Objectivity, subjectivity, time and deleting images

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How many of you have given serious thought to how you evaluate and delete images? From repeat experience, I find that it matters more than you might think. Today’s article examines this in a bit more detail: surprisingly, this is one of the very few times when producing better final images has nothing at all to do with the actual image capture…

I’m going to start by stating the obvious: as a photographer, you are judged solely by what you show, not what you shoot. We are in a visual industry – at least the pros in the audience are – there is always the risk that something you post, wherever you post it, will be seen by a client or potential client. And thanks to the internet, everything is now forever. You have to thus ask yourself: taken in isolation, is this image representative of my work? Is it the kind of thing that’s good enough to go into a pitch? Or put another way, is it going to cost me a job? In fact, this is the main reason why none of the photo-review-bloggers and whatever can ever be taken seriously: it’s because there is no quality control. 99.9% of your images may be rubbish, but if you don’t show them, nobody will ever be the wiser. By the opposite logic, if you aren’t objective and delete the good ones, then nobody will ever see them, either.

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I’ve also frequently said that the whole of photography ultimately boils down to human psychology: nothing has changed. The majority of people are respond in similar ways to the same stimuli; we can use this to control to some extent the response of our audience to our images. But this also means that in order to move up to the next level, we also have to decouple ourselves from these limitations and transcend that somewhat: in order to analyze something that is a preconditioned, subconscious response, we ourselves have to be as free from that response as possible. And that bit isn’t so easy.

How does this apply to deleting things? Well, the closer you are to an image, the more of an emotional, irrational response you’re going to have to it. If you’ve spent three hours hiking before dawn to take a two hour exposure for a night landscape, you’re not likely to delete it if you find it’s a little bit misfocused when you open the file on your computer. Even though you probably should because it will be unprintable. The more effort you put in to getting a shot, the more emotionally invested you are in it: as with anything that has a high degree of such investment, it’s very difficult to objectively evaluate its merits. Good, bad? Who knows. All you do know is that you put a lot of work into getting the shot, so it should be awesome, dammit.

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By the same token, a quick grab with your iPhone is almost always taken as a throwaway shot because so little work is required on the part of the photographer. It means that not only are these typically very sloppy, but we’re also perhaps too quick to dismiss the results as ‘not being serious’. I’ve seen many high profile and normally very careful photographers who take hours to set up a shot in studio take blurry, horrible shots with their phones, run them through hipstagram and then post publicly – I was going to ask “what if your clients saw this?” but then I remembered that increasingly, this kind of rubbish is what passes for good these days due to lack of education. Oh well, another topic for another time.

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The point is that for the most part, objectivity is lacking. We take things too seriously or not seriously enough, and as a result, the final output is always compromised. It doesn’t matter if you try something a hundred times and only get one image that works – just don’t show the 99 duds. But how are you going to know which ones are duds? More importantly, how are you going to be able to recognize the good one? Here are a few tips that I’ve found work well for me:

  1. Don’t delete in camera, except for the obvious gaffes. An out of focus shot isn’t going to be magically special when viewed larger. Overexposure is overexposure. A cut off head is a cut off head. Etc. The other reason is that camera LCDs are generally pretty poor for evaluating critical color and focus; some are better than others, but you may also have a Leica M9 or Hasselblad digital…
  2. Err on the side of caution. If in doubt, keep it until you can evaluate it properly on a better display medium. If you’re still not sure it’s good enough, don’t show it.
  3. Have high standards. Forcing the bar a bit higher will mean you continuously push yourself to get better. It might become more difficult to decide what to keep, but this of course means that the keepers become even better…
  4. If in doubt, get a second opinion. It is impossible to be objective about your own work; photography by nature is subjective, remember. Ask the opinion of somebody you respect, and is qualified to give the opinion in the first place – I don’t necessarily mean in terms of technical skill, but if they have no interest in photography and hate your guts, then that person is probably not a useful point of reference.
  5. Wait a bit.

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I want to talk about the final point a bit more. I find that time is pretty much the only way you can increase your ability to objectively evaluate an image. Specifically, it’s detachment. Time gives you the opportunity to go out and do something else, reset your brain, forget a little bit about the work you did to make the image, the come back to it with semi-fresh eyes. You will of course probably not forget taking the shot, but you might forget how far you had to walk when doing so – which will then of course not cause you to hesitate before hitting delete. And of course good images are timeless; they looked good at capture, and still look good now. The really outstanding ones mature: they look better with time, partially because there are elements one can only appreciate after contemplation and partially because some people are naturally forgetful – in which case, the time between capture and critique can be shorter. Others are photographic packrats and can never bring themselves to delete everything.

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That’s Bellamy Hunt’s head, by the way. Apparently I’m stealthy enough even with the Hasselblad that another photographer can’t spot me either…

This brings up the obvious question of ‘given the price of storage, why delete at all?’ When it comes to commercial work, I’m a packrat. I keep every file just in case the client asks for something later – I’ve had it happen, and saving the outtakes has also saved my bacon. For my own work, I’m very, very ruthless. If I’m not happy with it, I’ll delete it. The reason is simple: if you are not going to look at it again, who is? Why keep it? Worse still, it just makes it more difficult to find the images you do actually want to keep.

Up til now, my workflow has always been to delete the obvious duds in camera, download the cards at the end of the day, make a preliminary cull, and then process the day after or at the end of the trip/ job (if it spans more than a day). The next cull comes when converting the raw files, with a final cull after the whole set is complete. I do not have the luxury of time to allow files to ripen; clients want their images now, or preferably yesterday. This means usually taking option 4 and getting client approval on site, taking the risk out. Unfortunately, I also don’t have that much time when it comes to my own work; at the same time, you can’t really let things sit too long either, or you might forget the end product you had in mind at the time of shooting.

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During the processing for my last trip to Tokyo, I did something  a bit different with my personal work. I didn’t delete anything during the trip, and landed up keeping close to 40GB of files. I let them sit for a week. And then, instead of systematically going through the files in the order in which they were shot (which of course makes sense anyway seeing as that gives you the maximum amount of time between capture and evaluation), I went through and processed the standouts first. Then the second rank images. I went through the processed ones and did a cull, then deleted everything remaining after one final pass. Is the set stronger? I think so, but I did feel as though there was a risk I might have missed something, and that the whole process was definitely less structured and more time consuming than usual. Oh well, we cannot mourn the images we didn’t see or don’t remember.

I think there’s definitely something here, though. But I’ll let you be the judge of that. The seemingly-random images in this post were carefully selected: they were shot with the Hasselblad 501CM and CFV-39 digital back (which has a rubbish screen, and the tendency to do weird things if you hit the shutter too quickly in succession before the buffer full clears); but more importantly, all of the photographs were ones where my first instinct was to hit delete after seeing the LCD. Now, if I hadn’t told you that, would you have suspected it? MT

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Comments

  1. Seabisquick says:

    “Pain is the best teacher”. Having to delete images when I am still a bit attached to them helps I think. I make a conscious effort to identify the mistake, then delete. The memory of that pain helps reinforce the lesson I should learn from it.

  2. Thanks for the article. I’ve been following a different approach, which you could call “Rate Ruthlessly, Delete Cautiously”. I almost never delete images in camera or on the first pass through a set, unless it’s a real blooper. However, on the first pass I usually only allow 1 out of 1000 photos be rated 5 stars. Maybe 1 out of 100 can be a 4-star, 1 out of 10 is a 3 star, and the rest divided about 80% 1 star and 20% 2 star. There are exceptions, such as event shoots, where I might promote a larger number to 3 stars to ensure subject coverage. Sometimes I’ll realize I’ve been too lenient, and do a massive downgrade of several images in one go.

    The 1 or 2 star images are never shown to anyone. Once in a while I go through the 1 and 2 star images and delete some, or pick some for post-processing opportunities that might have been missed at first. Over time, the massive build up of 1-star images has become less and less manageable, so I’m at a bit of a crossroads. I would love to see some better software support in the future. For instance, it should be possible for me to tell the computer, “delete all remaining 1-star photos of this subject” – because I already have a good set of stronger images. It would also be nice to have the computer automatically flag images that are blurry or noisy duplicates of a sharper but otherwise identical image.

  3. plevyadophy says:

    That green and yellow thing, with the motorbike and rider silhoette, I just luuuuuuuuuuuuuuuurv that shot. And the last one, the family (?) in the park, I dunno how you did that effect (a reflection?) but I love that too.

    And a great blog post.

    Thanks.

    • It’s what happens when you fire the CFV again before the buffer is cleared – long exposure times are determined by the back, so if you set it to say 5s (the interval between single shots) and fire the mechanical shutter twice at a shorter speed – this is the result. It’s not a fault, it’s just because you’re giving it more light while it’s reading out. Most cameras don’t let you do this because the mechanical and electronic bits are linked :)

  4. Will Katerberg says:

    Distance in time makes for objectivity. Months or even years later I’ll look back on an image that I once liked and see only what I don’t like. What’s gone with time is not just the emotional connection, but also the idea you had in mind when you took the picture. Years, or even mere months, later all you’re left with is the image. You see your own work more like someone else would, not with the fresh experience of making the image in mind. I have the same experience with my writing. With time, I don’t remember what I was thinking when I was writing; the writing stands, or doesn’t, on its own.

    • Maybe that’s one of the reasons we shoot film differently: we don’t necessarily have the same level of emotional involvement as with digital as we don’t see the results until they’re all done…

  5. Taildraggin says:

    I’m not trying to make a negative attribute into a positive, but film (roll eyes) processing, at least for amateurs or ‘personal’ shooting by pros, (un)naturally forces that “space” from shot-to-printing. I process in batches 1 or 2x a quarter (everything else shot digital). I do notice that time-grown detachment has an effect on my editing.

    Another ‘attribute’ of film (roll eyes, again) is that you store all the relatively low volume of negatives in silvene sleeves and 3 ring binders (not much choice here). It’s simple and much more pleasant than being a Database Administrator.

    It’s a shame that the time and freedom to shoot whatever you want, however you want is wasted on untalented amateurs.

    • The other thing about film is that you don’t have any preconception about the final result before you actually see it – that removes bias somewhat too…

  6. It might sound counterproductive, but the time I spend culling and deleting is, sometimes, longer that the time it takes me to process the few keepers. Normally I check a couple of times all the pics I have taken deleting the weak ones and choosing the favorites. Once this is done, I reduce the number of keepers to accommodate an average length post in my blog, and I process only those ones.
    I agree that this process, though a bit tedious, is necessary to sharpen our self-critical eye.
    Great article Ming!

  7. Weirdly, just took a break culling six months worth of images (ones that survived the initial edit)… only to find you’d posted this! Timely as ever. The old D800 won’t make you a better photographer, but those 36MP files certainly encourage you to get better at deleting stuff that isn’t up to scratch! :s

  8. Michael Matthews says:

    To answer your question, yes — except for the last image. The multiple viewpoints thanks to reflections make for a very engaging photo. It draws me in. In fact, I’m going back to look at it again.

  9. LOVE the last one in this series.

    I really appreciate this post. I tend to use my photoblog more like a daily journal than a gallery, but often find that when I look at images a week or two later I see them differently. Not sure I want to abandon the “note-taking,” but I might want to build in a pause, or create a different space with better-curated images. Hmmm.

    Thanks, Ming. As always, lots to think about!

  10. Kristian Wannebo says:

    This has started me thinking.
    About the grey zone between a non-obvious motif in a photograph and a photographic riddle.

    Which will depend on the audience.
    And on the photographer … :-)

    • On one hand, you can make the riddle very explicit/ plain to the audience – but that removes some of the the riddle. This means you are relying on the collective memory of your audience to recognise the little visual cues you leave for them…

  11. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Ha ha :-)

    But that also depends on the audience … ;-)
    Or does it?

    (I might not have taken a second look, had I not already been familiar with your photography …)

  12. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Well Ming, in your last sentence (I close my eyes to considering the question rethoric..)
    you DID invite comments … so here goes.

    ( “… would you have suspected it?”)
    Yes, I did guess (the title of the article helped).

    I looked at the photos before I read the text,
    and the selection, at FIRST glance, seemed rather below what you show us at your best, which was very strange considering your intention never to publish non-keepers…
    Then I read the article.
    And then I took a second look.
    Some of the photos turned very interesting, and most did at the third look.
    I had the impression that their story or idea was perhaps not always quite the one you had intended when shooting.

    – – –
    ( It took me time ….
    … to really see all of the water surface.
    … to find the looking girl which made sense to the chaos.
    At the first glance I didn’t …
    … see the moiré as half the motif.
    … see the posture of the motorcyclist (which gave sense to the blurriness in the photo).
    … see the curly knottiness of the partly sawed off tree stems (balancing the tower).
    … see the shadow of the gables on the grey wall. )
    – – –

    Nr. 7 grows on you. It reminds me of “We are not Egyptian” from Tokyo.

    – – –

    “… it’s detachment.”
    Exactly !!
    A good read!

  13. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Ming, something seemes to be missing in this sentence (above the house photo)?

    “… partially because there are elements that Some people are naturally forgetful, …”

  14. Iskabibble says:

    Another fantastic benefit of film. It forces time on you, even if you develop your own. I find myself looking at my images about 1 week later, with a totally different frame of mind had I shot them digitally and viewed them only 1 or 2 hours after shooting.

  15. Very enriching article! I’ll come back and comment more when I reread it. This comment is just to say Thank you for sharing.

  16. Mourning the images … that’s what it is all about. We fall in love with what we shoot and get attached. Why would we shoot if we did not like what we see? Detachment is part of the solution. Strangely, the most perfect images will often enough present themselves when we do not have a camera at hand. There too we sadly have to suppress this enigmatic emotion of attachment.

  17. I must be taking too many photos. Only 40 Gigs for the entire trip? I often burn through a 32 Gig card and switch to a spare even on a few hour photo walk. I am shooting less since watching your videos and I also have Photo Mechanic which is faster then bridge or LR for viewing and deleting photos…

  18. This is an issue that I struggle with often. Yes, I cull the OOF images after downloading, but after that, I hold on culling, and try to rely on rating the images with stars in Lightroom. Well, at least that is how I would like my work flow to operate. In personal work, it seems that we can sometimes be our own worst enemy by being too harsh, too soon. Sometimes it is hard to see a diamond in the rough when we are intensively looking for something else. I do tend to gravitate towards my better images, but there are times where I have gone back and reviewed my images again, and found an image calling to me that did not do so at an earlier review. Usually it is something a bit out of my normal style, and I suspect that is why it was not discovered in the first culling/review.

    I believe it is important that we be true to ourselves, and that we should always be working on being better editors of our work, but I also find that having a trusted editor is useful. Using an editor is not a substitute for editing our own work, but if the relationship is solid, and there is trust between the individuals, then I find great value in it. Sometimes a candid discussion about something, like a select body of work being reviewed, can offer a perspective that was not otherwise evident. I work with a few close friends and colleagues as the need arises, but if I had the resources, I am sure that I would want to hire a permanent editor that I trusted. Not to turn over decision making authority on my images, but rather to obtain honest feedback to help my decision making process. I suspect it is my personality, but if it helps me to get better results, who am I to complain?

    I hope you continue writing on this topic in further posts. Most folks talk about the mechanics or necessity of editing, but few discuss the process and the challenges in any detail.

    Thanks,

    –Ken

    • The diamonds in the rough might be missed for a couple of reasons – either the amount of processing foresight required when evaluating, or a lack of objectivity. I find some time between production and editing helps; but after a while, more time doesn’t improve things. If anything, by that point you’ve moved on and you like even fewer of those images…

  19. I tend to follow you general ‘multi-pass’ approach to deletion, though I would differentiate between pro and amateur photography – to the latter, I have a couple of other considerations that I make.
    My photographs act as a diary.
    A ‘poor’ photograph can act as evidence (in my personal value system) – and I guess in a commercial arena where a poor photo is better than no photo?

  20. I stopped deleting images many years ago. It isn’t worth the time. Disk drives are extremely cheap now, and I’m soon upgrading to a 2 x 5TB portable backup unit in addition to the stationary copies. The 10TB will cover 10+ years of photography for me with space to spare for yet a few years, and at least until 7 or 8TB drives will be available (I also have stationary backups, but they are on cheap 2TB units in $100 4-bay Probox cabinets). To top it off, I occasionally sell photos that I never thought I would be able to sell, but people do have peculiar needs sometimes :)

    Proper cataloging is the name of the game.

    • The problem isn’t storage, it’s finding stuff again :)

      I don’t have the time to spend cataloging, unfortunately.

      • I do the cataloging in the simplest possible way: I name the folder for each day with date, place and main theme, like “140330 Bangkok Sky-train”. That makes it easy to search for the folders. In addition, many folders will contain images that are edited for stock agencies, which means I’ll add 10-30 keywords to the EXIF, which are also searchable, at least on a Mac. Those images often lead me to other images with a similar theme.

        • I use the folder system too. Keywording just takes too long and it’s difficult to be consistent. Oddly though I have no problem remembering most of everything I’ve ever shot…

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