How to Edit Your Photographs, the Simple 5 Step Way

Just as with writing the process of editing photographs is a process of rejection that leaves only the essential to be seen. However, an emotional attachment to the images or words can often result in bad choices being made. Editing requires a sense of detachment to ensure objective decision making, which is why it is so much easier for someone not attached to the work to provide an objective edit. However, if you don’t have that person at hand you are going to have to edit your own work, a skill that can be learnt, but which is not quick to master. I always say that the more work you look at by others the better you get at editing your own work and I think that remains true today.

Whether you are editing one day’s work, a body of work or a collection of work for a portfolio or website for me the rules remain the same. There is a process that I follow and it is one that I have been implementing in editing since the late 1980s as an art director and photographer. It is simple and methodical and I am going to share it with you here now.

Step 1: Look through all of the work and identify themes. These should be broad themes associated to approach (close-up, mid-length, full-length), format (portrait or landscape), aesthetic (colour, black and white). You can add your own themes based on subject matter.

Step 2: Move these images into separate folders each named with the theme you have chosen and place these folders into an umbrella folder titled ‘Edit’.

Step 3: Edit each theme on the basis of technical and compositional success. This does not mean that you should reject images that evidence grain, movement, light flare etc, just images that don’t work within your own visual language. Then move the most successful images into a new folder titled ‘Edit 1’, ensuring that you do not fill the ‘Edit 1’ folder with lots of images that are too similar; reject repetition. This process needs to be honest and in a sense brutal, rejecting images that you may ‘like’ but not necessarily for the right reasons. Financial and emotional attachments to an image must be put aside at this stage.

Step 4: Consider the images in the edit folder on the basis of narrative and intention. Reject images at this stage that do not fit into the narrative or meet a client/personal expectation. It is at this point that you should begin to see the images as a cohesive body of work.

Step 5: Create a new folder titled ‘Final Edit’ and place the remaining images in this folder. You can always return to the ‘Edit’ or ‘Edit 1’ folders at a later date if you want to reconsider your edit and return to the theme based folders if you feel the final edit is missing an image you intended it to have. However, do not add images to your final edit just because it is missing something. If you have rejected all of your close-up images for example by rejecting what you have, you know that what you have is not good enough and that you will have to improve in that area of your practice.

Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.

© Grant Scott 2023

Images: © Dafydd Jones


  1. Hi Grant, You may recall that we talked briefly in Bristol at the RPS Historical Group event. I’m sure you will be aware that there are some photographers who regard altering a photograph in even the most marginal way as a crime so heinious that a slow death is a fate too kind for the perpetrator. In which case I will undoubtedly slowly roast in hell for all eternity. However, I was delighted to read in Svetlana Alpers’ excellent book om Walker Evans, one of my great heroes that he edited his work quite often in dramatic fashion depending on how the work was to be used e.g in an exhibition or in such as Fortune magazine. Your advice is excellent and a great reminder that what comes out of the camera whether analogue or digital is simply the start point not an end in itself. Best wishes for 2023.

    1. I do remember Donald but in this case to edit is being used in it’s professional sense to choose an image not to manipulate or alter an image best Grant

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