Unleash the hidden power of great picture editing

A top-quality picture editor can elevate your content in a saturated market. As John Kilpatrick, picture editor at Progressive Content, explains, the wrapping on the present is as vital as what’s in the box

This article was first published on this site at the start of 2016 as a celebration of the value picture editing can add to your content. As the year comes to an end, and the amount of content available increases still further, now seems an opportune moment to shine a light once more on the power of imagery.

When experts at AT&T invented the world’s first charge-coupled device (CCD) – those widgets that sense light and turn them into electronic images – they unbottled a digital genie. Since it escaped in 1969 and began to awaken, that genie has been responsible for a lot.

Digital photography’s achievements are uttered in thankful terms of old tech. Photographers no longer have to research which film to use, to buy it, store it in the fridge, carry it around in a multi-pocketed gilet, try to load it, courier it to the developers and then scan precious rectangles of celluloid before they see their images. Now there’s more time to click. As Henri Cartier-Bresson believed, photographers are more interested in the pictures in the box: “Hunters, after all, aren’t cooks.”

If the genie has been liberated, so too have photographers themselves. Nowadays when they go on a shoot, the technology affords photographers the security of being able to check they have a stock of safe shots. Then they are free to experiment – to have some fun – with a seemingly endless ability to take one more shot, all at a low marginal cost.

The upshot? Better photographs, better photographers, and more of both. And more, too, picture-led media – think of the bright bouquet of celeb mags displayed in any supermarket. Was it there 20 years ago? Without the digital genie, we’d be bereft of the Daily Mail’s sidebar of shame. Has the tech given us more celebrities too? You could argue the link.

The secret weapon

What’s more difficult to explain is the worth of a good picture editor. With digital’s uncorking, the picture editor’s role has changed. To write again in terms of old tech, there are no picture returns (an endless job on a magazine in times of analogue yore); cameras now let photographers send files to a picture desk while they are in the field, or next to the dugout.

Digital portfolios are stored online and displayed on screens far finer than photographic paper – so, fewer face-to-face chats with freelance snappers. Online picture agencies are in bloom. To the unappreciative, this means that picture editing now appears an easier task than it used to be – a question of finding one of the big picture libraries and keying in some search terms.

Dispelling the myth

The myth needs dynamite. The value of picture editing doesn’t lie in the grunt work, but in the skill of aggregation and the art of curation. For instance, suppose you need a picture, or series of pictures, of Nelson Mandela. Where do you start? The answer, in part, lies in asking the types of questions that come naturally to any picture editor: is the piece a retrospective, is it an intimate interview, is it a broader investigation into activism? The process of aggregation will depend on the answers to these questions, which any experienced picture editor has an instinct for asking, as well as a keen sense of their publication’s editorial identity and that of its audience.

The skill doesn’t end there: it’s then a question of tapping into years of in-depth industry knowledge of the array of archives on offer. At other times editors must commission photographers, and that task requires a sharpened set of tools too.

More importantly, the picture editor’s art is image curation. Do you lead with an intimate portrait of the subject? Are there action shots that capture a personality expressed in a moment? Or maybe there is a significant event that you need to document – think Mandela leaving prison on a particularly harsh sunny, and therefore unphotogenic, day.

Keep an eye on the story

Narrative is a cornerstone of content-marketing, and this truth lives for pictures as much as words. Knowing the photographs to suggest – and the ones to spike – is key to telling a comprehensive, compelling story.

If you don’t believe me, try telling the tale of your family in seven photos. You’ll find it’s not a case of simply choosing the best pictures, or even the ones you like. You might opt for group shots, portraits of loved ones who have died, or even beloved pets. Re-visit the photos in a week’s time: would you still make the same selection? You’ll soon get a sense of the worth of a good picture editor.

The value of picture editing is one the content marketing industry would do well to remember. The success of its storytelling probably depends on it.

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