Don’t mistake this location for Liberty Island. Image © Jain Lemos.

Continuing with my blog series, The Ultimate Guide to Producing Documentary Books, let’s talk about editing images. Americans love to create standards for everything from music notation to television formats. When it comes to editing images, what frame you choose is completely subjective. Your personal perception is what’s in play. Still, there are good practices and systems to follow and I’m going to make some suggestions.

When I was working with director Sir Alan Parker on editing the still images from Evita for our making-of book, we basically shut ourselves off from the world for a very long day. Photo editor Lisa Moran, Alan and I had more than 500 gorgeous images by David Appleby and a goal to cut these down to about 120 selects for a 112 page book. A few days before we met, we had small prints made of each image. When we gathered for editing, we cleared out a large hotel room so we could work on the floor.

Our approach was to isolate each scene in order of the film’s story. We started stacking images in piles and then rows. We then went back through each pile and tried to agree on one representative image. Soon, overflow piles turned up with images we didn’t want to totally eliminate. At some point, we were back into the reject stacks asking each other why we tossed out a perfectly good frame.

By the end of the day, I was on the phone to Harper Collins HQ asking for another signature and, thankfully, we got those 16 extra pages. We just couldn’t cut any more photos no matter how hard we tried. Somehow by dark we finished and to our complete joy, here was the book laid out in front of us on that room’s scuffled carpet. Our eyes took in the entire book’s flow and we knew we’d accomplished a big task.

These days, we tend to edit on monitors. If possible, I still like the method of having prints made (even inkjet prints are fine) and then using floors and walls to visually sort through the images. The ability to quickly try images in alternate positions and groupings makes the process much more fluid and spontaneous. Having a small team focus on the editing without interruption is highly recommended, too. Working in batches by situation or scene is the way to go. You’ll also be setting aside shots to be considered for the cover and marketing materials.

For books where multiple photographers are shooting, I like to assign photo editors to a few shooters each to make things more manageable. Depending on the number of photos slated for the pages, give your editors a specific goal so they are aware they need to present a certain number of images into the final selection batch. The more details they have about what they are looking for within the take, the easier their job will be. If your writer has provided good outline information make sure the photo editors are aware of it so they can follow the text flow with visuals. Some books might require two or three editing days coordinated in phases to accomplish everything.

My next topic is Sequencing the Book, which combines putting the final images into their right places for your documentary. Until then, you can watch wave after wave of one million rose petals raining on the Statue of Liberty. I am not sure it turned out exactly as planned…