How To Ruthlessly Edit Your Photographs

If you’ve been an enthusiastic film photographer for even a year or two, no doubt you’ve made hundreds, if not thousands of images.

If you’ve also used digital cameras, it’s highly likely you’ve edged into tens of thousands. Yes, all those pictures made with your camera phone count too.

But how do you choose just the very best of your photographs?

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How do you uncover the glistening and wondrous gems amongst a vast sea of near misses, technical failings and just plain old why-did-I-bother-capturing-something-so-boring photographs?

In short, you need to learn how to ruthlessly edit your photographs.

For the purposes of this conversation, by edit I mean “sort through all the photographs you’ve taken on a specific photowalk, delete the ones not worth keeping, and pick the very best to share with the world.”

Or more simply, for each photograph, decide its fate one of three ways – delete, keep, share.

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Let’s start with an estimate of what proportion you keep currently.

Out of every 100 shots you take, how many do you save in some way? Five? 10? 25? 100?

For me, with my current favourite two digital cameras the Pentax Q and Ricoh GRD III, I would estimate from a great photowalk of 100 photographs, I keep maybe 30-40, share 10-20 of those, and delete the other 60-70.

I could still be far more ruthless with my own editing, though I think I am getting better. So, as with many posts here on 35hunter, this is a guide and reminder for myself as well as for you.

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Here’s how I’ve edited for the last few years.

Step 1. Sweep through all photos once. Get a feel for the very best ones, those that jump out of the screen. This gives your benchmark for the whole batch. Sometimes at this point if I’m struggling to see any worth keeping, I am open to the possibility of deleting the whole batch. This sometimes happens!

Step 2. Sweep through a second time, deleting those that are missed focus, otherwise blurred, not exposed how you wanted, or near duplicates of another shot.

Step 3. Open those remaining and sweep through again, remembering how the very best are setting the standard for the other, lesser images. Delete further, any that just don’t do anything special or significant or memorable.

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Step 4. Open everything left, and pick those you are happy to share.

At this point, I find it helpful to ask a few tough questions.

For example – “If/when I have a gallery exhibition, or publish a photobook, would I be proud to have this photograph in it?”

Or – “If someone stumbled across this photograph on my blog/Flickr/Twitter/etc, would it be a sterling ambassador for my work, a excellent reflection of the best I’m capable of as a photographer?”

If the response to either of these questions is “No”, then hit delete, and move on.

It also helps to imagine Ansel Adams looking over my shoulder with his reminder that – “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop”. Or, phrased another way, one significant photograph a month is a very good achievement.

If you’re sharing 12 images a day, I might suggest you could be more discerning in your editing and selection. Unless you make thousands a day and really are an exceptional photographer, which you might be.

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Step 5. Make 50% size copies of those chosen for sharing on Flickr (or wherever else), keeping the original 100% versions too. For any not copied and shared, delete the original 100% version. If it’s not good enough to share, why keep it? Purge, move on.

(Family photos are an exception to this whole editing process, I’m talking about your other, intentional, “artistic” photographs.)

After these five phases, you’re left with a small selection of photos – one set in the original size, and another set of the same images, in a 50% version for sharing.

Of course you might want to share a 100% version, a 50% version or a 25% version. I just choose 50% because it’s large enough to fill most screens at full size, then I have the original if I ever wanted to make a huge print.

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The above method works fine, but is very much like subtractive sculpture.

For example, taking a huge block of wood, and slowly and steadily chipping away and discarding all the tiny pieces you don’t need, until you’re left with the essentials – your finished sculpture or your small set of the very best photographs from this batch.

The downsides of editing this way are it’s time consuming, and you often end up agonising over whether to keep or delete photos that are only on the borderline of good enough anyway, time better spent simply selecting the very best and sharing them.

So, very recently I’ve been experimenting with an additive editing method instead.

The advantages are that it’s quicker, more ruthless and there’s less of that debating over the also ran images that you really know aren’t very good, but can’t bear to hit delete.

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The additive editing method –

Step 1. Open all photos and sweep through, choosing only the ones that leap off the screen and make you smile. Mark these in some way – I simply select the original files in my Finder by Control-clicking on each one.

Step 2. Copy all the highlighted (ie best) files in your Finder (or equivalent file system) and paste into a new folder (I call mine Flickr). Go back to your main folder and delete everything but the Flickr folder, ie all the images that haven’t made the grade.

Now paste again, so you have just the very best photos now sitting in the main folder, plus a duplicate set in your Flickr subfolder. This whole step sounds involved but actually takes just a few seconds.

Step 3. Open the versions in your Flickr folder, resize to 50%, save, and share as and where required.

I plan to stick with additive editing for a few weeks and see how it goes. I like the “don’t flinch and don’t look back” ruthlessness of it. Anything that lessens my computer time is an advantage too, so this method of editing fits in beautifully with zero processing.

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From conversations I’ve had with 35hunter readers before, I gather I lean towards the more heartless and brutal end of the editing spectrum anyway, even with the subtractive method.

But I would like to share even less than I do (I’m hoping the additive method will be the key to that), or rather only reveal the best of the best, and not put out anything that’s good but not great.

If my current 4500+ photographs shared from eight years of sharing on Flickr were culled down to the very best, I would expect it to be only 10% of that. Or less.

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Another final tip to help edit more vigorously is to give yourself some distance and time between taking the photos and editing them.

By removing the emotional attachment, you can be more objective about the image on its own merits.

Personally I don’t tend to do this, because I like to revisit the photographs while the memories are fresh in my mind. By reviewing them the same day or the next , it helps me embed the memories and feelings I had whilst shooting them further, which I like to do.

But if you’re struggling to edit, this approach of giving more detachment might be something to try.

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I hope this guide to editing more ruthlessly will help you assess your photographic output better and encourage you to share your very best work, the images you’re most proud of.

And delete the rest to leave more space for those fantastic new images yet to come.

How do you edit your photos currently? Do you use a subtractive or additive approach? Would you like to be more ruthless?

Please let us know in the comments below (and remember to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

34 thoughts on “How To Ruthlessly Edit Your Photographs”

  1. It’s always fascinating to read about other photographers’ editing processes — and especially so when the process is as thoughtful and methodical as yours. But in reading your post I realized it isn’t the *method* of editing photos I’m struggling with (I’ve been using both the subtractive and additive methods, apparently, depending on the situation). Rather, it’s the more squishy emotional aspects that trip me up because I’m sometimes unwilling to apply the requisite ruthlessness to an image that is maybe not “fine art,” but that still holds emotional content for me. I guess it boils down to the existential question of why we’re shooting in the first place. I hope you won’t be disappointed that this reader isn’t walking away with any clear answers — but she does promise you to think about it (a lot) on her next trip and to report back with her results.

    PS: I love the shots you shared, especially the black-and-white image from the top of the Pompidou Center. Wonderful work!

    1. Heide, thanks for your thoughts…

      I said in the post that family shots don’t apply to this editing process, because even blurred, out of focus or otherwise technically imperfect photos can be absolutely charming and deeply treasured. Outside of that scope though, I don’t really have much emotional connection to images, at least not in a sentimental way that would prevent me deleting them. If I’m highly unlikely to ever look at a photo again, then why bother keeping it?

      If you feel a connection to a photo for whatever reason, then by all means keep it, that’s your choice. As much as I like to delete images I don’t want to keep just because I took them and can keep them, equally I wouldn’t suggest anyone should delete, just for the sake of deleting, if they felt some desire to keep it.

      Thanks re the pictures. As you know I went through my 400+ Paris shots the other day, and whilst my intentions were to document the trip, not photograph in the usual way I do now, I only found seven photos I thought were worth sharing, and even then after some processing. But because they record that specific trip, which was important to me for a number of reasons, I’ll likely keep them. Like the family photos I mentioned above, these particular photos fall outside of the need for ruthless editing.

  2. I use Flickr as a dumping ground. If I could go back and do it all over I wouldn’t, but I’m 12 years in now and I think it’s too late.

    I keep 97 of 100 film photos and probably 70 of 100 digital photos. Because I’m not really editing them. I’m only deleting the abject failures.

    I never know when even a mediocre shot will become useful. I use them all the time on my software blog (softwaresaltmines.com). I need a photo that illustrates a thing and frequently there’s one somewhere in my Flickrverse.

    1. Jim, thanks for your thoughts. You seem to have different needs for many of your photos, so naturally your editing process is different. I have always tried to just share my best stuff on Flickr, so it’s a portfolio of sorts, even though I’ve (hopefully) improved as both a photographer and an editor over the years.

  3. Storage is so cheap now. I keep everything. I have even sold blurry out of focus images for a significant amount. You never know what a client might want or like. Everyone’s taste is slightly different. Keeping everything also prevents me from agonizing over permanent deletions. A few pennies for storage helps my sanity.

    1. Intriguing how different people’s needs and mindsets are. I’m not a professional photographer, so don’t have to think about what kind of photos people might buy. And regarding the storage, I almost think the opposite to you – deleting most of my images so I largely only keep the best, and knowing I don’t have tens of thousands of mediocre images to wade through, helps my sanity. : )

    2. BTW; I’m going to experiment with deleting more photos. Just not to the extreme that you do it. Maybe I’ll start with removing about 25% of the RAW shots. I used to be happy with deleting 10%.

      1. Corvus, for me it’s nothing to do with the cost or availability of storage. It’s about not having too much of anything, something I try to hold true to in most aspects of life. It’s like every object I have – and every photo I save – also takes up a small space in my mind somewhere too. So I only want the bare essentials to retain occupancy – physically and mentally – and out with everything else that’s unnecessary.

        Plus I’m too lazy to be bothered to sort through hundreds and thousands of images I took years ago just in case there might be something I overlooked originally. I’m happy to make an editing decision at the time, then discard the rest, and enjoy the freedom that gives me to move forward.

        I’m reminded of a Tindersticks song I used to love (and still do), called Travelling Light –

        [Girl]: “Do you remember, how much you loved me?
        You say you have no room in that thick old head”

        [Boy]: “Well it comes with the hurt and the guilt, and the memories
        If I had to take them with me I would never get from my bed”

  4. I too keep almost all of my RAW files except the ones that are terrible. I had no idea what I was doing with light room a few years ago so when I look back I often find something that on original viewing didn’t grab me but actually works if I think about it a different way.
    Also colour rendering has changed over subsequent versions and a RAW file can come out quite differently than it may have a few years ago.
    I generally put my favourites only on Flickr.

    1. I understand what your saying, and indeed just this week I looked back at some photos I’d made with a humble phone camera eight years ago and re-processed a few. But for the vast majority of images (99%+), once I’ve edited and processed once, I never touch them again. Like I said to Corvus above, I just couldn’t get my head around the volumes.

      A quick look at my two main photo folders on my Mac shows the digital one with over 10,000 items and the film one with 15,000. Even though I assume this includes folders, and with the film ones I keep the whole original set of scans and had a subfolder in each for those shared, it’s still a lot of images. And with the digital folder, these are just the supposed best ones. If I keep only maybe 20 or 30% I must have made 50,000+ by now. How does anyone ever go back and sift through that many photos if you don’t organise and cull as you go??

      1. I do organise and grade my archive, so for me it is more that I am looking for something I know I took and finding potential gems I had overlooked. I’m not continually trolling through folders of images

        1. But how do you find “potential gems” if you overlooked them the first time? How can you remember where something you didn’t think was worth sharing first time around might be now, when this criteria (potential gem but previously overlooked) is met, potentially, by any photo you previously discarded?

  5. I’m not sure where my editing routine fits into the additive vs. subtractive paradigm.
    I shoot almost all of the photos I care about on 35mm b&w film. After developing them I do a low res jpg scan of every frame with a digital camera. I run them through a script in Affinity Photo that inverts them and performs a brutal best-guess setting of the black and white points. I then use ContactPage Pro to print an 8.5 x 11 “contact sheet” of each roll that goes into a box in our living room.
    The above operation – scanning, editing and printing – takes about 15 minutes for a 24-exposure roll, and a bit less for the shorter rolls I bulk load.
    Then, at my leisure, often weeks later, I look through the “contact sheets” and select a very few images to print and mail to friends and family or to print for our albums or to display in our home.
    These images are re-scanned as RAW files, carefully edited and printed on archival matte paper. Barring fire, flood or other catastrophes I expect them to be viewable by my great grandchildren, just as my wife and I enjoy looking at the 100 year old prints in our family albums. I have no such expectation of any image in any digital format.
    At the same time I print the images I upload them to Apple Photos so my wife can share them with her friends. I just counted the images in her 2017 B&W folder. There are 35, out of the 25 rolls I shot last year.

    1. Hi Doug, thanks for your comments, very interesting to see such a different approach (to mine).
      I have to say in a way I’m rather envious you have essentially 35 “best” images from the whole of last year. A quick glance at my Flickr shows I uploaded 712 in 2017, 746 in 2016, 526 in 2016 (when the majority were film). Yikes!

      As an experiment in discipline, I might take one of these years, sift through again and (try to!) pick the top 25 or 50, see how it goes.

      Regarding the scanning to make contact sheets, I expect there are a number of people who shoot film (and also own a DSLR) that would be interested in this method, especially as it’s so quick compared with scanning whole rolls of film with a dedicated or flatbed scanner, then finding half of the negatives weren’t worth the effort to scan anyway. (Speaking as someone who tried scanning with a dedicated CanoScan and pretty much hated the process!) Do you have this documented online anywhere? I tried to click through the link behind your name (merefilmphoto.com) and it’s coming up with no response from server?

      Making prints (and how we display and share out photos offline) is a post I’ve had in draft for a while, and hope to publish soon. It’d be really good to have your thoughts on that one too.

  6. Hi Dan, I’ve never understood who the people with terabytes of digital images think will ever look at those images. And if nobody is going to look at them, what’s the point? I just don’t get it. My hope is that my great grandchildren will enjoy looking at my photographs to see what life looked like back in the early part of the 21st century. (For me, a photograph is a physical object I can hold in my hand, hang on the wall, or put in an envelope to send to family and friends.)

    The empty merefilmphoto.wordpress.com blog was intended to be a place for commenting on issues related to using 60 or 70 year old film cameras in the digital age. Your query about my digitization scheme might be just the excuse I need to actually post something.

    In brief, I individually digitize every frame of every roll of film with a digital camera, batch process the digital images to produce “good enough” images, and print all of the images from the roll on a single sheet of 8.5 x 11 archival matte paper. The digitizing takes less then 10 minutes for a 24-exposure roll. The rest of the operation is just a matter of half a dozen or so mouse clicks.

    1. Ah the link you have in your name is just merefilmphoto.com, there’s no WordPress in it. Yes seriously it’s amazing how with the resurgence of film how many people are interested in more efficient scanning processes.

      I completely agree about having tons of photos sitting on hard drives that no-one’s looking at. It’s like having your own personal digital landfill site…

  7. Thought about this one for a bit, and for me, it came down to what I intend to do with the image.

    Now, I’ve stopped sharing any final images online sometime ago. I’ve even deleted all my social media accounts (except Twitter). I felt my voice was being drowned out in the cacophony of social media in general. And in any event, what difference would me little voice add. Nothing I felt….

    So, I make images for myself. I shoot couple of frames now and again. When the roll is ready, I usually process it in my kitchen. I then do a quick low-res scan on my old flat-bed. then have a look-see on my laptop, to find anything worth printing. I do no processing of that flat scan. It is merely a digital ‘contact’ proof if you will. I then go into my bathroom (after I’ve converted it into my little darkroom), and for a few hours while listening to a podcast, play around with a couple of promising negatives. So all my ‘editing’ is done under the enlarger, and in the developing tray. Old soul-warming words like dodging and burning, contrast filters, Graded papers, make processing a challenge. Frustrating when it goes wrong. Totally rewarding when it’s working.

    And if it’s worked, I THEN have something to share. Even though I’m just making prints/proofs as I learn the craft, I feel I want to share this journey with my family and close friends. And this is when I share. This is what I share. Something I have crafted with my own hands. Something that I specifically chose to give life to. Something that conveys little impressions of who I am, or who I was when I fired that shutter release.

    I think editing should be ruthless. I think if you have some images that you feel are good, then it’s far too many. If you have one good image every week, it’s too many. If you have one good image in a month, you’re probably editing (or judging) your images realistically. Far too many of us share far too much. Banality is becoming the current zeitgeist. It is a worrying trend.

    Ansel said that if you have 12 good images per year, it was a good year. He must have known a thing or 2, yes? I’ve probably take 4 or 5 good images – in total – EVER!

    And thus, the journey continues…

    1. Anton, thanks for the insight into your processes, so very different from mine and I expect most people’s. Most of us these days have a 90% or more digital process – even those shooting film seem to do all the scanning, processing and sharing digitally.

      Re social media, I relate very much. I keep trying different approaches to make it work. I recently rebooted my Twitter, and just this morning was poking around Instagram again. Google+ feels like a wasteland these days and I haven’t touched Facebook since 2010. So it’s mostly just Flickr and a small collection of blogs.

      I reviewed my Flickr sharing in one of the comments above and realised I posted around 700 images in 2017 and 2016. Which is approx. 13 a week, or two a day. But I do edit pretty ruthlessly. I thought! I think I’ll go over last year as an experiment and pick the top 25 or 10 and see what comes of it…

  8. That is a lot of images uploaded to any platform/site…

    Well, having said that, I guess it depends what you use these platforms for. If you using them as a storage dump of your better images, that’s okay I guess. But why not just drop them on a duplicated physical drive setup. Physical storage is pretty cheap these days.

    Then, on the other hand, if you want to ‘share’ the images… don’t you feel it’s too much for your audience to keep up with. I always think about people like say Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, Weston, Klein, etc, etc. How would we view their (what we perceive) as classics? Would their best work be watered down into insignificance due to being lost in a mass of other less strong work? The only reason we know their best work, and mark them as important is because we don’t have to look at their lesser work. We see their STRONGEST at every turn. I would like to think we should all do the same.

    I know your initial brief for this post was the physical aspect of editing (using software), but what is shared online is just as important a part of the editing process.

    Just me 2 pence worth 😉

    1. Very thought provoking my friend.

      To try to answer…

      Flickr – yes I do use it as a kind of archive for me best images, as well as having the photos on my MacBook and an external HD.

      Also though, as I wrote about in a previous post about how the online experience of blogging and sharing photogrpahs gets more rewarding over time, that long tail effect means that if we consistently share stuff online (photos, blog posts, Tweets, etc) then we increase our footprint and presence, and theoretically increase the likelihood of others finding us, and building a community.

      When I shot mostly film I would upload a batch of the “best” photos from each roll of film at a time, which was between one and maybe eight images. Then I realised that having a more regular uploading schedule increases one’s presence. So mostly I post two photos at a time now. In theory, if you’re in someone’s stream (whether Flickr, Twitter, Instagram, WordPress, email, etc) say ten times a month with two images, it’s going to seem like you’re more active than if you dumped 20 photos once a month. Frequency is better than overall quantity.

      Also with the latter, it’s unlikely many people will trawl through 20 new images from anyone, whereas one or two are more likely to be appreciated. All theoretical of course.

      Great point about the master photographers and how we only see their best work. HCB famously said your first 10000 photographs are your worst, so he must have taken tens, maybe hundreds of thousands, but we maybe only see his best 100, a tiny fraction.

      There’s a book on my Amazon wishlist called Magnum Contact Sheets which shows the contact sheets of Magnum photographers, and how they went about selecting an image from potentially many versions of the same composition. Maybe I should promote this up the wishlist a bit! Have you read it?

      On the flipside of the consistent sharing I’ve talked about above, is wanting to have only my very best out there, so someone could scroll through my Flickr or whatever and every shot impress them. So my Flickr might be 50 images instead of approaching 5000. I could of course still upload more I wanted to keep and archive on Flickr, just keep them private.

      I don’t know, this whole thing is an ongoing work in progress. Perhaps now I see myself as more of a photographer faithful to a small selection of cameras than a serial camera tester I can hone my editing and sharing. This is the plan, I guess my habits are still partially hanging in the past.

      Plenty more to ponder Anton, thank you!

      (Which is a major reason why I share photos consistently – to attract people like yourself to talk to about the whole process and passion. If my Flickr only had one new photo a month and 35hunter had a new post every three weeks instead of every three days, I wouldn’t meet so many people…)

  9. That’s me… just playing devil’s advocate 😀

    I do have that publication in my collection. And it’s a big bugger! There are a couple of variations from the paperback version, up to the big coffee-table sized big’n I constantly find it fascinating to witness the artistic thought process, and creativity. And there are very few publications that visually come as close as that Contact Sheets series from Magnum, and others like it, to trying to explain the creative process.

    Back to subject at hand… I think editing, and ultimately sharing is personal, and should reflect only you! Far too much online sharing is just there to feed the social-media beast. I think a sign proving that one might to moving forward, is the realisation that feeding the social-media beast is not for everyone. Some of us get just as much from posting virtually nothing… quietly getting on with learning the craft, and enjoying every minute of it…. This is, I’m sure, the category you fall into mate, and long may you prosper and get all the enjoyment from it. While sharing, entertaining, encouraging and enlightening us few.

    Thanks to you mate!

    1. Play on! I really like how it helps me think through stuff and evolve…

      Think I might ask for Magnum Contact Sheets for my birthday in the summer!

      Good analogy about the social media best. I don’t think I’ve ever got to the point where I’m just feeding it something for the sake of having something new posted. Especially recently. But I do want to reconsider (or continue to consider) my approaches.

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