One of the less pleasant tasks a photographer must perform is to cull their work. Learning to perform this task effectively is an important skill to master for several reasons, which I will discuss in this blog.
With digital cameras and huge memory cards holding so many images, effective culling is more critical and daunting than ever. In the past, going through five or ten rolls of film would amount to looking through a couple of hundred shots or so – not a big deal. Today, I suspect most photographers must frequently contend with ten or twenty times that volume after a shoot.
The first obvious and practical reason you should cull your work is time, cost, and storage space. I know it is common to sluff this off with a “storage is cheap” comment which may be true if you are a Google or a Facebook chewing through four or five petabytes daily. However, this argument does not hold water once you dig into it personally and start to include the associated costs of your time, processing power, backup, and bandwidth. In this case, the fewer images you have to sort through, store, and edit, the better your life will be.
A second reason for culling one’s work is not to risk alienating or boring your audience. I often see the Facebook horror where someone has uploaded 30, 40 or even 50 photos of something they went out to photograph. I do not include events where the photographer needs to include everyone – like the finish line for a race or something similar. Instead, I am talking about someone posting 48 photos from an aurora night or a day at the zoo.
It seems reasonable to assume that people’s time is important to them, and the more of an impression you can make in a short time, the more your audience will appreciate you not wasting their time forcing them to wade through mountains of poorly curated work in the hope of finding one they like. Rather than giving them 20 mediocre photographs they will never remember – why not give them your best shot which they are more like to remember, learn from, talk about, and aspire to copy?
Speaking of posting too much, an interesting study by the University of Birmingham called "Tagger’s Delight” discussed the inverse relationship between posting too much and the number of likes a photographer receives on Facebook. This study concluded that the more you post, the fewer people like you and your work. Considering we are asking people to donate their time when we put up photos for them to look at – I do not find that conclusion surprising.
A more meaningful way to post something would be to curate your work into a mini exhibition consisting of three or four images that adhere to a topic and prefix it with a short description - like an artist statement. Not only will this make your work far more interesting it also provides you with an opportunity to think about your work in a larger context. Your audience will secretly love you for doing it, and their time will be spent looking at your best work rather than sifting through a bunch of mediocre photos.
In a previous post about producing meaningful work, I spoke of how Ansel Adams considered twelve good photographs in a year a good crop and that creating captivating and engaging pictures is hard work which takes time – think about this the next time before you go ahead and upload a batch of 35 similar photographs to Facebook.
The third and most important reason to learn to cull your work is to make you a better photographer. Learning to judge your work without prejudice allows you to approach it subjectively, just like you would someone else’s work. Not only will this make you approach your work with a more critical eye, but you are also likely to learn much more about how you make photographs and how you can make them better. Considering that culling is a process of judging a photo's merit followed by the potential outcome of deleting it forever, it naturally makes you examine the image more carefully to ensure you won’t regret your decision.
There can be no doubt that adequately culling one’s work is a hard thing to do – perhaps it is because we have a personal investment in our work and think it is all equally good, or maybe all photographers secretly are hoarders at heart. Regardless of the reasons, here are some ideas to make this process more efficient and less painful. Personally, this is how I cull my work using a staged approach. First, after I have downloaded all my images, I make an initial pass through the work removing all the technically poor shots. These would be the blurry, misfires, and out-of-focus photos. If I have several pictures of the same subject made pretty much the same way, I also remove the lower-quality copies.
On a side note, I tend to focus on photographing while in the field and rarely take the time to chimp. Instead, I bracket most of my shots to increase my chances of a good one, leaving me with more work to cull.
After my first pass is complete, I look through the remaining photos and pick the top two or three images – which I then proceed to do the post-processing work on. I may print or upload these to my site or post them on Facebook or Instagram. After this is done, I usually close down and don’t look at this work for at least three months but sometimes as much as six. Taking an extended pause before the serious work of culling starts allows me to forget all the other sensory impressions I had when I did the shooting. Memories of the smells, sounds, the people I was with, my mood and so on are no longer present to influence how I feel about specific images, and I find it much easier to remain impartial and judge my work on merit rather than on the lingering memory of the day. During this process, I frequently surprise myself with my choice of keepers – which I ascribe to my impartiality. Furthermore, asking myself the following questions when culling makes the decisions easier.
Would I ever print or post this image? If the answer is no – then it has to go.
Is this similar to other images? If it is, and the differences are negligible – I pick the technically best one—low ISO, high shutter speed, sharpest and so on, after which I remove the rest.
If I genuinely can’t decide about an image, I tend to leave it. No point wasting time trying to decide whether something should go or stay. With time, as you get better, there will be fewer of these.
If I have bracketed something for HDR, I check to see if I need all the copies or if there is enough dynamic range in the best one. If there is, I remove the other bracketed shots – if not, I keep them all.
By the time my second pass is done, I will typically have whittled down my pile of photos by at least 80% or better, which makes me feel very accomplished.
Learning to cull your work is an essential skill that every photographer should master. It is better to have one impressive image everyone remembers than to make your audience go through 40 mediocre shots simply because you are unable to pick your best work. In this case, less is definitively more.