Editing a Photo Series: The Concept

There seems to be almost no information whatsoever on the internet about editing a photo series (I'm glad if you prove me wrong and post anything in the comments). And by editing I don't mean editing the pictures in Photoshop (postprocessing that is), but compiling a set of photographs into an essay or project that stands on it's own. Don't confuse this with portfolio, which in my terms is rather just a "best of", showing different examples works and working methods. For example: on my commercial photography site there is a portfolio called Mining Operations and a carefully edited and ordered photo series titled "Dark Matter". When the former consists of random best pictures from Estonian mines, then the latter gives an overview of miners' working day.

So in this article, which is first in a series that currently consists of two pieces, I'm discussing what differentiates a photo series from a random set of photos.

  • What are you trying to convey to the viewer? What do you want to say with your photographs? It's a much asked question in photography and also much hated question. I personally think that it might sometimes be hard to answer that for a single photo, but I cannot imagine it being the case for series. A series has to have some defining idea behind it, otherwise it's just a set of random photos. Presenting a collection of random photos (a composition of photos for example) might work for you, but that's not what I'm trying to do. I want to be understood, I want my viewers to get the idea I was trying to convey, I want this idea living on in their heads.
  • Is the idea for the series focused enough? It cannot be everything for everybody, it should focus on something. If there's not enough focus, it wanders into randomness again. The pictures seem unrelated, it's very hard to recognize the pattern or chain of thought behind it. In many cases it's exactly this "oh, I see the pattern" feeling that could make good great. Related to the last point, I don't want style to be this ether binding everything together, forming this pattern. It has to be the idea. Imagine writing a book - it cannot be just beautiful sentences following each other, there has to be something connecting them.
  • Isn't it too narrow? If the concept is too narrow, it's hard to make enough pictures or the pictures become repetitive. Overusing the same ideas and constructs will make it boring, new pictures add less and less to the whole.
  • Does it open up the concept enough? Do you have all the pictures you need to complete the idea? If there's not enough pictures, the idea may seem like unfinished, necessary aspects not covered, different viewpoints not presented.
  • What do the pictures have in common? Being bound by the concept is good and that we have already covered. But in order for the series to work together, there should also be some stylistic considerations: is it color or B&W, tonality, aspect ratio, format, techniques used, postprocessing - all of these contribute to style and more often than not, style contributes to the substance.

As usual, this is far from being the ultimate truth. Very good work can seem quite random, many series are repetitive, yet it might be the point. For example, Martin Kollar's "Field Trip" consists of seemingly random pictures, yet it's goes so close to being absurd, that it's actually enjoyable. Maybe absurd counts as concept too :)

I recently made a separate post describing making of my current best series "Blood Unquiet". Here I'm mostly generalizing the thoughts from that period of work.

This post, just as anything else I write here, is meant to describe my experience. My working method is not The Method. Neither is it an exhaustive list of options to create good photo series, it's just something that has worked for me a few times. It's not teaching or preaching, I don't think I'm nowhere close to the level where I could do that. And I'm not even trying to get there, my interest is raising the game of my own photography, not earning money with workshops.