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Delete Ruthlessly

If I were to only be allowed to share one bit of photography advice it would be: Shoot what you love and share it with others.

If allowed to share a second bit of advice, it would be: Then delete ruthlessly.

delete ruthlessly

Digital photography’s nearly limitless capacity for storing photos is both a boon and a curse. As I mentioned in a previous post, there are many unseen pitfalls to having massive amounts of storage at the ready for any person getting into the art. To help avoid the pitfalls, it is important to delete ruthlessly. I speak from the experience of having started shooting digital 10 years ago (not as long as some, I know, but eons in the age of digital photography).

I often get asked, “How many pictures do you have?” or, more to the point, “How much space do all your shots take up?” The correct answer to both is: too many. Many of us have this problem. When digital first came to the masses and out of the hallowed halls of photojournalists and sports photographers (whose employers could afford the highly expensive gear) its novelty was that you could shoot, oh, I don’t know, maybe 80 pictures on a single card!

Yes, that’s right! 80! Today that is nothing. Even our phones can shoot more pictures today, if they’re not busy giving us driving directions or helping us trade stocks in Japan. But back then 80 was huge. That’s nearly three rolls of 36 exposure film. Deletion was more common then and when I look through my archives I notice less total shots from 2001. I also remember being happy there was FINALLY a 128MB memory card available. Huge, I tell ya.

Reminiscing about the ‘glory days’ aside, my point is things didn’t start out this way. We used to delete because memory, both portable and in the computer, kept things in check. But as the prices dropped and the pixel (and megabyte) counts went up, we just kept shooting more and more.

Until we get to where we are today. Often I hear of friends, who aren’t particularly photo-happy, coming back from a vacation with 500 shots. There’s no way they would have carried 20 rolls of 24exp film back in the day. But now, it’s so easy and cheap.

Shooting a lot of photos is not, to me, a sin. I do try to instruct students to shoot slowly (unless you are at a sporting event) and compose well. You don’t need 40 shots of a sunset. Think about what you’re doing. And all that stuff. Still, quantity creep happens. No big deal.

The key is to delete ruthlessly. Here’s my suggestion for culling the gargantuan herd of images you might bring back from your next trip (be it around town or 1000km away).

In Camera

First, even before you arrive home, if you have downtime during your travels (think: sitting in the airport, waiting for your flight) delete photos while they are still in your camera. Here you are looking for the obvious rejects; bad blurs, really bad blurs and horrible blurs. Bad under or over exposed shots too. Your camera screen is not always the best at discerning minute details, so don’t spend time zooming and being super critical.

Typical result: 5% removed

During Download

Many programs offer a preview of images before they are downloaded. Use this time to further cull (yes, it is my favorite word this week, but I’m not sure why) the herd. The screen is a bit bigger and the sun probably isn’t shining directly on it. Again, don’t waste time zooming in. Just don’t download what you don’t want. This is an excellent time to only download one of a series where you were trying to catch action. Maybe you shot 12 images of a bull rider at a rodeo; only grab two or three that look like winners.

Typical result: Another 5% removed

First Pass

In the first pass on a computer, once I have my images in Adobe Lightroom, I will use the P and X buttons, setting my filters to only show images I have not either highlighted as a Pick (P) or Delete (X). This allows the program to show me the next picture once I have made my selection. There may be time when you can’t decide and that’s okay. Do the best with what you have and keep chugging.

Typical result: 20%-50% removed

Pass Number Two

Okay, it’s time to stop being a ninny. Looking at the photos you have selected as Picks and the ones you didn’t have the heart to mark for deletion in the First Pass. Be totally honest with yourself at this point. Be ruthless. Ask yourself, “What the heck am I going to do with each of these photos?” This is the question most fail to ask and it is at the crux of being sane and not ending up with 100,000 photos you never want to go through 10 years from now.

Without asking this question most of us defer to, “Oh, I’m sure I’ll think of something to do with that shot. I kinda like it. Sorta. And it’s not too blurry.” If you need me to play the mean guy, I’ll do it. Imagine me on your shoulder retorting, “Come on! You’re never going to use that picture and you know it!” Be honest.

If you don’t have a use for it, and it doesn’t simply sing out to you to be spared, then ax it. Are you going to print it? Include it in a web album to be shared? Include it in a photo book? Enter it in a contest? Sell it? Send it to a friend or family member? No? Then what the heck are you going to do with it!! You can’t hold on to everything in the past. Let it go. It’s just an average pictures.

Typical result: another 25% done for.

Last Pass

This is the last pass before editing. I admit to sometimes starting editing before this phase with images that jump out and demand to be ‘prettified’ in the computer. And that’s okay as well. But this last pass helps make things sane.

Here they are in front of you, all the images you know you will use in one form or another. Online, offline, upline, downline. Now give them a sharp look. Look for less than optimal shots that don’t meet snuff (if they are not simply going to friends) and, again, be honest. If it’s not a quality example of your work, nuke it. The only time I might keep a photo in this regard is if the exposure looks a little less than what can be handled with today’s technology, but the subject is solid, knowing that programs in two or three years may be able to work magic not now possible.

Typical result: maybe 10-30 shots left. More or less depending on your ruthlessness and skill level while shooting.

To be honest, I typed this post out as a reminder for myself. I don’t always follow this procedure and as a result, have way to many shots floating around, doing nothing, begging to be backed up onsite and off.

From this point on there are other paths your workflow can take the photos depending on their final destination and that is for another post. For now, cut down on the amount of total photos you are placing in front of yourself to edit and your life will be simplified.

Do you have any tricks for helping get past the “I don’t want to delete ANY of them!” syndrome? Please share them in the comments section below.

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Peter West Carey
Peter West Carey

leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics – A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

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