culling | to keep or not to keep

by Bre Thurston

Have you ever thought about the importance of proper culling? As photographers, we are often most concerned with obtaining correct focus, color, light, composition, good creativity, etc. Once we get back to our computers, we concentrate on a lot of things, but one of the most important things to consider is how well you are selecting which images to show to clients and which images to put on your blog or website. Personally, I have about a 1/4 “keeper” rate. So, if I shoot 300 images during a session, my client will see 75 images. If I shoot 200, they will see 50. For weddings, my keeper rate can get almost as high as 50%, but right now we are going to concentrate on portraits. There are a lot of images that I’m passing up, choosing to show better images, but what is “better”?

We are going to go through one of my recent family sessions and address a few of the key points to culling – which images is stronger, why we keep certain images and not others, and why it’s sometimes okay to keep images that others might tell you to toss.

Like most of you, I tend to shoot a lot of young kids at family sessions. I love it because you can so easily capture their genuine emotions and quirks, knowing that the parents will appreciate those quirks where others might not. Sometimes you’ll get clients who are only interested in the happy, smiling photos. Others will appreciate a more stoic, serious image, and others like the funny ones. It’s up to you to know your client and to know your own style.

culling | to keep or not to keep photo

Keep or not? Didn’t keep.
Why? There is no story in this image. I don’t know what she’s doing or what she’s looking at. Yes, it’s a nicely exposed, clear image, but nothing more. I didn’t see a reason why this should go in their gallery. If she had been looking at the camera and smiling it would have made it.

culling | to keep or not to keep photo

Keep or not? Didn’t keep.
Why? Now, I think this is a funny image. The little girl is actually my niece and it made me laugh. However, her dad is a germaphobe and I just don’t think he’d dig this photo. It all came down to my clients. If she had been looking at the camera and making a funnier face, I probably would have included it. Just because I didn’t keep this image, that doesn’t mean that you should toss your funny/silly images of kids being kids!

culling | to keep or not to keep photo

Keep or not? Didn’t keep.
Why? It’s a cute photo! I would have kept it, except…

culling | to keep or not to keep photo

I had this one!
Keep or not? Keep!
Why? I had two fairly similar images and I kept this images for one reason: The eye contact was stronger and the smile was wider. There are slight differences, but you have to know when to recognize when one image is just a bit stronger than another. Don’t keep both, it’s repetitive.

culling | to keep or not to keep photo

Keep or not? Didn’t keep.
Why? Similar to the scenario above, it’s a cute photo and if this was all I had of this pose I would have included it in their gallery. The baby is looking at me and everyone else looks happy, but in my next image there was one thing that was different…

culling | to keep or not to keep photo

Keep or not? Keep!
Why? It’s identical to the image above, except this time the little girl is looking at me. Know your client’s expectations. I knew this family was looking for a couple of images to enlarge and hang on their walls. If you talk to them ahead of time you’ll find out how they feel about candid vs. traditional. This is a fun, relaxed pose but has a bit of formality and I think that the client would appreciate the eye contact.

culling | to keep or not to keep photo

Keep or not? Didn’t keep.
Why? This is a nice portrait, but it’s a bit boring. Again, if this was the only one I got from this pose, I would have kept it but I kept looking and I got one that I liked a lot better. Now, I’m sure the client would have liked this one, but as the photographer I consider it my job to tell them which image they should like BETTER.  I’m kidding but it’s true in a way.

culling | to keep or not to keep photo

Keep or not? Keep!
Why? This is the same pose as the one above, but I like the laughter and emotion. These are the images that I want my clients to have so it’s what I give them.

culling | to keep or not to keep photo

Keep or not? Keep!
Why? It’s a nice, simple portrait. I’m not in love with it, but I like it better than the image two photos above and I figured it was okay to throw in something a bit more traditional for them. That being said, I hope they print/frame the image directly above instead.

culling | to keep or not to keep photo

Keep or not? Keep!
Why? As I talked about in the beginning, it’s nice to keep funny moments. I loved how the older sister was pointing at her brother seeming to say, “Ewww, a little boy!” It’s funny without being er, gross like the nose picking one. I think that someday she and her brother can look back at this photo and have a laugh.

culling | to keep or not to keep photo

Keep or not? Keep!
Why? This is the same as the one above, but without the humor. I am happy that I can give the client both images because they both evoke very different feelings.

culling | to keep or not to keep photo

Keep or not? Didn’t keep.
Why? I don’t know what’s happening here. I don’t know what she’s pointing at and the expression on her face is confusing to the viewer. She almost looks a bit nervous. If she had been pointing up (regardless of if we knew what she was pointing at or not) and SMILING, I likely would have kept it. This is a cute photo but I don’t think it would really add much to the gallery.

culling | to keep or not to keep photo

Keep or not? Keep!
Why? We can’t see much of her face, but it doesn’t matter. This image just screamed “childhood” to me. I liked the unique perspective of her leaning back, giving it her all as she blew on the dandelion.

culling | to keep or not to keep photo

Keep or not? Keep!
Why? This is obviously similar to the image above, but this time we can see her face and those sweet cheeks. I think the parents would like both of them.

So, moral of the story, taking strong images is just half of the battle. Knowing which images to present to your clients takes a whole other set of skills. When in doubt, have a trusted photographer friend (or two) go through your gallery and give their opinion. Just make sure to also trust your own judgement as well!

culling | to keep or not to keep photoBre Thurston, Washington
CMpro
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I am a wedding and portrait photographer based in Seattle, WA. I have been behind the camera professionally for about 4 years, but my love of documenting the things I love started long ago. I am obsessed with remembering and seeing as how I’m a total people-person, I love to create memories of people and their interactions. I’m not one of those artistic, introverted, type B people. I don’t even consider myself an artist. I simply work hard to give people what I would want out of my own photos – a huge, genuine smile. Make sure to follow me on Facebook!

26 Comments

  • Amy says:

    Thank you so much for posting this! Very insightful.

  • Michelle says:

    Awesome post! Thanks for sharing your process with us!

  • Shari says:

    Wow! Thank You so much for this article. I really helps me *feel better* for trashing
    photos that get sent to the curb.

  • Rebekah says:

    Same as Shari’s comment. I feel like I get rid of a lot. I simply can’t (lack of memory space) or don’t want to (enh images or repeats) keep every shot. It’s good to know that it isn’t necessary to hang on to every little thing even if it’s good. Good v. Best. Best wins!

  • Great advice! Thank you.

  • Lori says:

    How cool to see your process! Thank you for sharing.

  • Elena says:

    So informative! Great article, Bre!

  • Melissa D says:

    This is a great post Bre- I struggle with this very thing so it’s nice to see your process.

  • Liz says:

    Fabulous post! Very helpful not only for client photos but for personal ones too!

  • Tanya says:

    I tend to keep more of anything with adults, because we’re odd, aren’t we? I may look at an image and love it, but then the subject will see herself and think, “Oh, look at my chin, or my nose at that angle.” As for pics of children, so much easier, because they aren’t self-critical. So when culling, I keep far more of anything with adults.

  • Candice says:

    This is great, thanks!

  • Denise says:

    Thank you for this!! I have the same inner conversations with myself… sometimes it’s so hard to pick!! Does anyone else like to give an even number of photos- actually a number that ends with ‘0’ or ‘5’? that may just be my neuroses…

  • Sayoko Lynn says:

    Love and appreciate the insight. Thank you for sharing

  • Sally says:

    Thank you, good insight.
    Yes I love the editing process!

  • Pretty in Pic says:

    This is so helpful! thank you for walking everyone through the thought process.

  • Jeanie says:

    Fabulous read. I never thought about dumping image that don’t tell a story. You explained and showed that so well. Awesome, thanks for sharing your thought process. It will be very handy.

  • Megan Johns says:

    I love this post! It makes me want to finally join CM!

  • Peter Jonas says:

    Great post!! When I first started working for clients, I found it hard to cull photos. When you give them too many, or too many that look similar, you create chaos for the poor client who winds up doing your work for you. I also really agree with your comment, “as the photographer I consider it my job to tell them which image they should like BETTER”. It’s wise to be gentle about it, but I think this is appropriate and helpful.

  • Jes Gwozdz says:

    This is great! I definitely tend to overshoot so it’s helpful to see another photographer’s thought process regarding culling.

  • Adeena says:

    This is really helpful! I admit to hoarding photos. I will definitely try to cull a little better, keeping your thought process in mind. :)

  • jennifer says:

    This is awesome Bre! Thank you for sharing your thought process and gorgeous photos!

  • Nice article. I wouldn’t have kept the 2nd one of the couple as I think it makes her seem dominant and it’s not as flattering to her. The first one may be boring to you but the client will want the flattering one the most. :)

  • Megan H says:

    Well written article, Bre! Its so nice to see into your thought process. I always have trouble culling, so have this bit of insight to fall back on will be nice. Thank you!

  • Ellen says:

    This is great! I am always afraid I’ll get rid of the facial expression that mom thinks is better. :(

  • Kelly Garvey says:

    Love this bre! Thank you!

  • Casey Henshaw says:

    Thank you for this advice! It explained WHY we keep and toss certain images.

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