10 things learned from being a photo editor

Well there's no earth shattering news here, I created a photography magazine with a good friend of mine, Don Springer. When it started, all I was was a cocky graphic designer, but now I guess I can't escape it, I guess I am also an editor, amongst other things. Needless to say, I've also grown a lot, so in the spirit of sharing here's 10 lessons learned from the adventure.


The following are 10 things learned while doing the magazine. It's a mix of tips, insights, reflexions, or plain observations that have been on my mind for a while. I must also say that these are MY observations, and might not reflect someone elses, so without further adieu….



1) Don't get stuck on clichés


Even before stumbling on Da Vinci's systems thinking, one thing I was always acute to was patterns. And let me tell you, looking at hundreds and hundreds of images for the magazine, I noticed certain patterns so often, I can safely call them clichés. Not to bash on landscape shooters, here's one of the most over photographed places on earth IMHO. From Google, I searched for Antilope canyon:




Catch my point? But see while many dismiss clichés, I believe everyone should make them but use them appropriately. See for every one of these images above whoever the photographer is, he/she is HAPPY because THEY made the image, and even if a good picture is cliché, it's different if it's YOUR good picture.


But I believe that once the cliché has been done with, one should improve over it, as it's just a stepping stone. I think the greatest crime is for a photographer to become a cliché of him or herself, that's called complacency. Some folks just don't get pass the cliché phase, so they are yet another photographer in a sea of photographers.


But if you think about it, one of the most successful companies Apple, turned something cliché (computers) into something much more, a beautiful object with all the available resources that were available to everyone. So the cliché is only a cliché if it is always presented the same way. Here's an image I made for our Instagram that embodies how to break free:


if you always shoot


And I believe this is the essence of the cliché: Same world seen in the same way. There's this scene in Dead Poets Society when Mr Kitting (Robin Williams) asks all the students to stand up on their tables, the lesson was: Change your perspective. And it's once you do that that you can get images like this:




I wouldn't avoid clichés, I think they are integral to the creative process. You can't break the rules if you don't know what they are in the first place. So shoot all the clichés you want, but know that they are clichés, a stepping stone to a better version of your images.


2) Consistency is what to strive for




Without a doubt, the photographers that stand out in the magazine are those who are consistent. Consistent in their style, their subject matter, their Vision. It shows maturity and they really stand amongst the crowd without much effort. It's like a clean room vs a messy room, which is more attractive?


Now of course everyone is on different levels and it's ok not to be consistent as a beginner, as it's the discovery phase, but I think always having the question “does this represent what I want for my photography?” must be asked at any level, as it will help be more intentional in consistency.


There's a weird sense of trustworthiness that comes from consistent photographers, in a sense you trust them more and in your mind they are better then if their images were all over. I think this is due to the brain's bias towards consistency, rhythm and patterns, it's why refrains in music works!


3) Egos and skills




I've met quite a few folks that made the fundamental mistake of tying their ego to their photography. In the course of a few years I've had to deal with people who REAAALLY think they're something amazing when their images are as average as you can get. I've met originally humble people that ended up treating me or Don like dirt when a sudden windfall of fame hit. My takeaway is that for some people when you're dealing with photography you are dealing with their egos.


Alternatively, I've dealt with people who have absolutely NO IDEA how AWESOME their images are and are so humble. When you naturally stand out by your skills without any pretense, people will applaud you; when you force people to look at you because you think you're so AWESOME!1! and your not….that's when you see people will not hesitate to dump all over you.




I've seen many personalities get attacked online and all they have in common is one simple word: Pretenciousness. And the weird thing is, many times the more pretentious some are, the blander their photography is. Plus for some reason, the more pretention, the more fluff involved. I've seen a guy saying that his website was an “International website”, I was dumbfounded. Think about it, what website isn't?


I personally believe in humility, I don't pretend to be something or someone I'm not. And I believe it's something photographers should take to heart, not only people want to help you more if you are nice and humble, but you won't feel like you need to defend anything because you didn't pretend you had anything in the first place.


4) How to sequence your images


Every issue I get about 20 images or so from every photographer and featurees, it's my task to organize them into a coherent whole. There's too much to talk about here so jump to How to edit and sequence your images for the stuff I learned while on the task.



5) Words matter too


If there's one thing I really do not like receiving as a mag editor, it's one line answers, especially from folks with good images. It's such a let down in my opinion and a great opportunity is wasted. Yes, I fully agree that an image stands on it's own, regardless if the photographer is a talker or not. But I don't think one can fully divorce images from the one who made them. Because think about it, what do you do after you see a brand new photographer's work that you just find stunning? Well you track them down and try to see what they are about. You want to know about THEM after you see their work…..




The most interesting folks I've seen in the magazine had interesting things to say and interesting images. Even those with average images who were interesting in their words were interesting! I think it is useful to be an articulate photographer, it makes your work appear much more interesting. One great example is Steiglitz, he had some abstract images of clouds. And when a repporter asked him, is that pictures of clouds? He said: “More importantly, How do they make you feel?” (Epissima vox) . Just like Steiglitz, you can change the perception of the viewer and make your images seen in a new light.


6) Reverse the 80/20 inspiration


The 80/20 rule states that 20% of the input accounts for 80% of the output (approximatively). So you can say for example that 80% of the world's ressources are used up by 20% of the population, etc. In the magazine we have a question about inspiration, and 20% of the same names account for 80% of the inspiration. Chief amongst the usual suspects is Henri Cartier Bresson.


The problem is, if we all share the same inspiration, there's a high chance that similarities will ensue. So reverse the 80/20 inspiration, go for the other, lesser known but just as good photographers (or other artists) for inspiration, you'll get a breath of fresh air. I've seen some great work done and the inspiration behind it wasn't popular photographers, it was other photographers I never heard of.


7) The importance of Inspiration as part of the process




One day I received one of the best comments for the Magazine: “one of a handful of Magazine in my fourthy odd years that has really impacted me”, you see I believe there's 3 main ways to grow as a photographer: Learn about photography, Go out and shoot and get Inspired. And I believe this reader stumbled on number 3.


Lots of folks do the first two but they dismiss the inspiration, but the funny thing is, many from Henri Cartier Bresson to unknown photographers are who they are as photographers directly BECAUSE of Inspiration. Bresson saw a shot of African kids running on a beach and that inspired him to give up painting, Kertesz seemed to have been a sustaining inspiration when he said “We all owe something to Kertesz”; Ansel Adams got inspired from the drawings of National Parks while a sickly child in bed.


I think many dismiss Inspiration because it's in a sense, passive, you don't really DO anything; while when you learn new techniques and shoot, you are active. But it begs the question, how active can you be without feeding yourself? Well that's what inspiration is: Food for your photography. Sometimes it starts a journey, or reinvigorates it. Plus there's something about seeing others working hard and well that makes you in turn want to do the same. I used to dismiss inspiration but now I believe it is an integral part of the creative process.


8) You can be a better photographer (than you actually are)




If there is one master keyword from my background as a graphic designer, it's that perception is everything. And I mean it. In a sense perception is greater than truth because people will act on a perception of a truth rather than the truth itself. Let's take an example from the music industry.


Let me ask you which headphones are better, Beats headphones or a $5 average pair? You are going to say Beats, right? Well actually, no, they are pretty much the same inside. You see, you THINK Beats is better, it's much more expensive, it has a better design, better branding, they added weights so it appears that they are worth $200 while a $5 pair is inferior. But when both headphones are torn down, they are the same.


In the same vein, there's a pretty famous wine test where people were asked which one tasted better, an expensive while or a $5 bottle. The expensive one got raving reviews, while the cheap wine got poopooed over….not knowing that they were both the same inexpensive wine. Here's a fact: The PERCEPTION that this was expensive wine MADE the wine taste better than it actually was. Just like those with Beats will enjoy theirs better.




Onto photography. What's the difference between a picture that is aimed for the dumpster and a prized possession photograph? Simple: Perception. A guy found a Kertesz print in storage, and it went from average $20 picture you can find anywhere to a real treasure because the owner's perception of the photograph changed. I'm sure when people see the image now they are in awe, while before it was average as it was broken and worthless.


So what does that mean? Make yourself look better as a photographer and Voilà! Your images will immediately look better. Polish yourself up, make a nice sleek website, get a nice logo, make sure everything around your images look as good as what's in the images. It's all about how people perceive you and what you do, and while it might first appear as deception, remember that the brain will actually MAKE the viewer feel more when viewing your photos. It's something that is drilled home every time I layout a photographer's work. At the beginning, I'm always like “This is not going to look good”, but when I finish the feature in the mag, I'm like “DAaaaaMn that looks good”. Perception, baby, perception!


9) How to get a divorce: Perception of one's work




We've seen above how a viewer's perception changes according to how you present yourself. But perception doesn't stop there, there's also perception of you own work, an let me be blunt, while you can pick out the good ones and the bad ones, there's about 20% you will probably over or undervalue. I pick up on the images that I know that I know that I know that the photographer REALLY likes but is for all intents and purposes, average.


The trick is to get a divorce from your work and remove any emotional connection with it. The best way to do that is to simply let your images stand in the card or the computer for a while without looking at them. I personally go for months without dumping my memory card (when it's not a job of course) and I am a much better judge at what I see because the high of making the image is gone and the association that was there with the image is long gone.




Images are a reality unto themselves, independent of where it was made, like a painting is. And being too close to the image prevents us from seeing the possibilities that could be because we are still stuck with the where/when/what of the image, it's hard to separate it from reality when is was freshly made from reality. The potential of an image can be better seen when it has been forgotten.


10) As a man thinketh: The perception of one's self


One key phrase that comes over and over in many interviews it's how many struggle to call themselves photographers. This is again perception, but perception of one's self image. Here's the thing, perception of the self drives action. There's a sad story related by a pastor, he asked a woman why do you let guys use you like that, she said “I am a bad girl and it's what bad girls do”, she did as she perceived herself to be.


If you perceive yourself to be the kind of person that is adventurous, you'll suddenly start going off the beathen path; if you perceive yourself as being lazy, the remote seems so far away doesn't it? In my opinion some shooters hinder their photography needlessly by hesitating to call themselves a photographer and embracing it. Who's brain do you think is more ready to shoot great images? The photographer that thinks they are a photographer or the photographer that thinks they are not a photographer?




At the end of the day, watch your self talk…”I'm not a photographer”, “I'm not good”, “I'll never reach my goal”…all of this is gear towards failure as a photographer, like a self fulfilling prophecy. Negative self talk needs to be replaced by positive reframing “This isn't a good shot, but I'm learning everyday and this is better than last time”. It's been proven that positive reinforcement works much better than negative reinforcement, so if you are prone to negativity (Like I was), you might be the one holding yourself back.



It's been a fun few years being a photo editor and here's to many more. I hope you've gained some insight into photography with the help of my point of view as an editor. It's a privilege to be entrusted with someone's photograph and it is my responsibility to present that person's work in the best way possible. I've got a family and many other obligations, so i don't shoot that much but that doesn't mean I'm stagnant, a you can see with the 10 points above. Did you find any points interesting? Let me know in the comments. be yourself, stay focused an keep on shooting.


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24 thoughts on “10 things learned from being a photo editor”

  1. Really useful article thanks. You are developing an insight that I much appreciate you sharing. I have recently subscribed to your magazine even though I don’t see myself as a street shooter ( lack people skills- too shy- like landscapes more), but by looking at a different genre one can change perspective on their own style while applying it to another. I love the photos taken in this article. I think I have been too hung up with full dynamic range, rather than turning a limitation of the photo system into a strength as these photos have – dark and with impact introducing something the eye doesn’t see. Thanks again for a wonderful article- so good to read something new that hasn’t been said a thousand times before.

  2. For me and my photography, it is almost a new world you are guiding to with your article. Since I restarted photography seriously a few years ago, I regularey get the feeling of a lack of inspiration. I am not a street photography type; I prefer macros of plants, abstracts, landscapes, moods and some other subjects that do not need to be asked for beeing photographed or require some sort of (human) interaction. I try to aspire for simplicity too, but again the lack of inspiration always catches up on me. Your article is truly accurate in exposing my “deficits.” On a more prosaic level, I also have to admit that I am simply limited in my time to develop my photography. As a full time professional in a field without any connection to photography or creativity, I cannot go out shooting as much and when I would like to. But I keep reading your great articles!

  3. All I can say is thanks a lot Olivier.
    Since a couple of months I’m subscribed to this articles that you send by mail and they are really nutritive for me as a photographer.
    Every point that you mention here is interesting and everyone out there should consider them to keep improving!

  4. I was a photo editor for many years and studied under Wilson Hicks. One thing I learned from the experience is that there a lot of awful photographs out there taken by people who think they are great.

    1. You must have had a killer education! That’s indeed the reality, sadly. That’s why my personal philosophy is never to be pretentious, because if you don’t claim to be anything, you can’t be held to any standard.

  5. Thanks for another great article. I’ll be reading it more than once, as I tend to come away with something different each time. I always find your images arresting, probably because they are not clichés, but I also find some of them quite challenging. It would be good if you could occasionally say more about why you have chosen them and what appeals to you about them. For people like me who are still struggling to develop their own unique style and who often find it hard to take inspiration from their surroundings, it would be really helpful.

  6. Before I left Tokyo, I took a weekend workshop with Bruce Gilden. He’s notoriously famous for speaking his mind about people’s photography. He will quite literally tell you your work is bad if that’s what he thinks (thankfully he did not). He reviewed my portfolio and in the presence of someone this successful, you are truly humbled. But I think this is how we should always feel. His style has inspired countless others and I think very few people can get away with judging others work so harshly. But as he said too, honing a style is definitely one of the most important things a photographer can do if they’re serious about their art.

    His critiques at times were harsh but also very direct and useful, and in the end quite encouraging. But he called several images in our group cliche and tossed them to the floor. I agree, I think cliche shots have a role in the beginning when you’re learning how to shoot, but after awhile, you simply need to do away with them if you want to improve and stand out. As far as Antelope Canyon, I agree, almost every shot looks the same, it’s kinda ridiculous. But even if I went there, I’d probably enjoy the shots I get. It’s simply a matter of recognizing what’s cliche; that’s the important distinction. The ego seems to make you think things are good when in fact they’re not that great. I feel this happens especially when people are so fixated upon mastering the technical aspect of photography.

  7. Great article. I stumbled upon this site just moments ago looking for some guidance on how to use a 28mm lens that was my grandfathers. The tutorial was fantastic and opened my eyes up to the fact that this is a lens I’ve needed all along for the landscapes I strive for with my new found passion for photography. Of course that article lead me to this one and broadened my perspective even further. While I’m still starting out (picked up a DSLR about a year ago) I’ve fallen victim to the cliche shots. While imitation may be the highest form of flattery, I’m still struggling to find my own style, as I try to emulate other shots and locations I seen regularly on IG and online. Even harder is truly accepting myself as a photographer. I love it but always convince myself its a hobby, but I’ve always been captivated by images and how they make me feel. Time to finally admit the truth… I am a photographer.

    Thanks for opening my eyes a little wider and allowing me to establish a new mantra. Its a breath of fresh air to finally see a site with more to offer than a short essay on the thirds rule or great shots with no backstory or bio. While this may be my first visit to the site, it surely won’t be my last. Cheers.

    1. Hey Alex, thanks! I try my best to indeed provide some fresh new perspective on things while others rehash stuff. In order to find your own style, I would start questioning my own work, see where I want to go with it, what attracts me the most and go from there 🙂 Cheers

  8. I always enjoy the blog and features, but agree with Len that the content would be improved by intervention of a good editor as well as copy editor. The current lack diminishes readability and impact of the clearly well thought out topics. Hit me up – I have been a professional writer and editor for more than a decade. Good luck with the move.

  9. I’m getting better at my issues and this article will help me get over some others. I never call myself a photographer just a hobbyist and that maybe be a my biggest issues. However, I know how hard it is to please others and they their are people working hard to make a living at it. So, I have my “no option” being a hobbyist. You’re trying to get something for free, I say no unless I want that experience shooting that subject. I love the part on inspiration I look at lesser known photographer but also the perception of masters photographer and painters. I have several photo share accounts because I am such a big fan of others work. That was more about me than I wanted to talk about but the bottom line is I appreciate this article and it was my food for thought and inspiration.

  10. Oliver, what a great article! Some of your key points really hit home. All deserve serious reflection. The Inspired Eye should be on every photographers must read list.

  11. Great article, indeed, Oliver. You and Don are doing a fantastic job. A couple of things that REALLY stuck out for me are the number of lousy photos out there and the cliches. One of my pet peeves is seeing a picture with someone holding an umbrella in it . Personally, I think that has been way over done. Keep up the good work. Thanx!

  12. Consistency is what to strive for. That is not for me. The world around us is not consistent, so do I.

    I do not want to be a better photographer, I want better chances.

  13. Pingback: 10 cose che puoi imparare da un photo editor - Foto Come Fare

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