Cull Your Photos Carefully – 5 Steps to Follow Before You Hit Delete

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When to keep and when to hit delete on an image can be a tough decision to make sometimes. In this article I’ll give you five things you consider before you hit delete to help you with the process of how to cull your photos.

The emotional attachment lessens with time

I was shooting high on a mountain pass this past winter. Low clouds and scattered sun danced across the snow-covered slopes, blown by a chill wind from the north. The view below came and went as fog blew past, opening and closing the scene like curtains. Enthralled, I snapped photos, the stark mountains, the pale sun, the glowing patches of light on the snow. “These shots are going to be awesome.” I thought to myself.

Cull Your Photos Carefully - 5 Things to Consider Before You Hit Delete

A few hours later, I opened my computer and downloaded the images. And I could see then, that they were awesome. I sat and I stared, certain that these were some of the best of the trip. The way the light played across the mountains, the storm-light on the rock and snow slopes. Yeah, these were great.

A week later, as I was putting together images from the trip, I revisited those photos. Huh, I thought, I could have sworn those were better. I mean, they were decent, but not extraordinary. What happened?

Cull Your Photos Carefully - 5 Things to Consider Before You Hit Delete

I had distanced myself from the images for a time, and was able to separate myself emotionally from the experience of making them. I’d been able to view those shots almost as though someone else had made them. As a result, many more of those photos ended up in the delete pile than I would have expected at first glance.

But time away from your photos is just one thing to can do as you try to segregate the keepers from those to delete. Here are the five things to keep in mind as you cull and assess your images.

Cull Your Photos Carefully - 5 Steps to Follow Before You Hit Delete

Step #1 – Check the technical Details

After importing the photos of a recent shoot into my Lightroom Catalog, look at each image quickly, at full-screen size, and assess each for any technical faults.

Is the image out of focus (check at 100% or 1:1 view)? Is the composition obviously wonky? What about exposure, is the exposure so wrong that you can’t correct it? If the answer is “Yes” to any of these questions, immediately delete the image (or flag it as a reject by hitting X) and move on to the next.

Cull Your Photos Carefully - 5 Steps to Follow Before You Hit Delete

The trick in this first step is not to try and go beyond the technical details. This is not the time to try and gauge overall image quality. This is the time, merely to delete the obvious screw-ups.

Step #2 – The second round

If I’m eager to spend some time with my photos, or I’ve got a deadline, I’ll go back through them quickly a second time. Lightroom, and many other catalog programs, give you the ability to flag images with different colors, and/or rating codes.

Scrolling through the images, I’ll color code the good and bad standouts. Images that I like get coded green, purple or blue (the color relates to my own filing system), while images that I don’t particularly like, for one reason or another, get flagged red.

Cull Your Photos Carefully - 5 Steps to Follow Before You Hit Delete

Red flagged images are imperfectly sharp, have clear composition issues or other technical problems, while the green images are selects and the un-marked images are ones to hold onto for future consideration.

Some images do not get flagged at all. These are usually images to which I’m ambivalent. They are good enough not to get the dreaded red flag, but not so good that I want to highlight them immediately.

At this point, I’ll start post-processing my favorites, but I don’t delete anything. Not yet.

Cull Your Photos Carefully - 5 Steps to Follow Before You Hit Delete

A screenshot of my Lightroom Catalog after a shoot of this Rufescent Tiger Heron in Argentina. Of the 26 images, I selected two as keepers, one vertical, and one horizontal image.

Step #3 – Let them rest

Immediately following a shoot, we get emotionally caught up in our images, for better or for worse. If a shoot went well, like my experience on the mountain, you may have the feeling that your images are better than they actually are. If it went poorly, you may feel like they all suck, when in fact, they may not.

The solution is to give the images some space. Pull back for a few days, don’t look at them, don’t edit them. Put your new photos out of sight, and give yourself some emotional distance from the experience of making your images.

After a few days, a week, or even longer, you can have another go.

Step #4 – Consider how your images will be used

As you dive back into your collection, think for a moment about how an image will be put to use. If you are shooting for a client, then you may already have a good idea of the kind of images you needed to make. For example, the conservation groups I work for usually provide me a brief on the project. In that document, they will note specific types of images or video they need or want. As I’m pulling selections for them, I’ll consider their needs, and put special effort into finding and editing images that match.

Usually, there are no clients telling me which images are best. Without anyone guiding me, I lean toward variety.

Cull Your Photos Carefully - 5 Steps to Follow Before You Hit Delete

Variety includes more than framing, but also panoramic compositions like this one.

When I first started shooting seriously, I saved almost every image. I was too attached to each one. Later, as my image catalog and hard drives began to swell, I became heartless with images, deleting all but one or two from a series, even good alternatives to my selects. Now, I’ve settled somewhere in between because I don’t always know how an image will be put to use, so I like to have some variety available.

Magazine editors will often be looking for images with big areas of negative space which can be used for text placement. Large size wall prints require images that are immaculately sharp and high resolution. Illustrative shots, often sold for stock, or for small use in publications, need to be tight with only the bare minimum of room around the subject. While editing, I plan for these eventualities and select four or five images, in a variety of compositions, from any given scene, but not more.

Keep some variety of shots

As an example, below are my five selects from an encounter with a Brown Bear in southeast Alaska. Each of the five images have been published in national magazines. Each time, the editor wanted the image for a different layout, some involving text, some as a simple stamp-size illustration. The bottom line is you never know what is going to appeal to different viewers, so retain some diversity from within your shoots.

Cull Your Photos Carefully - 5 Steps to Follow Before You Hit Delete

Throw Away Your Photos Carefully - 5 Things to Consider Before You Hit Delete

Throw Away Your Photos Carefully - 5 Things to Consider Before You Hit Delete

Throw Away Your Photos Carefully - 5 Things to Consider Before You Hit Delete

Cull Your Photos Carefully - 5 Steps to Follow Before You Hit Delete

Don’t get caught up in what you think is the best image from a series. Rather, give thought to how you might want to use images from the shoot in the future. Red code (or however you tag your images) the faulty ones, or near-duplicates, but retain some variety.

Step #5 – The final cut

By this time, your collection of images will be a checkerboard of red and green. The red images flagged for deletion, the greens (and other colors) set aside as “keepers”. If you are like me, you’ve made enough duplicate, failures, and screw-ups that the reds wildly outnumber the greens and unlabeled images.

Throw Away Your Photos Carefully - 5 Things to Consider Before You Hit Delete

This image lay in my Lightroom for years before I finally noticed that it was pretty decent.

Before I hit delete, I give each image one more look, just to make sure I’m not cutting something that I might want to keep. Sometimes if an image is unique, even if it’s not what I think of as “good”, I’ll decide to hold onto it.

Throw Away Your Photos Carefully - 5 Things to Consider Before You Hit Delete

This image was taken Mexico in 2010. I found it a month ago, lingering on a hard drive. I had completely forgotten about that sunset over the Caribbean. Hard drive surprises can be great, but I recommend being more organized than I was at the time.

More than once, I’ve scrolled back through my Lightroom Catalog and stumbled on an image that, for one reason or another, I never gave a close look. At the time I created it, I must have considered it unremarkable, but didn’t consider it bad enough to delete. Years later, I’ve found some gems in those un-flagged images.

Bottom Line

Selecting keepers from a series of images is not always as straight forward as what is “good” and what is “bad”. Consider each image carefully, and use your delete key, but don’t get too enthusiastic pushing that button. Deleted images can never be recovered.

Read more from our Post Production category

David Shaw is a professional writer, photographer, and wilderness guide based in Fairbanks, Alaska. His images and writing on photography, natural history, and science have appeared in hundreds of articles in more than 50 publications around the globe. He is currently accepting sign ups for an aurora photo workshop in March of 2018, and a bird photography expedition in June 2017. Find out about  the aurora workshop and other tours, his photography, and read his science and nature blog.

  • Joel

    Great article. The emotional attachment is tough on a lot of photos, but the thing that really throws me is sharpness. I want everything sharp, but the fact is that it just doesn’t happen often due to the very nature of camera lenses. I do see a lot of photos published with very shallow DOF and it just takes me a moment to accept that in some of my own shots.
    I get exposure and know its effects, but I still crave what is possibly unattainable. So the recycle bin is full at my house.

  • Nat Coalson

    Good article, David! I’ve found that my students and clients are often too quick to delete photos they think are no good. But some of these pictures can be made much better with the right processing, so it’s a good idea to learn those skills before permanently deleting pictures.

    Another thing to consider: we can learn a lot more from our failures than our successes. It’s good practice to hang onto the ‘rejects’ at least long enough to fully understand why they didn’t work. Of course, none of us likes to linger over photos we don’t like – but studying these can make us better photographers.

    Thanks for your post!

  • David

    I shoot mostly Corporate Events, and my culling is a bit easier: blinked eyes, unflattering expression from a speaker, wrong angle for an on-stage panel (not enough DOF), etc., get tossed right away. Then it’s a look at exposures that can’t be saved. After that, multiples of the same person speaking, a small group conversing, and deciding which few to keep. Sometimes I will have a LR folder called “doubles” or “multiples” for these, and look them over one final time before delivery to the client.

  • David W. Shaw

    People shots are much easier because, as you say, there are a lot of blinks, glances away and awkward expressions. I like your idea of having a separate folder for the near-dupes. Using that could help the clutter in my catalog.

  • David W. Shaw

    Agreed! But many also cling to the images when they shouldn’t. There is a middle ground for sure. And I totally agree about looking at the failures. On my photo workshops, we spend a lot of time looking at the images that went wrong, and I think people learn a lot from that. Then they can hit delete and move on to correcting the errors in their next efforts.

  • Lesley Lee

    I am currently doing a big cleanup of older photos and being more religious about the ones I’m now taking. I use your colour code system but once I’ve done that, I move all my discards into a folder in the catalogue, along with the seconds. Then I back up the lot onto an external drive. Next, I delete the discards on the hard drive. I resort and once I’ve got the final call I make sure that’s tidied up too on the external drive. I back up the ‘OKs’ and the ‘keepers’ on my OneDrive cloud storage as a backup of the backup. One of the best things about working in RAW, is that if you make changes to your edits, you just have to overwrite the old sidecar files with the new and all is good. Much quicker the second time around. I only keep the keepers on my hard working machine.

  • David W. Shaw

    Sounds like a chore, but also a good system for backing up. There are a couple of excellent articles here on DPS about creating an efficient backup system, and yours sounds similar. I do the same thing with RAW files, and with non-descructive editing in Lightroom it’s easy to make any changes you wish. I do however delete my discards from all my hard drives, if I didn’t I’d be filling drives far too often. Thanks for the comment!

  • SueWsie Wils

    Technical failures is easy, but I also do an immediate deletion of similar shots -selecting the best in alternative compositions and deleting the rest. I find it saves time later.

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