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Friday, January 12, 2007

To Delete or Not: Photojournalist

by Josh Hawkins (Staff Photographer, Wednesday Journal Newspapers, Chicago, Illinois)

I was never a fan of deleting in the field from the moment I went digital. I was told from when I first started photography to save everything. That wasn’t as successful when I shot slides, but, as much as possible, I saved everything. So the "save everything" philosophy of some of my colleagues when I went digital was a pretty easy sell for me.

A few years back I was asked to photograph a local camp-out night at a local park for the paper I work for. I went through getting shots of tents going up, and then on to the always-necessary shots of kids playing. I started shooting the kids and spaced out on adjusting my exposure settings for the first few shots. When I checked the LCD on my camera to check exposure and to see if I needed to get names, I saw that the images were over-exposed (flashing highlights all over the place) and motion-blurred—potentially usable shots wasted because I didn’t pay attention and set my camera how I normally would’ve. Or so I thought. I corrected my exposure and kept working my assignment.

The next day I was going through my take of this assignment, and came to my screw-up. With my computer in front of me I was able to take a closer look at the best of the images I thought I'd ruined. It was over-exposed, but not as badly as I had initially thought. And while it was definitely motion-blurred, it had sharp info in the one place I really needed it—the girl’s face.

The day before, I couldn’t see this. The Nikon D1h I was using as my main camera at the time has a limited zoom ability on the LED screen, so I couldn’t zoom in big enough on her face to see that it was the only thing that was sharp. While I was shooting, I had thought that the image was a total loss in several ways. If I had been in the habit of deleting in-camera, I would have deleted that shot, no question.

The picture certainly needed more work than normal in Photoshop to get it to a printable state, but it was do-able. The next Wednesday the paper went to press with it on page one. A few weeks later it was used for our four-color community guide cover.

Edit on the monitor
When that week was done I walked away with a reinforced belief that shooting and editing are different processes for different times—or, at least, if it has to happen at the same time, different people. One person (at least this person), doing both at once does neither well. And while I will certainly check what I'm getting in the field, final decisions I leave till a later date (unless an emergency comes up—then I’ll do in-camera edits as a bad choice among worse choices). I’m a big fan of good LCDs on cameras, but even the best are only half-decent for editing. A good monitor in a good environment is vital for making solid final choices. Editing in the field while trying to shoot just doesn’t work in my experience.

I’ve also discovered that I make my best editing choices after some time has passed—usually, in my case, a few months is ideal. The closer I am to the event I edit, the more emotion I still have involved in the event, and the stronger my memories. And while those memories are wonderful for me, they often don’t help me communicate my message better. A little time gives me some distance from the event and lets me look at it from a position more like that of my final viewer. That often helps me make better edits. I’ve found on more than one occasion the image before or after the one I first chose works a little better. Regardless, I like having the options available to me, and I like being able to change my mind.


Magazine cover reprinted with permission of Wednesday Journal Inc.


Blogger bokeh said...

I once made a forum comment about the inaccuracies of my camera's LCD for evaluating color and exposure, all I got was a lot of flack. In reality my pictures look better on my computer screen than they look on my camera and even better when burned on to a DVD slide show or printed. A lot of amateurs are judging their shots based on how they look on the LCD and complaining about the quality of their cameras. They should stop that. Also, if my printer and monitor and scanner need ICC profiles then why not my camera LCD???

8:47 AM  
Blogger Player said...

This is probably the most compelling example I've seen about why it's not wise to delete in the field.

Since shooting, to me, is very consuming, I have my hands full just doing the best job I can without adding another entirely DIFFERENT operation at the same time. You have to shoot first before you should be thinking about editing. Also, I think if a photographer is "in the moment," as he should be, the issue of editing in the field would never arise.

Nice blog!

8:56 AM  
Blogger Curtis Clegg said...

At the risk of irking the moderators I am going to re-post a link that I posted previously in the original blog entry about in-camera deleting, since the link illustrates such an important lesson for photojournalists.

Time magazine photographer Dirck Halstead writes in The Monica Lesson about the importance of saving old photographs. When the Monica Lewinsky story broke, Halstead remembered seeing her face somewhere, but he couldn't remember exactly where or when. After four days of research going through 4,000 slides, his researcher finally found the image that made one of Halstead's many covers of Time magazine. At the time digital storage was still quite an expensive proposition, and none of his digital counterparts archived any images they might have had of Monica Lewinsky at that 1996 fundraiser. Monica who?

9:11 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

I don't mind...Dirck's Monica story was important at the time and is one of the iconic, landmark stories of the early digital era, one which will definitely deserve a prominent place in the history of photography books of the future. Everybody with an interest in digital photography should know it.

Also, it's quite pertinent to the present discussion on the blog.


9:30 AM  
Blogger Will said...

OK, so after a few years now of hearing that one of the real (if not only) strengths of digital cameras is the ability of the pixelographer to get instant feedback - now you tell us that the LCD screen is nowhere near good enough to provide accurate feedback and should be ignored?

Think of all of the budding your digitalologists who have been forever crippled by using the LCD as the only way to review their work!

9:33 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"now you tell us that the LCD screen is nowhere near good enough to provide accurate feedback and should be ignored?"

I don't think anybody suggested it should be ignored. Information is only good for what it's good for, and we just need to keep that in mind. For instance, my 7D has a large LCD screen but the color is not very accurate and the contrast is a bit washed out. So I use it for checking focus (and of course general composition), use the histogram for exposure and ignore the color rendition of the LCD. All Josh was saying is that it's a mistake to edit using only the LCD screen, and bokeh said that you shouldn't use the LCD screen to judge the ultimate quality of your capture. Both of those things can be true without impying the that LCD review is useless.


9:48 AM  
Blogger m. said...

The LCD is great for figuring out whether or not you've got the composition you want, or for checking for obvious errors (lenscap on, exposure obviously wrong, thumb in frame). If not, and if the subject hasn't wandered off, then obviously I can take another shot.

The only time I do any editing on the camera is when I've been completely stupid and brought only one card. I refuse to say how often that happens.

10:36 AM  
Blogger stevierose said...

I'm glad to see that someone else has already mentioned the Halstead story about Lewinsky. I think that as far as photojounalism goes, it would probably make sense to avoid deleting files for a fairly long period of time if at all. The historical sigificance of a photograph may not be known for quite some time, maybe even more than one lifetime.

This brings me to what I think is an even larger issue in the digital age. Of late, I have been reading a lot of biographies and historical works. Almost all of these works draw heavily on letters and other contemperaneous correspondence later found in some attic or archive. We now live in an age of two extremes when it comes to preservation of communication, or the lack of it. On the one hand most people now correspond by email. Most email is not saved beyond a few months, if that, and even if it is saved it is saved on a hard drive or huge server some place that is: 1. unlikely to be readable in as little as a few years from now and 2. is unlikely to be available to researchers a century from now as the server or hard drive will have been destroyed by then (or buried in some landfill). On the other hand, public newsgroups/discussion groups end up being archived in databases like Google, so all of that (mostly drivel) about "which is better, Nikon of Canon" will probably persist to the next millenium.

Undoubtedly, the same is true of digital photographs, both professional and amateur. My Mom still has shoeboxes full of black and white photos of our family from the 40's and 50's. These persist because they are printed on paper, paper tends to get saved, and then someone finds it many years later and there it is. Now most people who shoot digital photographs just load them onto their computer, email them around, or perhaps put together an on line photo gallery. I think only a tiny fraction of photos now are printed by amateurs. I plead with all my friends to take their flash card down to Walgreens and print at least the keepers to stick in a shoe box. I photographic print is a real object that tends to persist. A computer file is ephemeral.

11:22 AM  
Blogger sbartlett said...

I was just reading "Winogrand: Figments from the Real World" in which Garry said that he preferred not to edit photos until at least two years had passed, so as to distance himself from any emotions he felt while taking the pictures. And here I was fed up with the two week wait for E6 processing by mail.

1:09 PM  
Blogger Alex Wilson said...

There are very few times I'll delete in-camera. In general it's just not worth it -- aside from the risk of removing a usuable image, it takes time to delete. Cards, harddrives, and backup media are all *very* cheap if you look at what saving a few extra files costs you.

1:12 PM  
Blogger JAM said...

As someone who is an amateur who switched to his first dSLR in June 2006 (Nikon D70s), I completely agree with the point of this post.

At first, I was reluctant to delete because, like with film, even a bad shot might have a decent photo in it with proper cropping.

But I learned really quick about the differences between the way film and slides "see" the world, the famous highlights and shadows roll-off, and the linear way digital imaging sensors handle the same situations.

Keeping everything until I can properly look at it on a good computer screen was a no-brainer until I re-learned how to get proper exposure with my particular camera.

The only things I have ever deleted on site, on the camera, were ones in which the subject had their eyes closed and it was obviously a bad shot, even on the camera screen.

As an amateur, I rarely shoot situations where I'll fill up my 2GB card, so it's easier for me to resist the urge to "make room" by deleting from the camera.

Great article. I'm glad you ended up with a great shot with your camera set wrong.

1:13 PM  
Blogger Aaron Britton said...

In a recent trip to Vancouver, BC, I was photographing the beach and a blue heron. It was my last day in Vancouver and I was at the end of my memory capacity. At that point I had to decide whether to delete or not to delete, photos based off of the LCD screen on the camera. What made the situation even worse where the lighting conditions. I was not positive on my exposure, and had been bracketing all of my shots. It was a hard place to be but I decided too delete the photos that had been under exposed the most based off of the histogram. I was lucky in choosing the right ones to delete, because the over exposed photos were the ones that came out the best. If I had deleted the over exposed photos I would of never known the greatest potential for these photos. But, at the same time if I had not deleted some of the under exposed images I would not of had room to photograph the shots that were the best.

It was a big Catch 22. I was lucky in making the right choice. But, I try and not paint myself in a corner like that. And like m. says I refuse to say how many times that has happened to me.

3:55 PM  
Blogger plabby said...

There was one time I was forced to delete...I was working a red carpet with at the MTV awards one year and this smoking hot girl comes on and does a practical strip tease for press row, nobody knew who she was, but everyone was hosing the doris. We were trying to nail down her name for the caption by doing a little chimping, and a few seconds later we notice something in the photos that shouldn't be there... an adam's apple.

Turns out the tranny punked the media. Nothing against trannies (this one was hot), but those photos had to go, I can't say I regret it.

7:15 PM  
Blogger robert e said...

Jumping in late, mostly just to compliment Josh Hawkins on a terrific shot.

Sounds to me like in-camera deleting is simply a new and convenient way of second-guessing oneself. And a reminder that even state of the art technology and technique can't protect us from ourselves.

As a film-shooting amateur, I've lost many shots by "correcting" or overruling my instincts because I knew better. For example, not pursuing something interesting because the light was not ideal or not enough, or deciding that my exposure settings were not "by the book" and correcting them, or the lens or film were wrong, etc. Perhaps more generally, I could call it the overzealous inner critic telling me that there's no way this can work and stop wasting our time.

Yet it sometimes turns out that my first attempts are more interesting and closer to successful than my later, more "correct" and thought-out frames, and certainly better than the non-frames I had after aborting the project.

1:07 PM  

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