Every once in a while we have all had the experience of being smacked in the face (proverbially or otherwise) with a bit of advice that is both very obvious and extremely practical. I, too, recently experienced this phenomenon in my own life.

While I have heard/read a variety of photographers who have advocated something similar, I have never come across anyone who put the practice of “ruthlessly” deleting images into such cut-and-dry terms as Peter West Carey did in his recent post at Digital Photography School.

The Problem

In today’s digital world where we can easily fit hundreds of RAW images on a single memory card, not to mention the thousands of JPEGs we could squeeze on instead, photographers who are plagued with an itchy shutter finger quickly find themselves inundated with exorbitant amounts of images stacking up in their digital spaces.

Digital photography’s nearly limitless capacity for storing photos is both a boon and a curse. As I mentioned in a previous post, there are many unseen pitfalls to having massive amounts of storage at the ready for any person getting into the art.

And, what is Peter’s solution to “culling the gargantuan herd of images?” Delete ruthlessly!

In Camera
First, even before you arrive home, if you have downtime during your travels (think: sitting in the airport, waiting for your flight) delete photos while they are still in your camera. Here you are looking for the obvious rejects; bad blurs, really bad blurs and horrible blurs. Bad under or over exposed shots too. Your camera screen is not always the best at discerning minute details, so don’t spend time zooming and being super critical.
Typical result: 5% removed

During Download
Many programs offer a preview of images before they are downloaded. Use this time to further cull (yes, it is my favorite word this week, but I’m not sure why) the herd. The screen is a bit bigger and the sun probably isn’t shining directly on it. Again, don’t waste time zooming in. Just don’t download what you don’t want. This is an excellent time to only download one of a series where you were trying to catch action. Maybe you shot 12 images of a bull rider at a rodeo; only grab two or three that look like winners.
Typical result: Another 5% removed

First Pass
In the first pass on a computer, once I have my images in Adobe Lightroom, I will use the P and X buttons, setting my filters to only show images I have not either highlighted as a Pick (P) or Delete (X). This allows the program to show me the next picture once I have made my selection. There may be time when you can’t decide and that’s okay. Do the best with what you have and keep chugging.
Typical result: 20%-50% removed

Pass Number Two
Okay, it’s time to stop being a ninny. Looking at the photos you have selected as Picks and the ones you didn’t have the heart to mark for deletion in the First Pass. Be totally honest with yourself at this point. Be ruthless. Ask yourself, “What the heck am I going to do with each of these photos?” This is the question most fail to ask and it is at the crux of being sane and not ending up with 100,000 photos you never want to go through 10 years from now.

Without asking this question most of us defer to, “Oh, I’m sure I’ll think of something to do with that shot. I kinda like it. Sorta. And it’s not too blurry.” If you need me to play the mean guy, I’ll do it. Imagine me on your shoulder retorting, “Come on! You’re never going to use that picture and you know it!” Be honest.

If you don’t have a use for it, and it doesn’t simply sing out to you to be spared, then ax it. Are you going to print it? Include it in a web album to be shared? Include it in a photo book? Enter it in a contest? Sell it? Send it to a friend or family member? No? Then what the heck are you going to do with it!! You can’t hold on to everything in the past. Let it go. It’s just an average pictures.
Typical result: another 25% done for.

Last Pass
This is the last pass before editing. I admit to sometimes starting editing before this phase with images that jump out and demand to be ‘prettified’ in the computer. And that’s okay as well. But this last pass helps make things sane.

Here they are in front of you, all the images you know you will use in one form or another. Online, offline, upline, downline. Now give them a sharp look. Look for less than optimal shots that don’t meet snuff (if they are not simply going to friends) and, again, be honest. If it’s not a quality example of your work, nuke it. The only time I might keep a photo in this regard is if the exposure looks a little less than what can be handled with today’s technology, but the subject is solid, knowing that programs in two or three years may be able to work magic not now possible.
Typical result: maybe 10-30 shots left. More or less depending on your ruthlessness and skill level while shooting.

Since reading this I have done my best to put his advice into practice, sorting through portions of my image library that have gone untouched for months and zipping through the editing of recent shoots at a much faster pace.

Are there any points on which I disagree with him?

Being the cynical bastard that I am, certainly (although it’s not that bad). I have been, and continue to be, a firm believer in not deleting anything before you’ve had a chance to examine it on a computer (with the few exceptions that he mentions in the first step). But, once you have those few obvious rejections out of the way, wait until you can actually see the image in it’s “native” (read: RAW, not compressed, JPEG output preview) before ditching them. It’s been my experience that some amazing photos are born from those images with really crappy previews.

Read Peter’s full post here!

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