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Tips & Tricks

How To Choose Your Best Images: Top Tips On Culling Your Photos

By Kishore Sawh on April 8th 2014

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It doesn’t matter if you’re a complete photo neophyte, enthusiast, or a working pro photographer, learning to cull your photos and choose the best ones is critical in being successful. It will seem a tedious, and somewhat emotionally painful task. That being said, it’s still so important and something you need to do.  If you shoot 1000 photos maybe 10 will be worth showing, while most of the remainder simply isn’t needed. Culling helps you declutter, and see the forest for the trees – the big picture. The big picture, is keeping and producing a spectacular body of work that’s a true reflection of your talent and brand.

If you flip through a magazine or a pro portfolio, you won’t see the same/very similar images over and over. The reason is that pros photographers and editors alike are a) strapped for space, and b) work endlessly towards quality over quantity and strive for high effectiveness. They’re going for the utter best image that is going to convey and achieve what they are trying to illustrate. This is the mindset to have.

Why Is It Important?

There could be scores written about the merits of culling and effective selection, but it helps to think of it from the perspective of the client, and as a business owner.

You should understand that when you’re chosen by a client, you’ve been hired not just for your technical ability to capture what you artistically envision, but also for your editing ability. Editing doesn’t simply mean retouching, but literally filtering – sorting the wheat from the chaff. If you show too many images, clients become overwhelmed and aren’t able to choose what they really love. Yet provide too little, and their lack of choice leaves a poor aftertaste and they may take only the bare minimum. Like everything else in life, there must be a balance struck.

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Speaking of balance, I think it’s important to keep in mind that during this process you need to find a balance between what you like and what your client likes. If you go with solely what your client likes, or thinks they like, you will lose your sanity, joy, and part of your personal brand. However, if you go with only what you like you’ll lose clients. 

It’s still your vocation and you need to protect it and continue it even after this one job, but you need clients.

[REWIND: Understanding Retouching: Take Advice from a Make-up Artist]

Tips On Culling & Choosing Your Best Images

Think!…Then Shoot

It’s difficult to really stress the importance of preparation before a shoot, thinking about what you want to get out of the shoot to begin with. Shooting in film certainly helped force a bit more focus and preparation, but in digital we’re largely more experimental, which is okay, but also more frivolous, which is not. Think about what you are shooting, and why that image is really one you want. Sure lighting could strike in the heat of the moment, but don’t bank on it. This step alone will help reduce the amount of ‘waste.’ *I’m aware this is certainly easier for a seasoned pro who, through experience, has a good idea of what they’re going for and need.

Go Small, THEN Go Big!

Scale/zoom out of your collection of images down to a relatively small size, I prefer just slightly larger than thumbnail. Achieving this is easily done in programs like Lightroom. When you view your images at this size, details fall away, but larger issues become more obvious; like framing, angle, composition, dead space, and also it’s easier to spot similarities to photos next to each other. This is a huge step in the process, but its important, that once you’ve done this and gotten rid of the ones with blatant issues, it’s important to get big, really big.

Going large will take a photo you think is great, and show up issues that on a smaller frame you would miss. Some examples are slight motion blur of a key point, distracting clutter, or unflattering facial expressions. There really is no substitute for seeing your images large. I actually found getting a larger computer monitor invaluable just because it showed up flaws I would never have easily seen otherwise.

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Image on the right is out of focus. I only noticed this when out of thumbnail view

Do It Quickly

When you’re in your collection viewing the small size, it’s really helpful to quickly scan your images. Go through at speed and anything blatant that’s there will stand out, and makes it easier to just stomp that image out of the process. This is even a good idea to do after you think you’ve found the chosen few you’d like to present.

I’ve found Lightroom’s ability to highlight images by making a selection, and pressing the ‘L’ key once, then twice, removes so much screen clutter it also helps to focus my eyes on the images, and often gives that little nudge when a bit stuck. For those who don’t know it, try it out and it’ll look something like this:

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Another benefit is if you go really fast, and I mean dizzyingly so for the first run, the next time round you can function more quickly and it won’t seem difficult. It’s almost like when you’re driving at 70mph on the highway, and then come off onto a residential road and 40 just seems painfully slow, because your brain is still processing information at speed.

Final Tips & Thoughts

It’s safe to say this process becomes more fluid with time, and the more you shoot. Its merits also become more apparent. On your way to becoming better at this, here are just a few little things to look for in photos as you’re scanning, especially in the thumbnail view.

  • Distracting bits of clutter – from unwanted people, to stains, structures, or even colors and textures (breaks in a consistency of pattern is a big one). Anything that takes away from the focal point of the photo.
  • Frame issues – keep an eye out to make sure the frame of your photos isn’t cutting someone off at strange spots like joints, and also in case there are things coming in the frame you don’t want, like a branch, or a light, or gear.
  • Odd expressions and things coming out of people’s bodies/heads – This one you may need to get a larger view for, but it happens all the time. From branches, to something in the far off background that in the photo can look like it’s growing out of someone’s arm or head. (This happened to me recently with a weird cloud formation)
  • Empty space – while often a useful composition tool, poor execution can ruin a photo.  A quick glance is usually all you’ll need to spot this one.

I know this is a tough process. Permanently deleting photos always makes me cringe. I usually end up being poor at it and keeping most, but when it comes time to display them, I’m absolutely ruthless. Sometimes, I’ll also step away for 30 min or so, and come back a bit refreshed and more objective.

I’ve found Lightroom to be the best all round program for mass display, selection, and organizing my photos, and the Compare and Survey view get a lot of use. I do understand LR can be a little slow at times if you’re running a less powerful computer, and if that’s the case, I would suggest taking a look at Photo Mechanic, though I think as an all rounder, LR is in a different class. We offer loads of free Lightroom tutorials to help you work and process better and more efficiently, and our Lightroom products are about the most comprehensive guides you’ll find. If you want to become finely tuned and efficient with your LR usage, and thus your editing, check out our Lightroom Workshop Collection that trains you from the ground, all the way up to professional LR use.

Happy Culling.

About

A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Joseph Prusa

    Great tips

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  2. Andrew

    Another great article, I have been working on my culling lately, thanks for the tips!

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  3. Anders C. Madsen

    Really nice article and very much relevant – culling images can be like choosing between your children at times but it is nevertheless absolutely vital to do it well.

    I took advice from an online class with Sue Bryce at CreativeLive a while back and that helped A LOT: Go through your images backwards! The best images are almost always in the last third of the shoot, and it is so much easier to dismiss a so-so shot if you already selected another, much better shot from a little later in the shoot.

    Keep up the good work. :)

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Hi Anders, thanks for the kind words. I’m always glad when our readers can relate and find some real use of what we produce. I have to give that a go, the working backwards. I have to say that sounds like an interesting idea. I have actually found that my first photo of a set/pose/scene is the one I choose, but perhaps that’s because I generally am not trigger happy. But this backwards Idea would likely be useful for me looking back from the end of a shoot. Cheers!

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  4. Heinrich

    Good article that nicely describes the editing pain each photographer goes through after every shoot. It’s absolutely vital not to dilute ones portfolio with good pictures amongst the stunning and really strong ones. Unfortunately, digital has exponentially increased the pain compared to the analog days where you did the first pass with a magnifying lens over the contact print or slide strips.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Heinrich, hello. I entirely agree that dilution of a portfolio is disastrous. It’s one of the primary issues I see with new photographers, the less discerning, and even many who’ve been shooting for some time. PS – nice India shots

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  5. Gonzalo

    How true! I spend more time culling than shooting and processing the images, as I believe that one strong capture is worth more than 100 average ones, so spending the time choosing very carefully your picks is really the key to having a strong portfolio.
    In case of doubt, I always choose to discard, and only the images that are out of any hesitation make it to the “publish” folder. This process takes a lot of time but it forces you to be self-critical and improve, though in some sessions this is specially difficult, because you have an unusually successful collection. This is what happened to me in my last photoshoot, and you can read (and see) the story in my blog: http://gonzalobroto.blogspot.com/2014/03/from-drought-to-flood-on-inconsistency.html

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Gonzalo, hi there. I’ve just read your post, and it seems we are on the same wavelength. “The wise trick of letting the pictures sleep for a few weeks in the darkness of the hard disk before resuming work on them has not worked that well this time. I usually work on stills that I have captured a month or two before, and this distance truly helps sharpening the critical eye, making it easier to separate the wheat from the chaff.” Indeed. You do some nice work – keep it up, and be well!

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  6. J. Cassario

    Great article Kish, and like you stated, be able to effectively cull is a crucial step in a workflow. Well written my friend.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Well thank you kind sir. I really do feel it is crucial. I was prompted to write this because of a friend who recently is gotten into photography in the caribbean, and just posts way too much of his work, and trying to get him to see the value in the cliche, but truism, that less really IS more.

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