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The Most Important Tool

This is a chapter from the book A Lesser Photographer.

“Saying no is actually saying yes to other things.” — Patrick Rhone

In the days of film, there was a mantra repeated by every high school and college photography teacher when introducing their students to the darkroom: the garbage can is the most important tool in the darkroom.

Effective editing is the skill that separates a decent storyteller from a great storyteller. Great stories have just as many dud photos as the decent stories, but the public never sees the duds.

Be liberal with your use of the trash. It’s your friend. An editorial photographer at a major magazine may take thousands of photos for a feature and publish only five in the story. Being conservative with what you show to the world protects your reputation and tells a better story.

A lesser photographer takes this principle a step further.

As much as editing may separate decent stories from great stories, there’s another principle that separates the great stories from the absolute best. The best storytellers eliminate photographs before they even begin shooting. They pre-edit. They determine what isn’t worth their effort to free up their time for the things that may prove to be remarkable.

There’s a reason articles abound on how to take photos of waterfalls and fireworks. It’s because everyone does it. It’s not unique. There are times when it makes sense to put down the camera and take in the world around you. You’ll often find a scene no other photographer is covering. One of my photography professors, Monte Gerlach, put it this way: whenever there is a sunset in front of you, turn around and start shooting what’s behind you.

If you can find it on a postcard, it’s already been covered pretty well and by better photographers than you. It’s probably time to move on to a more unique scene. The throngs of budding photographers, reading how-to articles, will take care of the dew-covered flower close-ups for you. Create something you care about, and it will rarely be a cliche.