither. I'm not looking forward to trying. But...someday.
I hope it won't be hard to see how very different Carl's method of editing a large set of digital captures (something I've never even done, because I've never made a large set of digital captures) is from my method of working with rolls of 35mm film.
We're all different. You've got to make it yours.
*Only 35 frames fit on the kind of PrintFile sheet I used, so that's how many pictures I shot on a roll, never 36.
**Well, slight exaggeration.
***Sounds like a lot, but it only averages to about two and a half rolls a week over twenty years.
"The thing is, I don't use on-screen viewing to replace the work print stage, but rather the contact sheet stage. The curse of 35mm is that you can't really see what you've got squinting at a contact sheet with a lupe and so, must make enlargements of many frames just to see what's there. Doing the initial viewing on screen seems a big improvement to me.
"With digital, the second stage (work prints) is still there and just as important, but getting there is easier. And not just with regards to selection, but physically, too. I can shoot JPEG or JPEG + raw, use the JPEG for intitial viewing and make a workprint from it at the push of a button. Keep the raw for the final print if needed.
"I'm amused when I sometimes hear people on forums ask how they can make a contact sheet from their digital files."