When I do a shoot – whether it be portraits or any other subject – I end up with more photos than I can actually use. On a typical one hour family photo shoot, I can end up with as many as 100 photos. And that is one of the hardest things to do as a new photographer – going through these photos and choosing which ones to edit and keep. I have only figured out a system of narrowing down the shots I take recently, so I thought I would outline it here. I’ll use a portrait session as an example, but it really could be any subject.
First thing’s first : try to get it right in the camera. Exposure isn’t something you should be trying to fix in Lightroom or Photoshop. Figure out whether you want to freeze the action or blur it and choose your shutter speed appropriately. Think about whether you want everything in focus or if you want to use aperture to creatively blur the foreground or background. Really look at the edges of your frame and the background of your shot. If there anything in the shot that shouldn’t be? Is there a signpost or tree in the background that is going to look like it is sprouting out of the top of someone’s head? Deal with all of these things before you hit the shutter. You may want to take a couple of shots of the same pose or angle just in case someone’s eyes close or an expression changes, but everything else about your shot should be thought out and planned. That will cut the number of shots you have to go through considerably.
Once I am done my shoot and have my hundred or so images, I bring them into Lightroom and do a quick run through of those shots, deleting the ones that should never see the light of day. For a portrait session, this includes anyone with eyes closed when they shouldn’t be, any shot that isn’t in focus (or, if using some creative focus, where the focus just isn’t where you want it), and any shot where the expression on someone’s face is obviously not one they would want captured. If there were any exposure problems that weren’t taken care of in camera, these can go, too. I spend no more than five seconds per shot making these decisions. Usually even less. If you have to stop and really think about whether a shot should go, keep it (for now). At this point, I will have 75-80 shots left out of that original 100. Still way too many to even consider editing and using.
The next thing I do is go through shots and get rid of near duplicates. I may have three or four of an almost identical pose from the same angle taken split seconds apart as I tried to capture a laugh or smile. How you make decisions here will depend on the program you are using to go through photos, but in Lightroom, I am able to bring two photos side by side to compare. I take the first two photos and take a really critical look. Is the focus tack-sharp in both? Is there one where the expression is more natural? Does the smile or laugh carry into the eyes? Then I choose the one I like better and delete* the other. I bring the next photo with the same pose and go through the process again, each time choosing the best of the pair. In the end, I have only one of those four shots left. I do this for every set of near duplicates. Of the 80 shots I was working with, there may be 50 or 60 left at this point.
I then take another look at the images and look for shots that, while not identical, have a similar look and feel. Maybe the pose only changes a bit and the background is the same or similar. Go through the same editing process as was done for duplicates. This will cut another ten shots or so.
At this point, I have 30 – 40 shots. This is a fairly manageable number for high level editing. I do a very quick clean edit (no more than five minutes) one one image, and then apply it to all the other photos with similar lighting conditions. This is easy in Lightroom using the Sync Develop Settings. This isn’t an edit for effect – this is just to give the images a clean look that has your editing style. It makes it easier to do the last round of culling before you fine tune the images you will be showing the world.
Now is the time where you have to be brutally critical. You should have 30-40 unique, clean shots to look at. This is where I spend the most time. I look at each image and apply everything I have learned from looking at the works of photographers I admire and my own experience, and I delete shots that I don’t love. My opinion and experience is that for every 100 shots, there is one shot that is great. It’s the shot from a session that I want to post on my photostream immediately and show everyone who will take a look. It’s the shot I can’t resist sending to my client for a sneak peek. Just one shot that I absolutely adore. Along with that one great shot, there will be four more that are near great. One of those will likely be the favourite of other photographers or people not related to the clients. There are five to ten more shots that are good. They are worth framing and having in the client’s home and they are solid, clean family portraits that will be shown to aunts and uncles and grandmas. And there will be five to ten that are also good shots that you want your client to see because everyone looks great and they are a nice look into their family.
Twenty shots of the original hundred make this final cut. I edit these and give them to my client. Basically, I feel that I wouldn’t be embarrassed for twenty percent of my shots to be seen by the subject of the shots and their friends and family. Five to ten percent of my shots are good enough that I would be okay with my photographer friends seeing them. And only one percent of my shots are good enough that I want to post them for the world to see. These are the shots that I am truly proud of and know that when I come back to them months and months later, I will still be proud of. One out of a hundred.
This idea holds true for any other kind of photography. When I went to China, for example, I came home with about 1500 shots. One of those shots I knew would be great as soon as I hit the shutter button. I knew I would enter in a travel photography contest, and I knew it would have a chance of winning (and it did). But there are fifteen or so that I truly love and would hang on my wall, maybe 85-100 that I have posted online, and another fifty or so that I would include if I were showing friends and family a slides how of my trip to China. There are another 150 shots that I kept because they show something unique or interesting and they are good solid shots, but they are really just for me. The rest will likely never see the light of day because they are boring and not worth showing.
The bottom line is that photographers need to be really critical of our own work. Just because we have a digital camera that allows us to take hundreds of shots doesn’t mean we should be showing hundreds of shots to the world. Be picky. Choose your best work. Don’t show people shots that should have ended up in the recycle bin. Part of being a decent photographer is knowing which shots are worth showing the world… and being able to toss the rest.
*Edited to add further thoughts…
A photographer friend pointed out something and he is right, so I need to add it. When I say “delete” I don’t necessarily mean “get rid of forever”. Once the first stage of this process (where I “forever delete” the mistakes and absolutely awful shots) is done, I simply hide the ones that I don’t want to use so they go off of my radar but I still have the original files. In the case of portrait sessions, I just remove them from that collection in Lightroom. Keep the files for anything that isn’t absolutely horrid – just get them out of your workspace so you aren’t posting/distributing the lacklustre shots.