Editing Basics: what does this image need?

Brunnich's Guillemot colony at Alkefjellet, Svalbard, Norway

Brunnich’s Guillemot colony at Alkefjellet, Svalbard, Norway

I’ve been looking at pictures the better part of my life. I began serious photography when I was 16, later studied it in college, then worked for years as a photo researcher for a top adventure photographer and then at a photo agency that specialized in travel imagery. I’ve seen millions of images, and spent an awful lot of time thinking about why some pictures “work” and others don’t. So much time in fact, that it’s usually just an automatic process that happens in the background, one I’ve pretty much ceased thinking about consciously.

But I do remember when I was starting out spending hours and hours looking  at images (my own and other people’s) trying to figure out what was missing, what would make the image come together. It might seem like an utterly precious navel-gazing exercise, but if you want to become a better photographer, it’s absolutely essential.

So when you’re looking at your images, there are a few things you need to ask yourself:

  • What is the image about?
  • Does it convey that?
  • Are there too many distractions?
  • Does it have all the details it needs?

There is more of course, but I’ll leave that for a later post.

Let’s break down this image and think about these questions one by one.

What’s the image about?

This is a bird colony on a high cliff in Svalbard, Norway. So, it’s about birds. But more specifically, it’s about thousands of birds. So the picture needs to show a — forgive my language– shit-ton of birds. I have several images from this location that show a million blobs in the sky, the trick was finding one where some of the birds in the background actually have a distinctive bird shape so that it would instantly read as “bird” not “blob on lens”.


Does it convey that?

I think so… I chose this image specifically due to the numbers of birds in the sky, and if you look more closely at the cliff you can see bunches of birds there crowded on the ledges. It helps that the rocks are a brownish color and not dark gray – if they were gray it would be almost impossible to make out the birds nesting there.

Does it have too many distractions?

This image is very slightly cropped from the original.  I had a bit too much water in the foreground and I felt that it was causing the composition to seem imbalanced. There are lots of ways to think about composition, but controlling how viewers move their eyes through the image is a useful one. Changing the internal dynamics of the picture changes that. You can do this by either framing carefully when making the image, cropping it later, or a combination of both. I generally shoot very tightly, because I learned how to photograph shooting slides. When shooting slide film, what you see is what you get. Any branch or out of focus rock is there and you cannot get rid of it later, so you learn how to see those things in the frame and recompose the image until they’re no longer there. I personally think its a good exercise to do this all the time, to spend one quick moment running your eye along the edges of the frame to look for anything distracting and recompose if possible to remove it. You don’t want to have to spend hours later cropping everything you shoot, and it’s a good way to train your eye to see these things more clearly.

Does it have enough detail?

I chose this picture over others simply due to the photo-bombing guillemot on the foreground. It was just chance that I captured that, but that is one of the reasons I snap a dozen (thirteen to be precise) images in this kind of situation; hoping for that kind of luck. The zodiacs are there to give the image a sense of scale, and the yellow and red parkas also help liven up the image.



If you want to read more about photography and learn about pre-visualizing how images will look, read Galen Rowell’s excellent book, “Galen Rowell’s Vision: The Art of Adventure Photography

Sneak Peek: Svalbard!

I’ve just returned home from my most recent adventure, to the land of the midnight sun* in arctic Norway. I’m still editing pictures, but wanted to be able to share a few images from the trip. There are many more to come. We had fantastic weather, and saw a wide variety of wildlife.

Atlantic Puffins, Fjortende Julibukta, Svalbard, Norway

Atlantic Puffins, Fjortende Julibukta, Svalbard, Norway

We saw quite a lot of birds, but everyone’s favorite is always the puffin. I’d seen them before in Iceland, but I never really knew the way they hop around on these cliffs — it’s as if they don’t quite know how to walk, so just improvise something to get some forward locomotion. It’s adorable.


Rich tundra at Varsolbukta, Bellsund, Svalbard, Norway.

Rich tundra at Varsolbukta, Bellsund, Svalbard, Norway.

The tundra here at Vardsolbukta was incredibly rich and varied – several species of tiny flowering plants, mosses of a half a different shades of green, various lichens and such. The ground in places was like walking on pillows, the moss was so soft. It felt really strange. Things take forever to decompose in the arctic, so there are all sorts of bones and reindeer antlers, skeins of shed reindeer fur and various feathers lying around to be studied. It’s the kind of place you want to walk around bent over at the waist so you don’t miss anything.

Polar bear on the drift ice in the Hinlopen Strait, Svalbard, Norway.

Polar bear on the pack ice in the Hinlopen Strait, Svalbard, Norway.

And of course: a polar bear! The trip would not have been complete without one…. in the end we saw seven, a very unusual number. This one was particularly photogenic in the bright sunshine and sporting a healthy sleek coat.

There really is something incredibly special about seeing a huge predator like this in the wild. There is that little chest-tightening frisson of excitement the moment you spot it: ” *gasp* BEAR!” — even more exciting if the bridge has not announced its presence yet.

There are many more images to come, including some surprises — things I never would have expected to see on a trip like this.

*A note on the “midnight sun” — I’ve never really experienced this before. What it really is could best be described as: “noon all the time” — there is essentially no modulation in the strength of the sun at any time of day. If the sun is out its at the same height in the sky all the time. Most disconcerting. Bring an eye mask. A good one.

North to Adventure!


I’m leaving today for a very exciting trip to Svalbard, Norway — north of the Arctic circle, to travel around the islands and hopefully, hopefully see a polar bear in the wild. Bonus points for walrus, beluga and NARWAL! As you can see in the image above, I will not be seeing any night.

When I land in Longyearbyen, I will be north of the Arctic circle in the same year that I’ve traveled south of the Antarctic circle. I’d be crowing about my achievement, except now I know (at least) three others doing the same! Two are working on the expedition ships, and another is a passenger like me who’s traveling to the North Pole this summer.

North and South

I will definitely be posting as much as I can to instagram so please keep an eye out for that.