INTERVIEW: Photojournalist Nick Danziger on photo editing with a light touch

He's known for his electrifying images of world leaders and war zones. Here Nick Danziger offers his advice on taking and editing photos.

Photojournalist Nick Daniziger has documented politicians and poverty around the world

It must be a source of mild frustration for Adobe that its software is talked about as much for its misuse as it is for its correct use. Take Photoshop, which in the mainstream press is often treated as a verb synonymous with 'to airbrush unnecessarily'.

It's perhaps for this reason that for the company's annual UK event, 'Adobe Creative Day', they've booked a series of speakers who seem the antithesis of the overzealous airbrusher. And the one we're about to meet - award-winning photojournalist, documentary filmmaker and travel writer Nick Danziger - fits firmly into this category.

Famed for documenting poverty and conflict everywhere from Bosnia to Ethiopia, Danziger's photos are known for conveying a stark realism, and he clearly has no interest in the sanitising effect of the airbrush. But that doesn't mean he doesn't see the value of modern photo editing software: quite the reverse.

The modern darkroom

"For me it's like using the traditional darkroom - burning and dodging," he says. "Rather than having to do it in seconds, I can do it with a bit more time. Even when I use black and white film, which I occasionally still do, the film gets scanned and then the dodging and the burning are done on the scan."

Software like Photoshop may be known for letting you make dramatic changes to your images, but it's just as good at making subtle, minuscule ones - and for Danziger, that's very much the case.

"The changes I make are usually minute," he says. "If anything I struggle because the minutiae of what I'm working on is enormously important. I'm usually given a lot of trust by the people I photograph, so it's really important. Most people won't see what I've changed when they see it, but for me it's dramatic."

Staying in control

That need to stay true to the original image carries through to publication, where Danziger keeps a tight control on what newspapers and magazines can do to edit his images. "I really try to control what happens to my images," he says. "These days, you can no longer say to someone, which I once did, 'This image is not going to be seen in Rwanda'. You just can't say that any more; once you take the picture it's out there, around the world on the web."

And it's not just victims of poverty and violence the photojournalist feels a responsibility to protect. "I don't want my picture of the All Blacks doing the Haku being used by everyone," he adds. "These are not everyday pictures. I've often got these pictures because it's taken a year, two years, two-and-a-half years sometimes, to get access." Case in point: he's about to go a trip to North Korea, it's taken a long, hard five months to organise.

Danziger recognises, though, that his measured attitude to photo editing is an increasingly rare one. "I worry that in what interests me, reportage, young kids, they tend to clean up the images too much," he says. " I don't want everything complete, every blemish cleaned out, but that's what I sometimes see."

Overuse of technology

He fears that too many young photographers now think technologies are going to solve their problems. "So they'll shoot wider because they think they can crop," he says. "They'll take 50 pictures because, you know, one's bound to be right, the machine gun approach." But it's the opposite of what Danziger sets out to do.

"People are amazed when I'm not holding down my finger on the shutter release," he says. "But because of my training as a painter, each still for me is like a canvas, so I don't go for the rapid fire method. It's better to get it right first time." That approach will save you time and energy in the long run, he adds. "After all, if you're not disciplined then it takes even longer when you start using Photoshop because of all the editing you're involved in."

Danziger also stresses the importance of understanding the story you're trying to tell, something he feels is often lacking in his students who take his workshops. "Even if you're thinking visually, you need to ask yourself: where's the story?" he says. "You've got to have a thread - whether you're working in photojournalism, advertising, or whatever. It's important in all the fields of photography."

Doing everything

He does acknowledge, though that the pressures on young photography professionals today are immense. "Budgets are so tight these days that the person who goes out to take the picture is often expected to also take the video, record the sound, blog, tweet," he says. "But you can't do everything well. It's just not possible. I know the stress, the intensity, the concentration that for me is involved in getting one image. If I'm thinking about sound, it's going to break up that element."

Indeed, despite being talented in many areas himself - fine art, photography, writing, film-making - Danziger increasingly feels that specialisation is the way forward, for himself as well as others. "We have the tools that allow you to do more than you've ever done before - but I've gone in the opposite direction," he reveals. "My first documentary film - a video diary for the BBC - I made completely on my own. It was at the BBC where I had to do my own sound, I had to do everything. Nowadays, all I want to do is shoot the images."

But if he sympathises with the stresses younger photographers are under, Danziger is keep to turn a negative into a positive. "I really struggled to get where I am today," he says. "And I think you need to struggle, you need the stress factor." Anyone wanting to follow in his footsteps should "get out there, get your hands dirty", he says. "I think that's something we've lost a little in our country, but if you do it I think you'll find you can carve out a very rewarding career as a result."