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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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…
- 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.
- 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…
- 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.
- Wait a bit.
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.
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.
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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