Tips for Culling Your Photos – How to Throw Away the Worst and Concentrate on the Winners

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Can you happily throw away your worst images and concentrate on your winners? Are you confident culling your photos to find the best?

I know many photographers struggle to cull their photos after coming back home from an enjoyable photo session. It can be effortless to create hundreds of images from a photo session you are immersed in. But feeling buried by a mountain of new photos to post-process can be discouraging.

The key to breaking free of this dilemma is to discern which of the photos are worth keeping, which are the best, and which to throw out. To do this you need a method, a good healthy workflow. Possessing a positive attitude will be a considerable help too.

I use Adobe Lightroom to import and cull my images and I will refer to it during this article. The workflow I am sharing can be utilized with any similar software.

woman catching a pumpkin - Tips for Culling Your Photos

Start by Seeing Your Best

Creative people often excel at being negative when it comes to their own creations. How many times have you heard musicians tell you they are not practiced enough to perform? Or friends who paint tell you they don’t have the confidence to complete a canvas they are working on?

It is quite typical of creatives to be too hard on themselves.

When you first load your images from a new photo session be purposefully positive. Don’t let yourself get sucked into negative thoughts. Start looking for the best photos in a series you have made, not the worst.

Take some time to scan through and get an overview of your new pictures. Look for the ones which excite you and mark them. You can use a flag, color or star rating.

Buddhist monk making art - Tips for Culling Your Photos

Take Out the Worst

You will usually have some photos which are clearly not usable. It is best to remove these from your workspace right at the start.

The most common problems not able to be fixed are:

  • Poor focus
  • Bad timing
  • Very poor exposure
  • Unwanted image blur

Bad focus

You cannot fix poor focus in post-production. If you have a photo that is not sharp where it really needs to be, delete it. It is not worth keeping. Some amount of sharpening can be applied but is only somewhat effective on photos which are slightly out of focus.

monk making pressed metal art - Tips for Culling Your Photos

This one gets deleted. It is not focused.

Very poor exposure

Working with RAW files produced by a modern camera, the images need to be really over or underexposed before I throw them out. You must know your camera and your own post-processing skills. Still, if the exposure is way off, delete it.

Unwanted blur

Sometimes we want blur in a photo. That nice silky look waterfall. The bicycle rider passing. The people walking by in the market. When you have motion blur because your subject moved or your camera has moved, delete those images.

Occasionally you can still make something of an image like that. Not by fixing it, but rethinking it and applying some careful post-processing, but not often.

Bad timing

Maybe someone has walked in front of your camera just as you took a photo. Perhaps the bird you were photographing had already flown out of frame. Many things can happen like this that means you have missed the shot or the decisive moment. Delete them.

Pumpkin Store at the Market - Tips for Culling Your Photos

Poor timing makes this photo unusable.

Don’t Want to Delete?

If you are nervous about deleting photos at first, you can just hide them. I use the flags to determine which images I see and which I do not.

In Lightroom when you are in Grid view in the Library Module with the filter bar showing at the top, click on Attributes at the top of the window. If you then click on the black flag to turn it off all the images you apply a black flag to (rejected) will be hidden from view. To quickly apply a black flag to an image, select it and hit the X key to mark it as rejected.

You can bring the hidden black flagged images back into view by turning on the black flag in the Attributes bar.

Once I have am confident I want to delete my flagged images I turn off the other two flags in the Attribute bar. With only the images I have flagged as rejected showing, I select them all and hit the Delete key and delete them from my disk.

NOTE: Lightroom will give you the option of just removing them from the program or deleting from your hard drive as well – I do the latter, but make note they will be gone forever so make sure you have the right images before hitting delete.

Screen Grab for Black Flag - Tips for Culling Your Photos

Use the grid view, Attributes and flags to help your workflow.

Select Similar Images

Now begin to work through to separate out the best of your photos. Many photographers will take multiple frames of whatever they are photographing. This results in too many images that are really similar. To deal with these, it is good to compare them to each other.

Do this by selecting four to six images and hitting the N key. The selected images will be displayed and the others will be hidden from view. You can now begin to compare your similar images. Using this method it is much easier to concentrate on the qualities of the photos and decide which ones are better than others. Look for similarities and differences in each frame.

Maybe your timing is noticeably better in one than the others. Maybe your composition was a little different or more interesting in one over another. Narrowing down your options as you go will help you see the stronger images more easily.

To do this, keep using the X key to flag the photos as rejects (note: do not do this using the comparison N view as it will tag them all at the same time) so they become hidden. Once you have only one photo in view, press the G key to take you back to Grid view. Now you can select more photos and repeat the process. I sometimes keep the best image from my last selection to compare with three or five other images in the series.

lightroom thumbnails - Tips for Culling Your Photos

Select similar images (use ctrl+click) and the N key to view only the images you have selected.

lightroom compare images side by side - Tips for Culling Your Photos

Look for Strengths in Your Photos

Choose photos which are well-exposed and well composed. Look at your backgrounds. Are there unwanted distractions which will be too difficult to remove? If so, use the X key.

Do you have one or two where your exposure is bang on? These will be potential keepers. Using the P key will mark them with a white flag (as a Pick). You could also use colors or star ratings (from 1-5) to mark your favorites.

Focused Monk - Tips for Culling Your Photos

In this frame, the monk was well focused (pun intended)

Find the photos that make you feel good. Narrow down your selection step by step.

By making comparisons with a small selection it should be less vexing than with all your photos showing at once. You will be more confident to come to recognize your best work using this method. If you are more randomly browsing through hundreds of photos at one time you are less likely to find your best photos as easily.

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Kevin Landwer-Johan is a professional photographer, photography teacher, and filmmaker with over 30 years experience. Kevin is offering DPS readers his FREE course for beginner photographers which will build your confidence in photography. You will learn how to make sense of camera settings and gain a better understanding of the importance of light in photography. Check out Kevin's Blog for a wide variety of photography related articles.

  • Paul Lehman

    Good article and process. One thing to consider that learned is to flag only photos that are positive/good pictures. Then highlight them, right click the folder they are in and “add selected pictures to a new folder”.
    Now all that are left are the negative pictures In the original folder. The thought process is not spending any time and energy on the pictures I’m not considering to do anything with – Black flagging anywhere from 50 to 300 pictures is a waste of time in my culling process.

  • tinplater

    I have developed a flow where I go G, then full screen. I can rapidly go through the images with the right arrow, those shots I don’t like I “X” and those that I think are potentially exceptional I give a 5 star. I then command delete removing from disc the discards and can concentrate on the fives.

  • Sim Lin

    Thank you so much I have never been able to cul but I’m not a pro my hubby is always after me this will deffantly help

  • Thanks for your feedback, Great to know this is helpful for you.

  • Thanks for your feedback. Sounds like a good workflow you have

  • Sounds like you have a good solid workflow. It’s surprising how so many people don’t and can get bogged down in undeleted images

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