Cull Your Unneeded Photos

By Roger (25 May 2016)

Last week, I wrote about making photos at the Gold Cup horse races, in Northern Virginia. In case there was a smidgen of doubt in your mind, let me repeat, I love shooting at horse events. We used to own a horse. I went to many hunter class events with an old girlfriend who was a top competitor. My daughter rode for the William and Mary Equestrian Team (for which we spent many dollars). I like having horses in my camera. Long intro to say, when this love of a subject is combined with a great opportunity and two cameras, you end up with more than 1,000 photos to sort through.

Today's photographers don't have to worry about film and memory cards keep getting larger and cheaper, so they tend to shoot more photos than needed. Then, they're faced with hard drives of useless photos How do you decide which ones are keepers and which ones to cull from the hard drive? Almost all of us overshoot, and you end up with surplus photos that you'll, probably, never show to anyone – they'll just take up space on the hard drive. Let's go through a few culling options.

The first solution is to recognize the problem and slow down. Put the frame selector to single frame and think before you mash the shutter button. Yes, the sound of a camera flying through 12 frames a second is awesome, but, when your subject is a landscape, you look pretty silly on high speed continuous. If you slow down, you'll get better photos and reduce your culling requirements.

There are many reasons we overshoot, some are even legit. The horse races are fast and furious, and they're not going to re-do a jump because I wasn't ready when they came galloping by. A wedding is a huge, one-time event, and you want to cover every minute. A baby's facial expressions change in less than a second, so you keep shooting. The end result is a long session at the computer to figure out which ones to keep.

I know some photographers who never worry about this, at all. They don't delete their excess photos. “Who knows what I might want two years from now?” “Hard drives are so cheap, why bother with culling?” And words to that effect. OK, fine. That is an option. If that's how you want to approach the topic, you may want to quit reading now.

Some photographers cull only the obvious mistakes and keep the majority of their photos, but make special collections for their keepers. This seems more logical than keeping everything, but you'll still end up with more photos than you'll ever need.

For me, I delete photos I don't want. Whenever I come back from a shoot, I make a couple of passes. I use the “Pick” sort in Lightroom, so photos marked for deletion go to the bottom of the stack and out of my view. On the first pass, I very quickly go through the entire shoot, marking mistakes or bad photos for deletion and give a star to any photo that looks above average. When I reach the end of the shoot, all the photos marked for deletion have been grouped together, and I delete them from Lightroom and the hard drive. They will never be seen again.

The second pass is slower, but not much. I'll give a star to more photos that didn't jump out in the first pass and mark a few more for deletion. The photos that stand out will get three stars. Some of the photos may not have a star rating; some will have one star; and some will have three stars. The three star photos are my first choices for post-processing. I can zip through 1,000 photos in less than 20 minutes, total, for my first two passes. Then, I close Lightroom and do something else.

I don't need all these photos of race officials

The unrated photos sit there until I'm ready to reconsider them. I may go eat something; go to bed; go to work; or let them sit for a week before I get back to them. Your judgment of a photo's worth will change over time, so, before I make a final determination, I let some time pass. When I get back to them, I'll look for unnecessary duplicates and delete a few more photos. The unrated photos that remain will get one star because I haven't, yet, found a reason to delete them. When in doubt, I keep them; they can always be deleted later.

This system has worked for me for a long time, and I use it consistently. You should design your own methodology, according to your tastes. Here are a couple things to consider when deciding on your own solution to excess photos.

What is the requirement or purpose for the shoot? I needed 10 different photos for the Gold Cup folks. (That was the agreement I signed for my press pass.) I could conceivably delete the other 990. But, if the purpose was to build up a portfolio of race photos, I'd want to keep a few of what I consider my best photos. These may or may not be from the 10 I give to Gold Cup. If you just went out for a photowalk to shoot for yourself, you may delete all of them. Catch and release.

If your intent was just to go out and exercise your shutter finger, you may keep photos that really don't have a specific purpose. Nothing wrong with that. You may want to keep some examples of new techniques you're trying, so you can determine how you're progressing. Sometimes, I make less than glorious shots, just for the blog, as examples of what not to do. Of course, I never make mistakes. ;-)

Don't let random people get into your frame

As my purpose changes, so does my selectivity. I keep many family photos to remember our times together. I'm never as picky with these photos as I am when I photograph a client's wedding or portrait shoot. These photos are not about perfect backgrounds and exquisite lighting. I, also, don't cull as many of the duplicates. There is plenty of room on my hard drive for all my family photos.

If you're not opposed to using Photoshop, keep in mind that you may want to keep a less-than-stellar photo because you can use part of it in a composite. Family group photos are a perfect example use. It can be difficult to get one in which everyone is smiling, with their eyes open. However, if you've shot several photos of the group, you can piece together that perfect shot. I always check to see if there is something – a background, a pretty sky, etc. – that can be used later.

Keep backgrounds for composites

You can make a lot of photos in a short amount of time. Enjoy yourself and snap away. When you come back from a really great day of photography fun, with more photos than you want to keep, your cull plan will help you find the keepers. Have fun.