The Importance of Letting Your Photos Marinate

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Hong Kong, 2013

I think one of the most difficult aspects of photography is the editing process (choosing your best images). Garry Winogrand famously said, “Sometimes photographers mistake emotion for what makes a great street photograph.

Winogrand famously shot like a madman (shooting several rolls a day for his lifetime), but had the discipline to not even process his photos for a year after he shot them. Why did he do this? In order to forget the memory of having taken those shots– so he could be more critical and objective when it came to choosing his best images.

It is always easier to judge and critique other people’s photographs. Therefore one of the benefits of forgetting some of the shots you took is that you can look at your own photos not like that of your own– but that of a stranger.

I know it is a fact that I am my worst own self-editor. I often confuse the emotions of when I took a photo thinking it was good. For example, there are certain photos which I taken in which people get angry or upset at me–but I still get the shot. Therefore I remember the encounter as being vivid– and that the photo I took was hard work.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the photo is any good. I have taken tons of photos where I got yelled at and threatened at and erroneously thought they were good shots. Just because it is difficult to take a shot doesn’t mean it is any good.

I also believe that photographers aren’t always the best editors either. Richard Bram from In-Public told me that often his friends who are curators, painters, writers, and musicians are often better photography editors.

Regent Street, 2007. Photo by Richard Bram
Regent Street, 2007. Photo by Richard Bram
Look familiar? Look at Richard's previous image.
Look familiar? Look at Richard’s previous image.

Why? Because they see things from an outside perspective– and on a more holistic view. Sometimes photographers lack the visual vocabulary that artists, painters, and sculptors even have. This is why Adam Marelli is so knowledgeable about composition and design. When studying at school, he found his degree in sculpture more beneficial to his photography than his actual degree in photography.

HCB plays a 1,2,3 rhythm of the lamp post, the soldier and the man on his crutches. WEST GERMANY. 1962. West Berlin. The construction of the Berlin Wall. © Henri Cartier-Bresson
WEST GERMANY. 1962. West Berlin. The construction of the Berlin Wall. © Henri Cartier-Bresson

Analysis by Adam Marelli in The Surrealist Manifesto Part II:

“HCB plays a 1,2,3 rhythm of the lamp post, the soldier and the man on his crutches.”

Recently I have been looking through my archives of some photos I have shot the last two years. I am starting to edit some of my series and sequence them into mini-projects, with the help of some of my close friends. Here are some random thoughts that I have been thinking about when it comes to editing:

1. Time is truly the ultimate test

Hong Kong, 2013

I often say that you should “let your photos marinate” in order to really discover if they are any good or not.

To use the analogy of a steak, you want to let it marinate in delicious juices (preferably overnight or a few days) for it to taste much better. You don’t just throw a frozen steak on a skillet and try to cook it (trust me, I tried this in college and failed horribly).

With photography, the analogy is the same. However you want to spend a bit more time (think about letting wine age).

I am looking back at my old shots (which I first thought were garbage) and now realize that they are actually quite good. Upon sharing the images with my friends and close colleagues– they agree that they think the shots are quite interesting.

Therefore I want to make it a point to never delete any of your images. With film we have the benefit that you can’t “delete” a negative (well you can toss it in the trash, but it isn’t as convenient as digital). But even with digital, because storage is now so cheap now (you can buy a 1TB drive for less than $80 USD) there is no reason to delete images. Once again, some of the shots that I thought were first bad– ended up being good at the end. If you delete photos prematurely, you don’t give them the chance to marinate and develop its true flavor.

Personally, I think it takes about a year (or even longer) for me to decide whether I think a photo is good or not. I even look at my earlier work, and although back then I thought it was good– I now realize they are quite bad. Several times a year, I go back to my Flickr stream, and go on sprees of removing my weak images. What I do is set them to “private” just in-case I might want to access them in the future. But this causes them to not be visible public.

2. Less is more

Hong Kong, 2013
Hong Kong, 2013

One of the philosophies I believe in is “less is more” and also in “subtractive knowledge.” Pretty much the idea of both philosophies is that the key to happiness and success in life is to not add things, but to subtract things.

For example, in the case of Steve Jobs and Apple– he made it into a great company because he slashed all the useless side-projects Apple was fumbling around in. He focused the key parts of the business into consumer and prosumer computers. Over time, it expanded (but still stayed simple) with just MacBooks, iMacs, iPhones, and iPads as their core business. Steve Jobs himself said that innovation isn’t taking on more projects and ideas, but being ruthless and saying no to 100’s of things.

I know that when we take photos, they are all our babies. We cherish them, and want to share them with the world. But what we have to realize is that photos aren’t children. They are not alive, and have no feelings. Therefore, we need to kill our babies.

Yes I know this sounds pretty gruesome. But it is an analogy that has stuck with me for the longest time. Whenever I look at a photo that is a “maybe” shot (I’m not sure whether it is good or not) I keep telling myself to “kill my babies.”

I look at many photography portfolios, and always look for new talent to share on my blog. One of the biggest errors that I see photographers commit is that they share too much of their work. Meaning, they are great photographers and have several really strong images, but they also share their weak images. If they shared less of their images (and only shared their strongest images) I think they would be much stronger photographers than if they shared all of their images.

Once again, less is more. In today’s age, we suffer from information overload. If you share a photo online, are you contributing to this information overload? Or are you sending out a true piece of art that will somehow benefit the “common good” of photography?

3. Skin in the game

Hong Kong, 2013
Hong Kong, 2013

One of my favorite philosophers is Nassim Taleb (author of Antifragile), who is quite controversial in his thoughts, but steers clear from bullshit.

One of the philosophies he shares is the idea of “skin in the game.” The idea is that whenever people have opinions, they should always put themselves at risk at some way– in which their opinions can personally hurt them. For example, many government officials who decide a nation to go to war don’t have children in the military. So they don’t have any “skin in the game.” A practical solution that Taleb suggest is that anyone who decides if a country is to go to war is required to have at least 1 blood-related relative who is in military service.

To apply this to photography, I think that if you shoot digitally, you have no “skin in the game.” What do I mean by that? It is that whenever you take a photograph, there is no downside. It doesn’t really ‘cost’ you anything to take a photograph (sure it fills up your hard drive, but that ‘cost’ is negligible nowadays).

I recently got a Ricoh GRD V, and find myself taking way too many photos. I go on shooting sprees, and don’t even think before taking photos. This causes me to take a lot of crap photos, which makes editing a pain in the ass afterwards.

The main benefit of shooting film is also its downside. It costs money to take a photo. Therefore whenever I am about to take a photo I think to myself: “Is this photo worth it that I am willing to spend money to take this photo?” Therefore it causes me to be more critical before I take a shot.

I have noticed this helps the editing process tremendously. Why? I end up shooting a lot less in film. Therefore I have a lot less crap to look at when editing and choosing my best images.

With digital, I can easily take 500 photos in a day. It is a serious pain in the ass to look through all of the images. With film, I shoot around 36 photos in a day (1 roll, most times less). 500 vs 36? I will choose looking at 36 anyday– and it allows me to have more mental energy to sift through my images.

I am not trying to say that digital photography is inherently worse than film photography. I am trying to say is that shooting digitally makes editing harder. Just note this– and you can be more conscious when shooting. Try to take fewer photos when on the streets and be a little more conscious when shooting. This will make you consider the composition more, framing, and whether the photo is even interesting enough to shoot.

4. Working on projects versus single images

Hong Kong, 2013

For about the last two years, I have been focusing more on projects than single images. What is the difference? Well, with a project you have some sort of unifying idea (however broad or specific you want it ton e) and then you take several photos, to hopefully make an exhibition, a series, or a book after.

With single images, it is about having 1 photo that is really strong and stands on its own. These are the types of images that give you lots of “likes” and “favs” on Facebook and Flickr.

Don’t get me wrong– I am a huge fan of single images. Steve McCurry has made an entire career off single images– which he edits into series after he shoots them, which is totally fine. Mary Ellen Mark also does the same. Although she does create more concrete projects, she says that every photo she takes–she wants it to stand on its own and be “timeless.”

However one of the downsides of just focusing on single images is that they have less depth and meaning (when compared to projects). I love the power of short poems, but I find the depth of a novel to be much more immersive.

A project can let you explore a certain social world, concept, idea on a much deeper scale. Also in a project, not all of your shots have to be super-amazing shots. In a project, you want a steady rhythm of images (some strong, and some weaker shots). You also end up taking photos that focus on details (which as stand-alone images would be weak, but work well in the context of a series).

Single-images also make us worry too much about social media and getting validation. We all love having lots of followers, favorites, likes, etc. I know I do. But I find that it often distracts me. When I get too sucked into social media, I find that I am shooting to please others, rather than to please myself.

Still every once in a while I upload single images to social media (to show people that I am still alive and shooting) but on the whole, I am focusing on my projects. Projects take a long time to develop and mature, and I don’t want to rush the process. Just like marinating a steak, you don’t want to rush it.

5. Feedback from others

Hong Kong, 2013
Hong Kong, 2013

I cannot put enough emphasis on how important it is to get feedback from others. No man is his own island. The feedback we get from others is incredibly valuable–because they are more objective with us, and also see things from a different perspective.

This may seem to counter-act my previous point (that we should shoot for ourselves and not for others). However it is all about a balance. I think it is important to consider the feedback of others in order to give you a more balanced view. But at the end of the day, it is still your opinion which matters the most.

I also have found that feedback (over the phone) or even better, in person– is far superior than just the internet. The internet is great (it allows us to contact people we could never meet in-person) but the feedback we get is often weak. Think about all the comments you get on Facebook, with people saying “nice shot” or “I like the tones.” It is nice to get these pats on the back, but they don’t tell us anything.

When we are talking with others vocally or in-person, they can give us much richer descriptions about what they like about our shots and what they don’t like about our shots. If you are in-person, they can point to specific parts of your photo in order for you to better visualize what about your shots work and what don’t work. During my workshops when we do the feedback/critique sessions– the students always say it is the most valuable part. Why? They never have gotten honest and critical feedback/critique in their life before.

Also when I am getting people to give feedback/critique on me on my work, here are some guidelines:

a) I ask them about what shots they don’t like–rather than the shots they like. Why is this? We all know what shots of ours we like– and aspects of our photos we like. But what we are blind to is what is weak or doesn’t work. So if you have a limited amount of time with a person, have them point out your weak points–rather than your strong points.

b) I ask them if they think it can work in the context of a series. Once again, some shots aren’t strong as a single image–but may work in the context of a series.

c) Feedback on direction. I ask them what they think about the direction I am going on–and any advice they have for me. This helps me guide my direction in my photography like a captain with a ship–provided with a compass.

d) I also ask them to be brutally honest with me. I think it is better to get a brutally honest critique (and borderline mean) than a pitty-patty weak sauce critique. Once again, the problem we have with the internet is that there is a deficit of critical feedback that is honest. If people don’t like your photos, they will simply say nothing (the worst feeling of all).


Hong Kong, 2013
Hong Kong, 2013

Sorry for the disorganization of my thoughts, these are just random musings I have based on editing my own shots over the years.

If there is a takeaway point I want you to take away from this post it is this: Spend more time letting your photos marinate before uploading them and share fewer photos. The strength of your photography as a whole isn’t the photos you share. Rather, it is the photos you decide not to share. According to Taoism, “inaction is an action.” We don’t always have to do stuff. Sometimes by not doing anything is the best choice.

So with that farewell. I wish you the best in your editing experiences. Remember, we all face this cruelly difficult task of choosing our best images. But know you aren’t in it alone. Get the help of your friends, colleagues, and confidants to give you the honest truth– and ask them to be harsh and critical with you. After all, the best friends aren’t the ones that just pat you in the back–but they are the ones that tell you the truth straight in your face (for your best interests).


I explain more of the importance of letting your photos marinate in the video below:

What are some tips and advice you have about editing your own photos? Share them in the comments below!

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