After Shooting: How to Cull Your Images

You’ve just come back from photographing your favorite subject. Maybe it was your daughter’s soccer game or some birds. Regardless of what you were shooting, your next job is to start working with your photos. In this article, I’ll give you one approach to narrowing down your images.

My photo professor once told the class that if you got one or two keepers per roll of film you were doing well. With digital, you’re not limited to a roll, but chances are every image you shoot isn’t really worthy of your editing time. 

This is where you’re going to need to cull. Culling is the term used by photographers to describe the process of weeding out the good photos from the bad. With culling, your goal is to cut down an entire folder of images into a handful that you should truly spend your time editing, storing or posting online. 

With a small batch of images, this is easy to do in a program like Adobe LightroomAdobe BridgePhoto Mechanic, or Capture One.  Regardless of your software choice, you’ll want a program that allows you to just look at thumbnails. It’s ok to review your images as large thumbnails, but save yourself some time and don’t plan on opening each image in full-screen view—it’s not only time consuming, it’s hard to compare one shot to another when it’s taking up your whole screen.  Instead look at a set of similar images and see if one jumps out at you immediately. If it does flag it and move on—this is a positive selection where you are choosing to include images instead of looking at the whole set and picking images for the trash. 

I used to think I had to look at every image at full screen—that I might be missing some amazing photo…but after 10 years of doing it I’ve realized an awesome shot looks amazing big or small. Have no fear about flying through your images quickly in the thumbnail view to flag them. You won’t have a bunch of awesome shots slipping through the cracks. The gems will stand out—the reverse, however, is where you need to watch out. 

Once you get to editing your images you’ll invariably find a small percentage of your images that just don’t cut it for things like focus or expression. This is when you’ll want to go back to your un-flagged images to select an alternate. 

If you’re using Lightroom, there’s a function that lets you select a few images so you can compare them. Control/Command click the images you want to compare and push the “N” key on your keyboard. This will display only the images you selected. From there, I like to “X” images out that right off the bat are terrible… people blinking, exposure misses, blurry, etc.  I might then get to the point where I have three or four that are super similar. Try to get it down to just one. No one really wants to look at four similar images (especially a client) because it just opens up room to nit pick over which is “best” and if they’re so similar that it’s hard to pick for you, really any one will do!

The key thing to remember is that if you are faced with an image that isn’t up to your standards, remove it from your selection. You’re far better off without a particular image than having a sub par photo in your collection.  You’re only as good as your weakest image. Once you’re done editing and toning your images, just quickly look through your final collection again full-screen—you might find that there one or two that just don’t make the cut.  Remove those and you’re ready to share your finished work.

To review, here are the tips for being more effective in culling your images. 

  • Pick quickly.
  • Be critical and try and separate your emotional attachment to the work.
  • Remember you’re only as good as your worst shot…so even though that smile is cute, if your focus was off or your lighting wasn’t quite right, remove it.
  • A thumbnail is often big enough for selects and it is much faster to pick 5 images from a contact sheet than it is to open each image.

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