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Tips for Culling Images for Better Results and More Efficiency

When it comes to a photographer’s workflow, there is one stage that might be more important than any other. It is the image selection process, also known as the culling stage. This critical stage is the point where you get your images into Lightroom (or other software) and start choosing which to work on.

But while this is the stage where you choose the photos that ultimately end up representing your work as a photographer, without systems in place it can turn into a huge time sink.

So focusing on the process of culling images can help speed up image selection significantly. 

Have a system for culling images to help you get to your best results faster.
Being able to quickly whittle down a set of photos is an important skill for any photographer. At 36 images, this is a small set of photos, but the principles are the same whether it’s 36 images or 360.

This article aims to show you why having a good system for image selection can be beneficial to your photography and your portfolio. It will also provide an overview of a basic system that you can start to use in your workflow right away, and it will provide tips on how to use Lightroom’s built-in functionality for this purpose. 

Note: My examples here are portraits, but the system applies to just about any genre in photography. There are instances where you might not be able to apply some of these principles and the criteria you apply in different genres will be different, but they are exceptions. 

The forest for the trees

Take a moment to imagine that you’ve just finished a big session and imported all the images into Lightroom. Now you may have hundreds of images that you have to sift through to find the ones that you want to work on.

Having a lot of photos from a shoot makes culling images even more important.
When you have hundreds of photos from a shoot all in one place, and test shots, outtakes, and misfires are still included, it can feel like a chore to go through them all.

Without a system for culling images in place, it’s all too easy to find yourself continually scrolling through the same set of images and reviewing the same ones multiple times. This may not be a problem if you only have a handful of frames, but once you get into larger shoots, you can waste a lot of time doing things this way.

Additionally, after going through the same images over and over again, it can also become discouraging. This makes it easy to give up and leave some gems unspotted, which are ultimately relegated to obscurity on your hard drive. 

culling images
By using Collection Sets to divide a large shoot into ten outfit changes, the images become much easier to manage.

So what type of system can you create?

Using Collection Sets to divide up large shoots into smaller, more manageable chunks is a good place to start.

This is just a small reason why you should consider developing a system for your editing process. 

Editing

The image selection process is also known as editing. Now, I know that the word edit (and editing) has come to mean something else in everyday vernacular for photographers. You can call it whatever you want, as I am not one to dictate or prescribe. But as you will be going about image editing in the future, consider thinking about your post-processing workflow in terms of these two job descriptions:

Photo (Picture) Editor: Someone whose job it is to select photos appropriate for the use in question. 

Retoucher: Someone whose job it is to alter the appearance of photos and manipulate photos to achieve a final result. 

Tools

Lightroom has a huge variety of tools that makes culling images easier. While this is not an exhaustive list, here are a few features that I use regularly: 

Fullscreen Mode

Culling images in full screen mode ensures that you are focusing on one image at a time.
Using Fullscreen Mode during the image selection process will help to remove any distractions from your screen. You’ll see the photo that you are evaluating and nothing else.

Being able to view a single image at a time makes this whole process go more smoothly. It also takes away the distraction of Lightroom’s standard interface on the screen. To enter Fullscreen Mode, select any single image in the Library Module and press the “F” key. 

Compare

culling images
If you want to look at two similar images side by side, use the Compare feature in Lightroom.

The Compare feature allows you to look at two images side by side. Although you won’t use this until later in the selection process, it becomes very useful when you are trying to choose between two similar images with minor differences.

To use the Compare feature, select any two images in the Library Module and press the “C” key. To get back to your normal view, press “G.”

Reject

Lightroom lets you mark photos as rejects, which makes culling images a breeze.
When you reject a photo in Lightroom, the image will be grayed out and marked by a black flag with an “X.” Any images you mark in this way should be recognizable at a glance.

If you follow my process, you are going to use this tool a lot. When you press the “X” key while any image is selected, you flag that image as a reject. This marks the image with a black flag with an “X” in the upper left-hand corner, and it grays the image out in the Library Module. This makes it very easy to see which images you have already reviewed and marked as unsuitable.

Pick

Mark photos you like with a Pick when culling images.
Marking an image as a Pick will annotate it with a highly-visible white flag.

When you are going through your images, you will eventually come across a photo that you love. You’ll know that you want to work on it no matter what.

In this instance, press the “P” key; the image will be flagged as a Pick. A little white flag icon will appear at the top left of the image in Lightroom.

Star ratings

culling images using the Lightroom star ratings
Using the star ratings in Lightroom is another quick and useful way to annotate images that you want to review again later.

Because you will be going through your images multiple times, you can use the star ratings in Lightroom to mark any images you are unsure of or aren’t able to make a final decision on yet. You can mark them with one to five stars by using the corresponding number key. This makes them clearly labeled when you return to them in the future. 

On being ruthless

Before we get into the actual steps of the editing process, there is one thing to discuss. Most everything outlined in this article can be changed up as required, but there is one thing that will be important for you to follow no matter what.

To make this process faster and more efficient, and to ensure that you are only left with your best images, you have to be ruthless. If something is not right about an image, reject it. If you have to think about it for more than a few seconds, reject it. If you have even so much as a niggling doubt, reject it. 

Being able to spot obvious flaws will make culling images a fast process.
Being able to quickly recognize obvious faults will allow you to reject images quickly. Overexposure, outtakes, reflections in glasses, cropped body parts, and awkward arm placements are some of the reasons these images were rejected at first glance.

A lot of the wasted time in this part of the workflow comes from hemming and hawing over an image for a length of time when the image doesn’t wind up getting used anyway. Make decisions fast. Be ruthless.

The system

culling images
Keeping the images you are working on separate from the rest will make this process go much more smoothly.

Now that you know the desired end result, you can get started with the actual process of image selection.

The first step is to isolate the set of images you are working on from everything else. There should be no distractions. If you are working on a set from a portrait session where there were multiple outfit changes, separate each outfit into its own folder.

In Lightroom, this is easy. You can create a Collection Set for your shoot, and then create a Collection for every outfit change inside that set. This will keep all of the images from a session in one place, but separated by things like outfit changes or lighting changes. 

Criteria

Chances are that you already have preconceived notions of what you don’t like in photos. Whether these ideas come from things you’ve heard from other photographers or opinions you’ve developed yourself, it doesn’t matter. Knowing what these things are is going to help you speed through the process much, much faster. 

Technical: Things that fall on the technical side are relatively easy to identify. What you are evaluating for here are things like focus, exposure, the absence of motion blur, etc. When you are going through your images, learn to identify technical faults at a glance.

Culling images is easy when you know what to look for
Technical faults, like reflections in glasses, are easy to spot and make quick decisions on.

Aesthetic: This one is all down to your personal tastes. If you can figure out what you don’t like, then you can spot those things in an instant and rule the photos out of the selection process.

Don’t like when portrait subjects bring their hands to their face? That rules out any photos fitting that description. Don’t like it when catchlights appear in the whites of the eyes? You get where I’m going with this. 

culling images
Aesthetic faults come down to personal preference and taste. Here, the eyes are dark and the pose isn’t the best.

The first pass

culling images
The goal of your first pass is to reject as many images as possible as fast as possible. If you can identify a reject at a glance and mark it as such, you won’t waste any time later going over that image multiple times.

Once you’ve isolated the images that you’re working on, you can begin the first pass of the culling process.

The only goal here is culling images as fast as possible. Select the first photo in your folder and enter Fullscreen Mode in Lightroom (press “F”). Use the right arrow key to scroll through your images one at a time.

You should have an idea of what isn’t a good photo in your mind. You’re looking for things that fall into that category. Did the flash misfire? Are the eyes partly closed? Is the facial expression not flattering? Is the lighting not quite right? Is the focus off? 

If there’s a fault in the image, find it and press “X.” 

The second pass

Now that you have completed the first run through your images, you should find that you’ve rejected most of them. The next step is to isolate the images that you haven’t culled from the ones you need to review again.

There are a few ways you can do this. You can create a new Collection and add the images that are to be reviewed. Or you could remove the rejected images from the Collection you are working in. 

Sorting options will help you when culling images.
Using the sorting options on the bottom toolbar, you can sort by Pick. This will put all of your rejects at the bottom of the catalog, making it easy to go through for the second pass.

You could also use the sorting options on the bottom toolbar in the Library Module. This will put any rejected images at the end of the gallery. From there, you can select all of the unflagged images and enter Fullscreen Mode again. As you cycle through the images a second time, you’ll first see the shots you have selected.

For this pass, you are trying to achieve the same thing as the first: to reject as many images as possible. This time it will take longer, as these are images that you have already decided don’t have any immediate faults. Feel free to take extra time and have a careful look over the images. Just remember that you are still not picking any photos yet, merely getting rid of the ones that aren’t suitable. 

You can repeat this stage as many times as you need in order to narrow down your Collection to the few best images. For the sake of brevity, we’ll move directly on to the next stage and assume you’ve narrowed your images down as much as possible. 

The third pass

the third pass when culling images
Using this method, I was able to narrow down this set to three images in a little over ten minutes.

At this point, you should have a much smaller group of images to work with.

(If you still have a lot of photos, go back and be more ruthless.)

You can now go through and start making your final selections. It should be a lot easier now that you have a much smaller pool to go through. Use the Pick flags or star ratings to indicate the photos you want to work on and reject any photos that still need rejecting.

At the end of your culling sessions, you should have a concise selection of images that reflect the best shots from a particular set. 

How many should you aim for?

If you’re wondering how many images you should aim to have left once this is all over, the answer is: it depends. 

The number of final images is going to vary wildly depending on how you shoot and what you are shooting for. For example, if I am shooting for myself, I will be looking for one or two images per set. That set may start with 10 photos in it. It may start with 100. I am still only looking for one or two.

If I’m doing a short portrait session for a client, I might end up with 15-20 proofs to present. If I was photographing an event, I would go through and get rid of the obvious rejects and keep everything that was left. 

culling images example photo
Canon 5D Mark III | Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 | 85mm | 1/2000 sec | f/2.8 | ISO 200

There is no right answer. Only you can answer how many images you need in the end. This whole process of culling images is there to get you to those final photos faster, rather than get you to a certain number.

Keeping it basic

The tools and the process outlined in this article are very basic. It’s how I do it and it’s like that for a reason. The process is uncomfortable and forces you, for a little while, to focus on your mistakes.

When I am culling images, I want it completed as soon as possible, and I don’t want my tools to get in the way of the process. That said, Lightroom has a whole host of other features that could be used in the culling process. By all means, use them if they suit you. It doesn’t matter how you get the job done as long as you get it done.

Conclusion

I know that this can be a difficult process. You have a catalog of images on the screen that you created and poured all kinds of effort into. You just want to look through them and feel good about the photos you’ve made. You don’t want to jump in and start finding faults with 90% of them. I understand. I’m the same.

However, as disheartening as it feels at first, once you start culling images and the best images from a shoot start showing themselves (usually after a short while), that allows you to focus only on the best.

Trust me: The images that you cut get quickly forgotten, anyway. It’s best to be done with them fast; that way you can focus the rest of your time and effort on the images that will benefit you and your portfolio. 

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John McIntire
John McIntire

is a portrait photographer currently living in the UK. He studied commercial photography and is always looking to improve. Admittedly a lighting nerd through and through, John offers lighting workshops and one-to-one tuition to photographers of all skill levels in Yorkshire.