How to distill, organize, and process photos, for a n00b?
September 23, 2014 12:09 PM   Subscribe

Okay, so I just got back from a long vacation, where I took something like 5,000 photos. How do I sort, refine, process, and organize them?

I have about 5,000 photos from earlier as well, for a total of close to 10k. I’m trigger happy with my iPhone, so I end up with plenty of singles, but more often 3-5 pictures of shots that I particularly like, sometimes up to 10 of the (approximately) same shot.

In the past, I’ve been content to just basically keep them all — I don’t have much of a storage problem. But now, I find myself wishing I could distill the pictures I have down to ones that I just plain like, instead of scrolling through 50 of the same-ish pictures to get across what something looked and felt like.

So how do I get there from here? I put all my pictures in iPhoto and in lightroom, thinking that the proper solution would somehow reveal itself to me, but I’m basically lost. I made an album/collection for each place I traveled. My goal is to select the best pictures from the bunch, process them, and distill the results down into a manageable album/collection that is not repetitive to look at, the way they are now.

I’m sure that the pros who can tell the difference between the 25 similar shots they’ve taken have an eye for this. But how do I go about choosing here, especially in bulk? Similarly, if I have 15 angles of the same pretty lake, all of which are different, how do I pick the best one or two to keep? I don’t want to flip through 15 for the rest of my life.

Hoping to build this as a life skill. Thanks mefi!
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (14 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Process 200 pictures a night, deleting most of them, keeping the one or two that you like best from the repetitive shots, and in a couple of months you'll be done.

Yes, it really is that easy.

Don't worry about organizing them until you get the quantity down to a manageable level.
posted by COD at 12:21 PM on September 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I imagine everyone has a different system, that meets some of the same criteria. My approach to this (I deal with 200 - 500 new pics a month, on average) has become really simple. I use Picasa, though there are other (equally capable) software programs.

I reached a kind of critical mass where I had so many photos that were just junk that I'd never look at again, that I had to over-come my natural "never delete anything" tendencies. So I developed the following system, with a lot of trial and error, based on what worked for me.

I import pictures into Picasa from whatever source (camera, memory card, or phone) into a folder that is named by date and event (example: "2014-09-23 Ask Metafilter thread") with duplicate detection turned on.

Once *all* the photos from that source are imported (and then deleted from the source), I do a first pass through the entire folder, deleting obvious bad photos. If it's blurry, out of focus, badly framed, or in other ways obvious bunk, I delete it. I've gotten pretty merciless about this. The photo has to be really something special to have one of these kind of flaws and not get the axe.

Then I'll do a second pass through the folder, using the built-in rating (star) system. If a photo does nothing for me, it gets no stars. If it's got a subject I like, but otherwise is not a great photo, one star. If I like the subject AND composition, two or three stars. If the photo makes me go "Wow" it gets 4 stars.

Then I wait a little while. A day or two. A week. Whatever. Then I go back through the folder. Only at this time am I allowed to bump something up to 5 stars. To be a 5 star photo it has to be markedly better than any/most of the 4 star photos in the folder. I can also bump other photos up or down from this fresh perspective.

After that pass, I usually just delete anything three stars or less. Sometimes I'll keep the three star photos, if the total number of photos in the set was low.

This still leaves me with quite a lot of photos, but filters out the "fillers" fairly well.

At that point, if I want to do some higher-level organization, I'm working from a much more manageable set. At this point I can think about tagging by subject matter, event, or people's faces, or whatever other things I want to do with 'em.

I know a number of other folks who follow a similar process, and each has their own tricks that work for them (and not for me). Some of the things I do would drive them crazy. But the basic idea that hold true across all of us, I think, is that you come up with a system that allows you to filter out the dross, and leave you with the nuggets that are really worth keeping, and then only spend your time and energy on those.

Hope this helps!
posted by Lafe at 12:29 PM on September 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm a pro, here's my process.

Use the ratings in whatever software you prefer. iPhoto or Lightroom is fine, I use Capture One. The best way to edit your images down is to go in passes. If you're going through and looking at 15 angles of something and trying to figure out which is a 5 and which is a 2 you will get overwhelmed. Down get bogged down in the details, refine it as you go.

It helps if you pick some very general criteria for the numbers. I generally edit hundreds (or thousands) of subtle variations on a handful of shots down to maybe a few dozen at the most to present to a client. So for me the ratings are something like...

1 = anything that is not a test shot, out of focus, etc.
2 = general narrowing down - eliminate portraits where they blinked/weird face, frames that are practically identical or very similar, etc.
3 = anything that is a decent shot - not looking for the "best" shot, just trying to present good options (this is generally what i deliver to clients as a gallery). Hopefully at this point your 15 angles is more like 5 and you can put 5 up on the screen and go "ok I think this one". But in general, looking for variety ie. if it's a portrait - some horizontal, some vertical; some smiling, some serious; some candid, some posed; some looking at camera, some looking away...
4 = stuff i actually like enough to process and retouch / things that get delivered to clients
5 = omg this is best thing ever / portfolio worthy / hang that shit on a wall

There's a few things I like about this approach. For the first pass of rating 1's, I'm just eliminating frames with technical issues. This lets me get a general idea of how the shoot went over all without making any judgements about specific images. Really I don't even bring "is this a good shot or not" into it until the 3rd pass, by which point the amount of frames is much more manageable.

Process 200 pictures a night, deleting most of them,
After that pass, I usually just delete anything three stars or less.

I have to say from a best practices point of view that deleting images is at best a waste of time, at worst needlessly destructive. Hard drive space is so cheap on a per-frame basis there is no practical reason to not keep every frame forever. Editing is a skill you must constantly improve, just like shooting, so what you throw out today a few years from now you may realize was actually what was good.

I actually think everyone should go back through their old shoots and re-edit, you will definitely have a different perspective even if it was a few months ago, but most interesting to me is to go through shoots that are years old. I often see things where I'm like, "I could not have articulated this at the time I shot it, but this frame has X Y or Z in it which is what I consciously am trying to do now" and those things are almost never shots that I originally rated 5 STARS!!!! to begin with.
posted by bradbane at 1:00 PM on September 23, 2014 [15 favorites]

I use Photo Mechanic for this, which helps a lot, but that might be overkill for you.

Similarly, if I have 15 angles of the same pretty lake, all of which are different, how do I pick the best one or two to keep?

One problem I've noticed with most amateurs is that they fall in love with every photo, or they get caught up in the moment of when they actually took the photo. None of that really matters. You have to allow yourself to be objective in the process, but realize that it's also subjective and try to listen to your own instincts.

Remember that 5 great photos are much better than 10 okay photos.

And workflows are sorta like fingerprints. Mine is different from bradbane's, for example. I basically go through once, thinking yes/no/maybe, selecting all the yeses/maybes, then I'll go through again to whittle down the maybes. I'll go through them again if I'm not satisfied. (I never delete anything. It takes the pressure off knowing you can go back.)
posted by girlmightlive at 1:07 PM on September 23, 2014

Bradbane has nailed it.
posted by GeeEmm at 2:14 PM on September 23, 2014

As far as evaluating pictures are concerned, you can tell a lot from just looking at a small thumbnail of the picture. So in Lightroom, or in your file explorer look at all the pictures you took on any given day in a thumbnail view. If the thumbnail doesn't make you want to see more you can skip the photo.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 2:21 PM on September 23, 2014

Response by poster: Really helpful answers, all. Thanks. Descriptions of detailed processes like Lafe and Bradbane especially.

Dumb question for the "don't delete" camp: how, exactly, are you whittling down the images, then? Everything you've ever shot sits on the HD and you're whittling down albums/collections?
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 2:28 PM on September 23, 2014

Best answer: My workflow is similar to above, I grab all the images from a trip (usually a couple of cameras from various travelers) and dump into one directory. Fix exif time data if it's off so everything can be sorted by time, which means multiples of the same thing from different cameras are together. Then, using Picasa, a first pass, just a simple star / no star (spacebar is star). After the first pass, select all the starred photos and copy to a new directory.
Directory full of originals goes on backup drives as trip date etc. unsorted. Sometimes the blurry ones don't make it to this directory, depends on mood.
New directory with first pass starred photos gets whittled down again, once again I just use star / no star, deleting the no star ones this time (backup in original folder). Rinse / repeat until happy remaining photo set. Then print photo book of trip so we can enjoy photos without technology.
posted by defcom1 at 2:36 PM on September 23, 2014

Best answer: question for the "don't delete" camp: how, exactly, are you whittling down the images, then? Everything you've ever shot sits on the HD and you're whittling down albums/collections?

I make a folder for every shoot and put the RAW files in their own subfolder, and then I never touch them again. So yeah, I have an archive drive server with every frame I've ever shot. I whittle it down by filtering with the ratings for viewing, as described above, but there is no need to pare down the actual files.

Physically on the drive they are organized by date and shoot into folders, but in Lightroom (or whatever you use) you can filter or search by a pretty amazing amount of things in the metadata. This is why I think it's helpful to have some general criteria that's consistent across your shooting, because then you can use that information in a meaningful way.

If someone calls me up a year from now and is like, "Do you have a horizontal shot of whatever that thing was with it shown in this way?" I just open that folder up, hit the 3 star filter, and am like "Yep" (or "Not at first glance but let me look closer and get back to you" then I go back to 1 or 2 star filter).

Or let's say I need to have some prints made to update my portfolio, I can filter by 5 star shots from the last 3 months and decide from there what new stuff gets sent to the lab.

If you use the ratings consistently you can pull up exactly what you're looking for in a click or two.
posted by bradbane at 3:22 PM on September 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: On my first pass I only make the easy choices. Reject the obvious clinkers. Accept most everything. Flag the few exceptional ones that jump out.

Then wait a while and make another pass on the non-rejected group. Don't try hard, just flag the ones that seem better than average.

Wait some more. Do it again. This waiting and repeating the process is the key. There is some kind of magic that happens in your brain when you wait. When you come back for another pass, somehow the good ones are more obvious.

Repeat until you have a manageable number of good ones.

You can't rush this. 5,000 is a lot of pictures.
posted by conrad53 at 11:19 PM on September 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: But now, I find myself wishing I could distill the pictures I have down to ones that I just plain like, instead of scrolling through 50 of the same-ish pictures to get across what something looked and felt like.

Very much with bradbane on this and suggest you star/mark the ones you think are of interest (say, in Lightroom for eg) and then just look at the ones that have one or more stars, which is easy to do in that app. I'm sure other programs have similar facilities.

Another thought for the future though, is just don't take so many! Processing can be really time consuming and I can think of few things worse than scrolling through 20 shots that are really similar and trying to pick the better/best. It makes me go cross eyed. Sure HD space is incredibly cheap and sure you can shoot on continuous all the time if you want because you're not paying for film, but time is a valuable commodity for most of us and you can waste so much of it looking through stuff you will never use.

I advocate thinking about what you're doing when you're shooting and being deliberate in your choices at that point to avoid avoid wasting time later.

I mostly use a camera to make art and so I don't usually have the pressure of needing to get the shot no matter what, like those who shoot events or wedding/portrait or similar fields. When I'm working I am looking for pictures all the time - stopping the car, walking around, looking at things from different angles - but I only take out the camera occasionally. I will look through the viewfinder and set up for a shot 5-10 times for every one I actually take. If it's not making me excited before I take it, I find it best to just let it go. Grabbing it "just in case" may end up costing far more than you gain and even if you're really careful you'll still end up with lots of rubbish, so trust your gut and throw back the little ones.

Also nthing the value of keeping everything. I have just 10k images from the last 8 years of digital work. I regularly generate new work from old pictures and I am amazed at how much more I can get out of old images as my processing skills and software improve. I sometimes think I could work from this library for another decade without taking my camera out again.

You're on the right track with the need for editing though. One of the keys to making your work look good is to be brutal with your editing before anyone ever sees your stuff. Far better to show 10 great shots of a beautiful country or area than 50 shots that include those 10.
posted by mewsic at 7:15 AM on September 24, 2014

Best answer: hey so, I'm going to tell you what I do even though it's different than what you're looking for.

First, get rid of all the number 1's that Bradbane described above.

Then, throw them all in Windows Movie Maker at about .2 seconds per image. Find a song you like that's about the same length.

You get a nice movie that lets you ZOOM through your entire vacation. I can't tell you how many people have said "Wow, i just looked at all your pictures in two minutes - this is so much better than having to flip flip flip through boring shots for a half hour."

The best part is - those candid shots, those blinks and off faces, and especially those multiple-shots-of-the-same-thing all blur together to provide a sense of being, of existence. Instead of a single "best" image of e.g. a fountain, you get the composite effect of the time and care you spent taking 20 pictures of it.
posted by rebent at 7:45 AM on September 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

Something that no one seems to have touched on - rename every photo with the date and time it was taken:
"IMG501.jpg" => "20140923 1005 IMG501.jpg"
"IMG502.jpg" => "20140923 1007 IMG502.jpg"
"IMG503.jpg" => "20140924 1843 IMG503.jpg"

The date and time are invaluable in resolving what this is a picture of, when the picture itself isn't self-explanatory to your memory (which will only get worse with time).

Many photo operations - cropping, resizing, color rebalancing - can result in changes to the image file's date on the computer, but these filename prefixes will keep them sorted by time.

I use freeware named Renamer, which allows adding naming rules (%YYYY%MM%DD %HH%MM) and processing thousands of files all at once.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:32 AM on September 24, 2014

Also - don't over-think this. Unless you're a professional photographer or planning to try and sell your work, you don't need *the best* picture of the pretty lake - you need a couple of images which will remind you of being there. If you cut down the collection so that you look at it more often, this is going to keep the holiday in your memory much better than having pictures which cover every angle of the lake.

(Same with never deleting a picture - if you're not a professional, you probably aren't going to need to go back through to look at the pictures you didn't keep - and if you like to travel and to take pictures, you won't have time to look at old discard piles because you'll have too many wonderful pictures of new memories!)
posted by ontheradio at 5:23 PM on October 8, 2014

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