This post is a revision of one I published in 2015. The topic came to mind again as I was discussing my Adobe Lightroom workflows with an acquaintance who is currently making a switch to this software.
The question at hand is how to decide which of your hundreds or thousands of digital photos you should delete and which you should keep.
I have observed amongst some friends that the subject of culling engenders lengthy discussions including picking keepers, hiding duds, rating schemes, multiple passes, and the passage of time to try and make sure the right photos went in the right direction.
My approach does away with this angst, for the most part, by flipping the triage process on its head. Instead of deciding which photos to throw away, I decide which to publish, and keep the lot.
Back when I wrote the original piece, I had just seen the beginning of a training video in which it was claimed that 99% of the trainer’s photographs ”don’t work” and 95% of them should be deleted. He was making selections based on how well he had executed the art of photography and any frame that was slightly out of focus, unbalanced, misaligned, or poorly composed did not deserve to be kept. Even a good frame did not deserve to be kept if there was a better one of the same subject. But I contend that photography is not just art.
I have thousands of photos of aircraft that are not pleasing enough to my eye to publish, but they are a record of a particular aircraft at a particular time and location. I follow blogs which publish hundreds of such photos from years gone by and these generate a lot of interest. I can imagine some may consider photos of trains, cars or boats in the same way.
I would also consider bird photos in a similar vein. For instance, I have a handful of photos of New Zealand Dabchicks, almost all of which aren’t great to look at, but represent a lot of work I did to stalk these shy birds and to some extent serve as an aid in recognition for the future.
The trainer was a street photographer, and at first, I considered that subject matter unlikely to fall in line with my thinking. But what if you capture something which only has meaning much later than when you first review your photos? There are photos of people before they became famous, or claimed to be ”the last” before they died, many of which are artistically unremarkable, yet historically important or at the very least interesting.
What about photos of family which are memories? How many times have you seen a story about a tragic death in which the person is remembered by a photo which, usually, shows them in happy times, but also usually, is a not a great piece of photographic art? It’s the memory that is important, whether in focus or not. Even if you have 5 photos of a person in the same place at the same time, maybe there’s something in the background of one of them – a favourite toy; a cherished painting; something that takes on a deeper meaning after later events unfold. You might even have an unremarkable photo of a landscape that later undergoes dramatic change.
It was this concept of ’later significant’ photos that was explained to me many years ago after which point I haven’t deleted a single photo except a small handful which were massively out of focus or accidental shots, say, of the ground. With my shift to Adobe Photoshop Lightroom to manage my photos I have doubled down on my keywording – cleaning up as much as I can – and in the process, I have come across photos I forgot I had. Ones never before considered for publishing to the world but fascinating to rediscover and some I have cleaned up and now published.
Furthermore, the phrase ”storage is cheap” continues to ring true. Granted my photo library is not enormous (~32,000 photos @ ~375 GB) but I now have it comfortably resting on a fast external SSD. Even if it were 10 times the size, I could spend a few hundred dollars on a 4TB USB drive.
So, I do not cull my photos and have no plans to start. Rather, I organise everything to be held for posterity and then select my best or most interesting for publishing.
Here’s the first one I stumbled across in my cleanup. I have no idea what was my frame of mind that this very interesting and unique (in New Zealand) aircraft didn’t warrant publishing straight away…
…whereas the very next frame from my camera did get published.
Is this a photographic work of art? Or a memory of a young Maine Coon called Snickers?
The header image on this post is of Fouga Magister, ZK-FGA, taken on January 25th, 2004. This aircraft tragically crashed less than two months later. It’s not a fantastic photo of the aircraft, but it is the only (digital) one I have.