The Art of Visual Editing Part 1: The Basics

This is a Visual Age

We communicate vastly more with images and videos now than at any point in the past. As a result, many more people are now in the position of being responsible for picking the “Best” visual object to illustrate a commercial, news event, or family gathering, yet almost no one these days has gone through a one- to two-year apprenticeship to get the skills to feel confident doing so. Visual editing is an art and has many components not explicitly obvious to people learning it.

So there are two trends here: the market is creating vastly more visual objects than ever before, and there are fewer people trained to handle the volume. Add that to every item on the Web needs to be illustrated: if illustrated properly that will drive revenue, and if done poorly consumers or viewers will spend less time on it or skip over it.

We are going to leave out trivial cases: if you only have one or two stills or video clips of something, you have almost nothing to choose from. But we are in an age where you are likely to have 2,000+ visual objects from a wedding, 10,000+ visual objects each day from the Olympics, or hundreds of shots of a new product. Choosing the best one is a challenge: let’s focus on those cases.

The Goals of Visual Editing

  • What is the overall goal of a visual editor? You want to grab a viewer’s attention as they flip through a web page, arrest them from moving on to the next shiny object, and perhaps inform them of something to enrich their lives or understanding. Simply put, it’s to bring to the viewer something strong, memorable, and informative (otherwise why bother finding the “best”?).

Back in the stone age days of newspapers, visual editors were taught they had a quarter of a second to stop someone before they flipped to the next page. If you didn’t grab them in that amount of time, they would not read the story or commercial message near the visual, and you would have lost them for all time. This paradox has been amplified exponentially in this time of digital media overload. Our visual has got to be strong enough to grab their attention immediately. That is especially true if your company is in a competitive industry, and you need something that differentiates you from the competitive noise.

  • What is the visual story you are trying to convey? Is there text or a theme you need to illustrate (e.g., The 10 Best Ways to … )? Or is the visual the story (e.g., a stunning outfit, a peaceful soothing image, a major news event, etc.)?

Or are you seeking to evoke an emotion or convey a concept? What does “alternative energy” look like? What does a mother’s love for her child feel like?

dmt art of visual editing alternative energy search

Figure 1: Search results for “alternative energy” (left) and “mother’s love for her child”

Can you make the viewer smile, or cry, or have empathy, or be provoked to action? What kind of visual can do those things?

  • Finally, are there display constraints? Is this a web page where someone in an image needs to be looking to the left on the page? Is it primarily a mobile situation where a vertical might work best? Is there a color scheme planned for the page that the visual should reflect? Few visual challenges happen in a vacuum.

What Makes a Great Visual?

Once you are clear about your goals, we move on to what makes a great visual object? Generally, there are three things to consider.


A great communicator wants to control how the viewer perceives their visual object, how the viewer’s eye traverses an image or frame. There are classical forms known to attract a human eye, such as an “S” curve, a Fibonacci spiral, or strong compositional thirds.

the importance of thirds art of visual editing merlinone

Figure 2: Aesthetics which please the eye. From left: S curve; spiral; compositional thirds.

Are there colors in one particular image or clip that will excite the viewer’s eyes? Or is this a subject where black and white might have more impact? Is the primary subject nice and prominent in the visual (more than 70% of the image), or lost someplace in a background of visually noisy elements? Overall, is the image or video pleasing? Disturbing? Either way, is that visually consistent with the goals you just set?


Some technical criteria are obvious. Is the exposure off and the visual way too light or too dark to see the desired detail? Is it soft and fuzzy in the important areas while the background you don’t care about is sharp? Remember that earlier we talked about controlling the viewer’s eye?

distracting background dmt art of visual editing part 1 merlinone

Figure 3: Background with noisy elements (left) and prominent subject with clean background

Pick a photo of anything: Where does your eye travel first? Your eye moves initially to the brightest part of the image. Does that happen to coincide with the most important part of that frame? Or does it drag your eye up to a corner because there happened to be a bright light in the ceiling (a “spurious highlight”), spoiling the impact you wanted to have because you hoped the viewer would go right to the smile on the model’s face?

So, bring a critical eye and look at the lightest and darkest areas of the visual and see if they work for the effect you want.

Motion and Action

Video adds a fourth dimension – time – to a visual presentation. How things change over time can help our understanding of the speed, drama, or a sequence of events.

The element of time is touchy. We have all been to movies that were just too long, and lost their energy. On the other hand, a video can tell us about the flow of a creek that that would be difficult to convey in a still image. So is the imposition on the viewer’s time fruitful, or abusive?

Next Step: Finding Candidate Visuals

Given clarity of your goal and sensitivity to the three appearance factors, we can move on to doing our job. The next step is to find candidate visual objects, and for that we need to search.

(Continued in Part 2: Search)