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Narrowing Down Your Shots

July 03, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

This article is going to discuss one of the harder parts of photography to me.  It's something I learned that I HAVE to do as a professional from my uncle, and although sometimes it's a pain it has to be done.

One of the toughest things for me when I'm editing my photos is deciding which one to choose.  There are a lot of times as a photographer where I take multiple shots of something from slightly different angles.  Afterwards I have to choose which one to submit to the client, or to put in an album.

I've seen a lot of albums, on Facebook especially, where people will post an album with 20 pictures, and except for slight variations, they are all the same photo of the exact same subject.  I admit that even I have been guilty of this, especially when I was first starting to those steps between amateur and pro.

To give an example, I used to work at the Buffalo Museum of Science as the Group Reservations and External Relations Associate receptionist.  On lunch I would get an hour break, and I was told to take the entire hour.  As I usually brought my lunch that meant I would usually take 10-15 minutes to eat my lunch then I would wander around the museum for 45 minutes with my camera.  I swear I have probably catalogued every exhibit in that museum between 2009-2012 with the exception of those exhibits where photography was expressly forbidden.  Either way I have lots of pics of things like the velociraptor skeleton.  I have it from multiple angles.  From the side, straight on, in the old exhibition room, in the new exhibition room, you name it.  Now even though I have many pics of this particular skeleton, it doesn't mean I want to post all of them in the same album. 

I've probably taken 100 shots of that skeleton under various conditions, as mentioned earlier from different angles and in different rooms.  This is where the narrowing down comes in.   The method that I use I discovered while reading The Passionate Photographer by Steve Simon (www.stevesimonphoto.com).  What follows is a truncated version of the method and how I follow it.  If you really want to get into more explicit detail on how his system works, buy the book and read it.  It's well worth it, and I keep my tabbed copy sitting on my desk.

The first thing to do is to go through the photos one by one and see if they are technically correct (in focus and correct white balance).  If you are using a program that allows you to rate your photos label it with 1 star.  I use Adobe Photoshop Elements (APE).  Anything that is either blurry due to camera shake or subject movement, incorrect white balance, etc. doesn't get rated.  Some people will delete these photos from their hard drive.  I don't.  When you read Steve Simon's book you'll discover why you should keep even those that aren't technically perfect.  I then make sure to use APE to write my ratings and metadata to the file, and then move all of my one star photos to their own folder inside the home folder.  I then label it as such.  The system I use is usually the date followed by the subject.  In this case, I'll use today's date just for the example with the home folder being "2013-07-04 Velociraptor."  Inside of this folder I will make a folder for the RAW images "2013-07-04 Velociraptor RAW" and then I will create "2013-07-04 Velociraptor 1 Star." All of the RAW files go into the RAW folder, and all the one starred items go into the 1 star folder.  As I have my camera set to shoot jpg and RAW this is the most efficient method for me.  You may find something that works for you better.  Every month or so I will backup my RAW images to DVD.

Once you have done the initial run through take a break.  Whether this is a cup of coffee, a smoke, or a Firefly marathon is up to you.  Any way you slice it, walk away from the computer.  Let your eyes rest, let your mind rest.

When you come back go through all of the photos that you labeled with 1 star.  Check for any above average photos.  Again this can be subjective, but for me these are the ones where I feel that I nailed the shot, and I mean nailed it.  What I wanted sharp is sharp, the rule of thirds line up perfectly, and the lighting and white balance are exactly as I wanted.  These are also the photos where when I look at them a second time I usually stop my wifeling and make her look at the photo, and even she goes, "Wow." (Trust me, it happens less often than I'd like.)  As I go through these photos I label them with a second star. Once I'm finished I'll move all the second star photos into a new folder labeled, you guessed it, "2013-07-04 Velociraptor 2 Star."  For my velociraptor photos these are the ones where the spine lines up nicely with the bottom or top third of the image, depending on how much of the legs I want in frame.  The head is at a nice angle, etc.

Personally, I nest all of the folders.  My first folder will be the default "My Pictures," in it I will have folders labeled with each year I've been shooting, as well as a few photos for the things that I use often, such as business logos for my watermarking, website reduced photos for the forum I belong to, etc.  After that I have a folder for each month.  Then one for each day I've downloaded the photos.  While every folder is labeled with a date, not everyone is labeled with a subject unless I feel it is necessary.  If I'm just keeping tooling around during the weekend taking family photos, there is no reason to label it family photos.  If I'm doing a shoot for a client however I'm going to want to be able to find these photos quickly, even without the APE keyword tags.  Redundancy is a good thing. 

After you have gone through this for the second time, it's time to take a quick break and go through it a third.  For this I will hook up to my large screen monitor and look at images full size.  We're double checking for sharpness, so the large screen can help.  You also want to compare similar photos.   This is where it can get really tough.  By now I've probably "tossed out" a lot of photos from the pool.  What's left are those images that any image by itself is a good shot. They're all technically perfect, they all line up nicely, they are clear and crisp with no errors or artifacts in the image.  Let's say I've narrowed it down now from 100 to 10.  They may all be from different angles, or they may be from a very similar angle.  Let's say 3/4 body profile with the head looking straight at the camera.  In APE I just hit F12 and it allows me to compare images side by side.  If I have two very similar images this is where I'm going to double and triple check sharpness, check the lighting etc.  Is one exposure slightly off?  Is there a yet unseen artifact in the image, whether it's a smudge on the lens, or something out of place in the background?  I mentioned earlier that our velociraptor changed exhibit halls, is one background more distracting than the other?  All of this can be very subjective, but I recommend making a decision and moving one into round three and leaving the other behind.  After this third round, you know what to do.  Label the winners with a third star, and move them to the new folder.  

For most projects three stars is where I stop.  There are usually very few photos by this point, at least compared to what I started with.  In the velociraptor example I started with 100 images, and maybe 3 or 4 of them will rate 3 stars.  Same is true with client photos.  If you're doing a portrait session, let's say a headshot, there are only so many different positions you can place the head and shoulders, so a lot of these photos will look the same to the untrained eye.  The key is to go through, pick out which ones have the best lighting, the best sharpness, etc.  And give those to the client for use.

If you are building your portfolio, this is where the next two steps get extra tricky.  4 Star photos are typically the ones where you take the shot and can't wait to get back home and see them.  These are the ones that when you take the shot, you know you nailed it.  You want it on your wall, whether it's your physical living room wall, or your Facebook wall.  These are the ones that when you take it you just want it.   As Steve Simon says, "These are the diamonds in the rough."  When I worked at the museum I had a digital frame on my desk.  These were typically the photos that when my boss would walk by my desk she would stop and tell me that I needed to quit my job and become a full time photographer, because she didn't pay me enough. 

5 Star photos are the portfolio worthy ones.  These are the ones where even six months or a year later you can look back and remember exactly how you felt when you took that shot.  Just looking at them fills you with a sense of pride, and typically the first word you think of is, "yes." I have my computer set up to change my wallpaper every couple hours.  The 5 star photos are the ones where they come up in rotation and I stop what I'm doing to admire the photo again.  To me these are like the wallet photos of your kid.  They're an extreme rarity, but you want to show the picture to everyone you meet.

Anyway, I hope this helps.  As usual, I have not been endorsed in any way to critique The Passionate Photographer or Adobe Photoshop Elements.  These are merely the methods that I use and allow my workflow to be at it's smoothest.


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