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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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