How to Edit Your Documentary Photo Project and What to Ask Yourself Before Starting

Photo by Dana Ullman from the series Another Kind of Prison used with permission.

While it may sound precocious to discuss what to do before starting a documentary photo project then jump into its final edit, bare with me. The point is that preparation before you pick up your camera is just as crucial to your photo story as your final presentation, and you should keep both in mind throughout the shooting and editing.

Telling the story

A documentary photo story needs a visual flow from beginning to end–just as a written story has an introduction, supporting facts or ideas, and conclusion, but translated into a visual context. Unlike selecting a single image used in a news story that summarizes an event, you offer the viewer to dig in deeper into your subject and see a wider picture; to get to know the subject from their personal perspective or an issue in a more intimate way. You have the creative freedom to choose how to present your story, and it is up to you to responsibility construct it with empathy and compassion, while still remaining true and factual to the story.

Photo by Dana Ullman from the series Another Kind of Prison used with permission

Before you begin, ask yourself:

1. What do I really want to shoot? Put the camera aside, sit down with pen and paper and brainstorm ideas. Ask yourself, what are my passions and interests? Sometimes just seeing the words on paper can make this clearer. Narrow the list down to what is realistic for you both long and short term; considering your options as far as traveling, personal and time constraints. Don’t set yourself up for failure by stating you will photograph every homeless person in New York City or document living in a nudist colony for two years if you have no desire to fully live that lifestyle. If you feel stuck, go through your images and ask yourself what you enjoy shooting the most.

2. Why does this matter to me and what is the point? You may very well care about climate change, but just find yourself deeply curious about the life of a female boxer, or the late night party scene in rural neighborhoods. Choosing a subject or topic you love is so important because your genuine interest will determine how dedicated you will be to the project, how excited you will be to keep shooting, and the commitment you will make to creating an outstanding visual documentary. Whether your story is to increase funding for public schools or simply build your portfolio, determining your goals to keep you on track.

3. Who or what do I know already that I can work with? Often times the best story you can tell is close to home, both geographically and emotionally. Focusing on an issue or subject “in your own backyard” can often yield the most intimate story because you are already familiar with it in ways that outsiders are not, while also making it realistic to go back often to continue shooting and evolving the story. Once you have the topic of your story compile a list of contacts you have already. Share your project with friends and people in your community – you may discover the clerk at your local corner store has a tie to the Yemen community you wish to cover and can put you in contact with people you would never reach from a Google search. Explain to them the intentions of your project and your interest, and be honest.

4 Has it been done before? If so, how can I photograph and present it in a new way? Do some research online to see what photography is already out there on the subject or issue. If your topic is broad, pick an angle to dig deeper. Maybe your story idea on animal shelters in Brooklyn had been done already, so why not try Staten Island where there may be a few shelters that have not been documented? Or narrow your focus even smaller and stick to one shelter only, working directly with a couple contacts who can allow you all access to shoot when other shelters may not. Write out a list of potential moments to keep an eye out for, adjusting this as you continue working with your subject.

5. How much time can I invest in this project? If you are on a trip away from home for your story, be prepared to make multiple trips back and keep in contact with your subjects so they don’t forget you. If you can only shoot on weekends, start with a project you can fit into your schedule that won’t be overwhelming. Each time you set out with your camera to photograph, remind yourself of your purpose so that you can look for these moments as they present themselves.

6. Do I want to include a written story with the images? While it is true that good visual storytelling images should speak for themselves, consider the information you can add to your story by including quotes from individuals and background text on the subject. If you don’t feel comfortable doing your own writing, try anyways or collaborate with a writer to work with you. The writer can be collecting quotes and facts, while you focus on making images. Also having another person invested in your project will help to bounce off ideas and keep you motivated.

7. How do I know when I am done shooting? Many variables will affect how much time you have to access your subject and keep shooting. If you are working on a project away from home and only intend to stay for one week, your story still needs an end. If you intent to return to the same location or issue many times – maybe multiple times for an ongoing project, you have time to cull the images, go back and shoot again, waiting for new elements to appear. You never know when a key subject in your story will unexpectedly leave or stop answering your calls, so shoot any opportunity as if it may be your last because the ending may be chosen for you.

How to edit your story

Photo by Dana Ullman from the series Another Kind of Prison used with permission

So you shot your story. Before putting together your story edit, go back and review what you wrote about the project in the beginning. Review and remind yourself throughout the project, as to what you are shooting and why; asking yourself what each image adds to the story in relation to the bigger story.

In professional Journalism writing, an article should include the Five W’s and one H: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. I’ll add to that Who Cares? This guideline comes in handy also when shooting and editing your photo story. While you may not be able to visually show all of these, keeping them in mind will help you in your process of telling a complete story.

Photo by Gretchen Robinette from the series Election Results

How many images will you include? It should be at least 10, but 20 – 30 may be needed to tell the story. Depending on how long term your project is, you may be working with a week of shooting or 6 months. Go through all the images, and edit down to a wide selection. Then, with each image chosen, ask yourself how it adds to the story. Certain images will be needed to tell the story, such as detail shots and overviews that give a sense of place and time. Some of these images may not tell the story as stand-alone images, yet are crucial when used in the context of the story. This probably will cut your edit down.

Next, take your new edit and have small prints made, lay them out on the floor or tack to a wall and view them. There is nothing quite as rewarding as seeing all of your images and hard work together in actual print form as opposed to clicking thru on a computer monitor. You can move them around, toss some prints out, add some back and play around until you find a natural visual flow. Maybe the crucial exterior shot or portrait you have is good but could be better. If you have the option of returning (this is when shooting a local story has its advantage) go back and reshoot it at night or sunset. Don’t let yourself settle after all this hard work.

Photo by Gretchen Robinette from the ongoing series on New York City Protests

Now step back. If you are invested in your photo project, as you should be, you will have scanned over the images so many times your eyes will gloss over. You need to separate yourself from everything you saw when shooting. Put the images away for a few days and revisit the edit with a fresh eye. It is hard as photographers to let go of certain frames that are beautiful images on their own but are not adding to the story. It doesn’t matter how hard it was for you to get a certain shot or how difficult the lighting situation was, no one knows this or cares. All anyone sees are the images.

Ask a few people to view the images and give an honest constructive critique. Your best friend may say,”Oh all of them are amazing you are such a good photographer!” While this may be true, chances are asking photo editors and photographers to view your story with an understanding of the editing process will be far more valuable than a pat on the back. You will likely hear things you didn’t expect as you present your story for the first time; it might even hurt. But this is good. If they can’t figure out what the story is about, your wider audience won’t be able to either, so practice on a couple people you trust before presenting it to the world. Ultimately it is your story, so consider the advice but stay true to your vision in the final edit. Trust your gut.