Making Choices

The rain this weekend (or threat thereof) is keeping me indoors instead of out taking photos, so I thought I'd take the opportunity to write instead!

One of my New Year's Resolutions this year is to be more decisive, and one relatively inconsequential extension of that is my workflow for processing photos. When I go out to shoot for an afternoon, I usually come back with well over 100 exposures; before I share them with anyone, I try to get it down to my three best. Doing that, and getting at least those three best edited, in the span of a few hours means a lot gets thrown away very quickly. This is how I do it.

Keep in mind, of course, that I've been a "photographer" for only about a month now, so nothing I say here is by any means authoritative. If it helps someone, that's awesome, but I'd be just as happy to be helped by it if you (yes you!) have critiques or suggestions that you'd like to share.

The Tools

Workflow management is important when you take a lot of photos; I've taken (precisely!) 1,000 photos with my DSLR since the start of 2015 alone, so keeping my collection in check can be onerous.

For my workflow, I use Lightroom, but all of the features I mention in this article are also available in Aperture and even iPhoto (and, hopefully, in some form in the new OS X Photos app coming soon).

The big features to watch out for are flagging (in Lightroom, "pick" and "reject") and star ratings. I use flags when making my first and second passes through my photos to eliminate the "noise," and again when picking the best from a series of exposures. Star ratings then help me further narrow down which photos might be worth sharing.

I also use Lightroom's color labels to slap a green label on the photo I think is the best of the day. Just for my own gratification!

First to Go: The Uninspiring

Every photographer shoots with a theme, whether conscious or subconscious — something pervasive that they try to reveal through their photos. Ansel Adams shot to portray reality.1 Duane Michals does the opposite. A friend of mine said that she tries to capture a human emotion in each of her photos. Since I usually don't have people in my photos, that can be a bit challenging for me, so in general, I go for perspective.

Hardened: A padlock hanging on a cable, with the Golden Gate Bridge visible behind it.

It's one of the reasons that two of my favorite types of photography so far have been nighttime photography and macro photography.

Night Sky: An assortment of stars, most of which weren't visible to the naked eye.

Nighttime photography, because it gives you a chance to reveal things that you can't see with the naked eye.

Tuning: A macro photo of a tuning peg on a Martin acoustic guitar.

And macro photography, because it gives you a chance to reveal things that you don't see with the naked eye.

Nothing's worse than a boring photo, and a lot of the photos you take (speaking from personal experience) are going to end up being really boring. My first pass, then, is a quick one: I look at each photo for a second or two, and if I can't immediately see a reason I might want to form a relationship with that photo, I put a "reject" flag on it.

Maybe you're a better photographer than me (you probably are), so this might not be true for everyone, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say if you aren't eliminating at least half of your photos this way, you're too attached. The fact is, you aren't going to have the time to try to bring out the best in every single photo, so focus on the ones that are going to have some artistic merit even without any edits applied.

Step 1: Flag photos that don't speak (or even whisper) to you with a "Reject" flag (press the X key in Lightroom).

Evaluate Focus and Depth of Field

Unless you're shooting with a Lytro camera (seriously the coolest technology ever), the one thing — the only thing — you can't change about your photos is their focal point and associated depth of field. Even a mediocre composition can be salvaged through cropping and rotation, but your depth of field is forever.

All About That Bass: an example of shallow macro depth of field to specifically call out the word "bass," while intentionally leaving "treble" out of field.

For that reason, my next pass is to eliminate any photos that are out of focus, focused in the wrong place, or with a depth of field that's too shallow or too great. If you're shooting with autofocus, sometimes it's going to get it wrong. If you're shooting manually-focused, sometimes you're going to get it wrong.

To any other observer, a lot of your photos that are slightly out of focus or focused differently than you intended are still going to look great, but the problem is they're never going to look great to you. You have to be proud of your work, so because of that, I've started immediately rejecting photos that would otherwise have been salvageable solely because they aren't in the kind of focus I wanted.

This is going to hurt a little bit — I've lost some great shots because of this — but whenever I've ignored this rule, all I ever see is the photo it could have been if I had just turned the focus ring by a millimeter, or had just stopped down once more. Save yourself the heartache.

Step 2: Put a "Reject" flag on any photos that are blurry, out-of-focus, or with an unpleasant depth of field.

Deduplicate

If you see something you like out in the field, you aren't going to take one photo of it, you're going to take ten.

An example of a number of exposures of the same flower in the Lightroom navigation bar.

This makes sense and is a good strategy: it means you're going to have the ultimate flexibility when it comes to producing the best result during post-production. Keeping around ten photos of the same flower with just slightly different compositions doesn't help anyone, though. It's time to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Identify series of photos of the same subject. This will usually mean just your bracketed exposures, but I'd also include photos that focus on the same "idea" in this pass: it doesn't matter from how many different angles you shot the same tree, it's still the same tree.

Step through each of these photos carefully, and start narrowing them down by rejecting the least inspiring. This is a good time to evaluate your depth of field (again), your lighting, and your composition, because these will be the hardest things to correct. Favor a correctly focused photo over a correctly composed photo over a correctly lit photo over a correctly exposed photo.

Look for photos you may be unable to salvage, but be careful not to confuse the photos that came off your camera looking better with the ones that you'll be able to make look the best. Often I've found that the photos that are lit with the best proportion of shadows and highlights will not always come off properly exposed (through no one's fault but my own, of course), but will be easy enough to fix as long as they're shot in RAW (which you always do, right?).

Once you've eliminated the obviously bad, and are hopefully left with one or two good ones, pick your favorite (with the appropriately named "Pick" flag). Try to limit yourself to one or two from each group.

My selection from the series of flower photos, chosen for its depth of field, and cropped to improve its composition.

Step 3: Identify groups of similar or bracketed photos, put a "Reject" flag on the ones that are less desirable, and put a "Pick" flag (the P key in Lightroom) on your one or two favorites.

You should also put a "Pick" flag on single exposures that you haven't already rejected.

Filter and Reevaluate

If you've done things right, at this point you should be able to do something magical. By clicking on "Attributes" in the Lightroom filter bar and choosing the "Pick" flag, you should be able to go from something that looks like this:

A large quantity of variable quality photos.

… to something that looks like this:

A smaller quantity of high quality photos.

Now it's time to reevaluate. I find that usually, in my reluctance to throw anything away, some photos will have slipped through that really won't be worth my time editing. Select the photo, press X, and watch it disappear from view as its flag is switched from "Pick" to "Reject."

Remember that everything in Lightroom is nondestructive and reversible. You aren't deleting anything, just clearing clutter so you can focus on what matters. Err on the side of rejecting: if you're that on the fence, the best it could ever be is an "OK" photo anyway.

Step 4: Filter your Library view by Picked photos, and switch the flag from "Pick" to "Reject" on any photos that you're having second thoughts about.

You probably still have some photos (which are now hidden) that have neither a pick nor a reject flag on them. Someday, it may be fun to revisit these using the "Unflagged" filter. So far, I've found it isn't.

Edit and Reevaluate

Now comes the time to really dig in and start editing. Switch into the Develop module (if you're using Lightroom), and start going through your photos one by one to make them awesome.

A before and after example of a photo taken of a recent lens purchase, the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8.

You may find as you're editing a photo that it isn't turning out as great as you hoped. You guessed it: reject it! As hard as it may be to do, if you're ever having doubts about a photo, reject it.

That isn't to say that you should reject every photo that isn't your best work — some photos will always be better than others. But if, as you start to work with a photo, you aren't able to do something you thought you'd be able to do that caused you to pick it in the first place — for instance, if you thought you'd be able to bring out more shadow detail than actually was there — there's no shame in cutting your losses rather than wasting more time on it.

At each step in the process, you should always be reevaluating, and never be afraid to change your mind.

Step 5: Develop your photos to suit your vision for them, reevaluating and rejecting as you find photos that aren't as malleable as you hoped.

Rate and Reevaluate

Once you've done as good as a job as you think you're going to do with the majority of your picked photos, it's time to start rating them.

Look at your photos one-by-one in quick succession, and give them a rating from your gut. I usually give three stars to photos that are good, but nothing special; four stars to great photos that I'm really proud of; and (rarely) five stars to the photos that I feel represent my best work. So far I've only given a five-star rating to 5 out of my 1,000 photos: keep your bar high to always push yourself to take better photos.

Since the relative quantity of five-star photos is pretty low — as it should be — one thing I do to stay cheerful is pick the best photo from every day I shoot, and mark it with a green label (press 8 in Lightroom). Filtering my entire collection to these photos is a guaranteed smile.

If you find yourself assigning a rating of one or two stars, you wasted your time on that photo. And that's totally fine! If you enjoyed yourself, then it wasn't really a waste. Use the information you gathered from this, though, to help hone your pick/reject skills on your next batch of photos.

And as always, reevaluate.

Step 6: Assign a star rating from one-to-five stars to each of your Picked photos. Move quickly and rate from your gut; if you find yourself wanting to rate a photo lower than three stars, consider Rejecting it instead.

Bring Out the Best

Once you've rated all your photos, go back to the Attribute filter bar and click that fourth star to reveal only your four- and five-star photos. With any luck, you've now got a fairly small working set.

A collection that started with 139 photos now filtered down to only 14.

Now it's time to really make these photos as good as they possibly can be. If it took me two hours to narrow 139 photos down to 14, it'll now take another two squeezing every detail out of these remaining 14.

These are your best photos from the shoot: treat them like it. Drag sliders to their extremes to try seeing them in a new perspective. Try throwing some of them into black and white. Obsess over every nook and cranny until you're truly proud of them.

With any luck, a small handful of these photos will really speak to you. These are the ones you share.

The City: A photo shot through the Golden Gate Bridge of downtown San Francisco; one of my favorites from this day.

Step 7: Aggressively edit your four- and five-star photos to bring out the best in them. Pick your favorites, and share them with the world.

Conclusion

So that's it — my Seven Steps to Photographic Success.

  1. Flag photos that don't speak (or even whisper) to you with a "Reject" flag (press the X key in Lightroom).
  2. Put a "Reject" flag on any photos that are blurry, out-of-focus, or with an unpleasant depth of field.
  3. Identify groups of similar or bracketed photos, put a "Reject" flag on the ones that are less desirable, and put a "Pick" flag (the P key in Lightroom) on your one or two favorites. Also put a "Pick" flag on single photos you haven't already rejected.
  4. Filter your Library view by Picked photos, and switch the flag from "Pick" to "Reject" on any photos that you're having second thoughts about.
  5. Develop your photos to suit your vision for them, reevaluating and rejecting as you find photos that aren't as malleable as you hoped.
  6. Assign a star rating from one-to-five stars to each of your Picked photos. Move quickly and rate from your gut; if you find yourself wanting to rate a photo lower than three stars, consider Rejecting it instead.
  7. Aggressively edit your four- and five-star photos to bring out the best in them. Pick your favorites, and share them with the world.

If I had to boil it down to a single theme, it's this: don't get bogged down. Move through your photos quickly and don't be afraid to throw away the ones that aren't stellar. Spend your time on the ones that are going to be truly awesome.

Like I said, I've only been doing this really for about a month now, so my process is always improving. Let me know what you think, share your tips, and go take awesome photos!


  1. First of all, I feel like you have to have been a photographer for at least three decades before you can reference Ansel Adams and not have it be a cliché. So… sorry about that. To elaborate a bit on what I meant, though, Ansel Adams was part of a movement (see Group f/64) that embraced images that were carefully composed and wholly in focus. This style of "pure photography" came from an interest in letting photos be photos, so to speak — of understanding photography at its essence as an art form independent from any other art form, and insisting on not borrowing technique from any form that came before it. In this way, many of Adams's photos exhibited straight realism, as examples of what makes the medium of photography distinct from any other medium. Artsy has some awesome examples of his work on their new Ansel Adams page.