Help me be a better photo editor.
September 6, 2006 1:02 PM   Subscribe

Help me to be a better photo editor.

I can't throw anything away! In the past year I have taken over 10,000 digital pictures. Mostly family stuff, but some some "artsy" pics as well. When I can get my little girls to sit still for a second, I'll shoot 100 pictures at a time, maybe changing poses four or five times. Out of that, I'll get maybe a dozen pretty good pictures and one or two "keepers" that are worth printing and framing. I'll upload the 12 or so to Flickr and maybe email the "keepers" to family and friends worldwide.

Here's the thing, though. I can't bring myself to dump the 90% of "Eh." pictures. I KNOW they're not worth keeping. I KNOW that there's nothing to them. I took three years of photography in college and I KNOW the difference between good and bad pictures. But there they sit, junking up my photo program, doing nothing for me.

Still. I. Just. Can't.

Part of me thinks it's because that (when I used to shoot film) I loved looking at contact sheets and picking out the "gems". I loved the process of seeing a great photo coming out of the mound of "not-so-goods." Also, my great-grandfather was a photographer of some reknown and I treasure looking at all of his negatives, good and bad, and seeing his process. I suppose it's egotistical to think that three generations down the line someone would want to see all 1,100 pictures of my baby's toes that I've taken, but I still can't get over that psychological stumbling block. Plus, (and this, I acknowlege is the lamest thing) the pictures are, you know, of my beautiful little girls. How do you throw away pictures of your little girl, even if there's snot crust on her nose and her eyes are half closed?

The obvious solution is to archive everything I shoot and then keep only the cream of the crop in my computer, but that's exactly what I can't bring myself to do.

Am I a crazy person? Is there some secret to letting go?

I have a Canon Rebel XT and I use iPhoto on my Mac and Picasa on my work computer. I also have a flickr account where I upload some of my favorite pictures.
posted by ColdChef to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I can't throw away any pictures either, although I archive all the RAW files to named, organized directories on an external hard drive, and then copy out pictures that I want to buff to either iPhoto or to a workflow directory.

Don't keep all your photos in your working directory, just keep your keepers there. That was the secret for me.
posted by bshort at 1:18 PM on September 6, 2006

Or keep whatever you want in the "working" directory, but always put copies of the keepers in a special directory. Someday, you may not want to throw out the so-so photos, but at least it will be easy for you to find just the cream.
posted by amtho at 1:32 PM on September 6, 2006

Seconding bshort. You wouldn't cut out only the keepers from negatives; don't do it with film. Just don't keep them live. Put the usable ones in your mac hard drive, the others on a removable disk.
posted by bonaldi at 1:32 PM on September 6, 2006

I agree w/ everyone else. Buy a cheap external hard drive (or an even bigger, cheaper internal enclosure) and store all your photos there. Then copy the best ones over to your working drive whenever you need them.
posted by muddgirl at 1:41 PM on September 6, 2006

Why delete anything but the horribly out of focus? Digital storage is so cheap it is better to keep everything. You never know when your two year old cruft will become the Time picture of the week.
posted by Mitheral at 1:46 PM on September 6, 2006

Yes to archiving. Keep your keepers on your active drive, move everything else over to cold storage for retrieval at a later date if that later date ever comes around.

Can't bear to part with the archived photos? Love looking at a contact sheet? Create thumbnails (or something similar) of everything you archive, keep that as an organized directory of everything. Much smaller footprint, comforting at-a-moment access to what's in the archived stuff.
posted by cortex at 3:20 PM on September 6, 2006

Best answer: I'll be the lone voice of dissent. I think it's a waste to keep anything but the best photographs, especially if you take a lot. But I also have problems deleting, even though I subscribe to the theory.

If I take a thousand pictures on vacation I download them all to iPhoto. Then I immediately delete any that I hate. Then I put it away. A day or two later I go through what's left and do the same thing. Delete, step away. After a few times I have it down to a much more reasonable number. During one of the last reviews, I'll take the border line pictures and mess around with them, hoping to take them from average/good to good/great. Then I make my final deletions.

I simply don't get the attitude that 'storage is cheap' so there's not reason to throw out anything. A crappy photo is a crappy photo. Of course, some people keep every book they've ever read, even if they hated it, so it's really a personal decision.

But I've made the decision to edit, edit, edit. Pictures are stuff, and too much stuff makes me feel like I'm in overwhelmed. With the amount of pictures I can take with a digital camera, I'm still going to have thousands of pictures I have to backup and deal with. It all takes time. I'd rather spend that time on a colllection of pictures that I love, no matter which one I choose from the stack.
posted by justgary at 4:29 PM on September 6, 2006 [1 favorite]

Storage isn't that cheap. I'd have to pay 0.5 - 2 cents per photo if I wanted to keep large RAW files lying around on hard drives. You probably can't easily overcome obsessive digital completionism. My only suggestion is to focus on yourself rather than your media. While someone in the future might find value in a bad photo, the odds are against you.
posted by aye at 4:51 PM on September 6, 2006

Heh: the comment flagging shows what you wanted to hear, but it's worth having a go anyway. To expand on what I said before, it's definitely worth keeping all your pictures not just because they might mean more in the future, but because of the stories they tell you.

You know how you can pick up a ticket stub from the back of a wallet found at the bottom of the closet and be transported back to the cinema in 1994, and smell the girl you were with?

Images are like that. You find one dud from years ago, and it's of a tripod leg on the grass ... you'll remember taking the pictures that day, and what the grass smelt like, and the jokes you told. Even shit images tell *you* a story, although they will be meaningless to someone else.

Keep only the good ones, and you keep only the story you wanted to tell, not the one that you were living.

On the software side, Aperture is fantastic at keeping old pictures because it folds them up into a stack. You only see the keeper -- but the rest are there waiting for you if you need them.
posted by bonaldi at 5:13 PM on September 6, 2006

Since I had a baby, I haven't been able to delete any recognizable shots of him. I've never been the least bit superstitious before, but... I finally realized that deleting a photo of him felt somehow like deleting a tiny part of him. It felt reckless and ungrateful. Maybe you understand what I mean, ColdChef?

So, silly as it is, I keep 'em all, though I'm in the process of archiving them to DVD (multiple copies, in case something happens to one of the DVDs). Plus, as bonaldi mentioned, sometimes the duds are more evocative than the "good" ones. Storage is only going to get cheaper, and my son will never be a baby again. I'm not going to flog myself to get rid of any of my irreplaceable memories. Someday I hope my great-grandchildren will see all my photos, duds and all, and intuit the stories behind them, and a little bit about the daily lives and times of their great-grandma and great-grandpa.
posted by ROTFL at 6:36 PM on September 6, 2006

I'd just like to say that computer science will likely one day save blurry images. Not to mention that there are other interesting reasons to keep them - you can, for example, now run automated panorama detection on your 10k photos and get panos you never thought you had. I've done this and it's on my website/blog, the results made every CDROM backup and disk purchase absolutely worth it.

Digital files are not heavy, not dirty, and not expensive to keep. If you really need to "delete" buy a disk and an enclosure, and "delete" them onto it using cut and paste. Then turn it off and forget about them. You'll be using a tiny amount of space and money to allow for some cool trick-turning later.
posted by fake at 8:02 PM on September 6, 2006

You know how you can pick up a ticket stub from the back of a wallet found at the bottom of the closet and be transported back to the cinema in 1994, and smell the girl you were with?

That's just one kind of editing. If someone goes to new york city for the first time and takes 50 pictures from different angles of the statue of liberty, they should hope that a few turn out well, or maybe just one. You don't need to keep 50 pictures of statue of liberty. That's what I'm talking about.

Fantastic photographers delete tons of pictures. I read a story once about a photographer who took a picture of a sunset for national geographic. They asked him how he got such a fantastic shot. He said he took 500 pictures, deleted the 499 and kept the one.

I bet ColdChef takes a ton of pictures, and from his education he obviously knows what he's doing, and has a grip on what he likes and doesn't. I sympathize with his quandary, because I have the same one. I struggle with it every time I sit down to edit a set of pictures. But I think it's worth it, and it gets easier (and you get better) as you do it.

If someone wants to continually back up a datebase of tens of thousands of mediocre/blurry photographs in the hopes that the future will bring tools that make them great, god bless em. I would hope I take enough good pictures not to worry about such things.
posted by justgary at 8:30 PM on September 6, 2006

One thing I've learned to do is to go through the editting process immediately after taking the photographs (same day).

Somehow, this makes the "deleting" easier though I know how hard it can be. If I let the pictures "stick around" for too long without editting, I never feel like doing it (it is do have to be critical) and as a result, the crappy pictures never get thrown away.

I don't have kids myself, but I shoot my friends kids a lot, and I know they always like the shots I send them, cause usually it is the one or two best shots out of a hundred.

My two biggest tips to being a better photographer are:
1) using a tripod when possible
2) Shooting a ton of pictures, and being ruthless in the editting.

Not necessarily related, but I think the desire to keep every picture is not unlike a "virtual" version of that OCD "Hoarding" impulse that was recently a FPP on the blue. (and I say this is a borderline "hoarder" myself)
posted by extrabox at 9:14 PM on September 6, 2006

My two biggest tips to being a better photographer are:
1) using a tripod when possible
2) Shooting a ton of pictures, and being ruthless in the editting.

Not necessarily related, but I think the desire to keep every picture is not unlike a "virtual" version of that OCD "Hoarding" impulse that was recently a FPP on the blue. (and I say this is a borderline "hoarder" myself)

Very well put, and great advice. I certainly understand that everyone has an editing 'threshold' that they're comfortable with. One person might keep only the excellent pictures, while one may keep good to excellent. But I simply can't fathom keeping it all, any more than keeping everything of anything (the hoarding comparison is a good one). I could easily end up with several hundred thousand pictures in a couple of years.

I can understand the fear that a person may throw out a picture they regret later, but the benefits from editing are far greater than that chance. What's ironic is personally I have a very hard time editing down when I first take the photographs. I'm too close to the occasion. The further I get away from the subject (in time) the less emotionally involved I become. So by the third time I take a look at the set, often a week later, I'm often baffled at some of the photographs I thought worthy of keeping. Different strokes...
posted by justgary at 11:54 PM on September 6, 2006

And yet you don't see the possibility that in three years you'll be baffled by some of the photographs you thought fit only for deletion?

In my thinking there is probably a percentage of hangover from the film days when I spent hours each day filing negatives for a picture archive and boxes of negatives were a photographer's pension, but I still see absolutely no link between editing and deletion. I've seen the value of going back to find the overlooked shot or the "new" angle on an overused scene many, many times.

Yes, "fantastic photographers" whittle down, and one of the skills is being able to present only three or four great shots from a set of many hundreds, but this doesn't necessarily mean they delete.

What about the picture of the statue of liberty that turns out to have Monica Lewinsky in it? How much value do we place on being able to see Cartier-Bresson's contact sheet in addition to the one decisive shot?
posted by bonaldi at 3:21 AM on September 7, 2006

And yet you don't see the possibility that in three years you'll be baffled by some of the photographs you thought fit only for deletion?

Hasn't happened in 25 years so I'm guessing not.

Again, much of my deletion has little to do with your example. Taking 15 pictures of the same person/object/scene with only minor differences (ex. lighting) isn't going to result in regret for me. If someone want's to keep every picture ever taken for the chance monica lewinski might be in it, I can respect that.

The question was basically "I want to delete pictures but can't bring myself to do it, how do you do it?" I'm just giving my reasoning. Maybe one day I'll regret deleting 'the picture', but the benefits are great enough to take that very minor chance. I don't delete on a whim. I take it very seriously.

(if photography is your life, your profession, I can more understand archiving everything, even though I know many don't.)
posted by justgary at 11:36 AM on September 7, 2006

Hasn't happened in 25 years so I'm guessing not.
Well it couldn't, could it? You delete them! I take your point, though.
posted by bonaldi at 12:31 PM on September 7, 2006

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