Learn to Delete Everything to Polish Your Photography Skills

Learn to Delete Everything to Polish Your Photography Skills

We’ve all seen it before. Everyone runs out to shoot a storm, weather event, or just the sunset at the lake, but it just turns out to be an uninteresting event. Next thing you know someone inevitably posts one or more mediocre photos from it on social media as if it was the greatest thing ever.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t share things unless they’re epic, but if you’re posting that photo just because it was the best one of the night, then you’re doing it wrong. Not every photograph you take is worthy of posting on your social media or hanging on your wall, we all know that. You should resist posting those photos, as those mediocre photos only dilute your brand.

There are times I’ll go out and not even take a photo. Sometimes the light isn't right, the subject isn't what I intended, or maybe I just couldn't get close enough to the wildlife. There are also times I’ll go out and shoot a couple dozen photos only to come home and delete them — all of them.

In the lead image for this article I was waiting for the lights to come on, and when they did I shot it at 1/45 sec @ ISO 1600 (I don't really know why), in 40+ mph winds. The image was not only soft, but the wave splash is barely visible behind the fog house; not a keeper.

Learn What Your Criteria Are for a Keeper Image

If you’re striving to become a better photographer, you need to establish minimum criteria for what you call a keeper image. This means quality criteria such as lighting, composition, sharpness, focus, subject matter, etc. These criteria will be different for different people, it all depends on your skill level.

A keeper image should meet your minimum criteria, not just simply be the best photo of the group or the best photo of the event.

Junk is junk, being the best junk from the shoot doesn’t make it a treasure.

Learn to recognize when your photos don’t meet your minimum requirements and chalk it up to be a learning experience. Over time you'll want to update your criteria for what you consider to be a keeper image.

The most common mistake I see is people posting an image that wasn’t sharp or downright out-of-focus. Occasionally, if it’s a friend, I’ll ask them about it and sometimes I’ll get the answer: "Yeah, but it was the best one if them all". Often they just admit that the subject was far off and they had to crop quite a bit.

This shot of a Bald Eagle was the best shot of the day, but still not good enough. I was limited to just one small hole through the trees to shoot through, and the light was overcast. It did fly over me later, but my shutter speed was still at 1/400 sec and every shot of that flyover had motion blur.

Analyze Your Photos Before Deleting Them

Once you’ve determined that the photos don’t meet your minimum requirement to be a keeper, don’t delete them yet. Analyze them so that you learn why they fell short of being a great image. Maybe it was just the lighting. Maybe it was your composition, focus point, or your camera settings. Whatever it is, aim to learn from it, lest you make the same mistake again.

After a while of doing this, you’ll recognize it during the shoot and hopefully either not make the same mistake again or be able to employ some other technique that might work better. Sometimes I recognize that the shot I'm going for just isn't going to work and I'll shift gears to something completely different like a macro, abstract, or minimal approach. Don’t just sit there and punch out 75 shots of the same boring sunset.

In this photo, I aimed to capture a winter sunset at the lake. There wasn't much color in the sky and the clouds weren't the greatest. I just didn't like it.

The bland sky just didn't do it for me.

I switched to close-up shots of the ice along the shoreline. I spent 40 minutes just shooting ice like this, and had a great time doing so.

With a bland sky, I switched to closeups.

Now that you’re convinced that the photos fall short of your criteria, and you’ve learned all that you can from them, delete them and move on.

Consider Reshooting the Photos

Depending on what I’m shooting, sometimes I simply delete everything and go reshoot it if I can. Instead of posting the mediocre photo of that bug, flower, or tree on social media, I wait until I have a great image. Don’t get caught up in the "I have to post something every day" mindset.

I took this photo of a hummingbird but didn't quite like the overcast light.

The overcast sky forced me to leave the sky out of the composition, I didn't quite care for this shot.

Two days later we had sunny skies with big white puffy clouds which provided the lighting and background I was looking for.

A little closer and better light two days later gave me the shot I was aiming for.

Not only does reshooting give you the chance to get a great photo, but it can also be a big confidence booster when you finally nail it and you see just how much better the new photos are. When you do get it right, it can confirm that your analysis was correct. Learning from a mistake or analysis sticks with you, and often polishes your skills.

The Exception to Deleting Everything

It seems like there's always an exception to the rule. This is one of those times. Considering that I like to teach and write, I keep some bad photos to be used as examples in articles or presentations. Keep this in mind if you’re inclined to do the same.

I have some friends that keep everything. One friend has over 250,000 photos. Over time it becomes much more difficult to store and backup all of those files. If you're going to keep everything, you might consider using a separate filing system, separate Lightroom catalog, or some other way to manage all of those files.

Final Words

When I shoot landscapes or wildlife, I’m perfectly happy if I get just one wall-worthy photo each time I go out. Sometimes I’ll get as many as 10 keepers, and sometimes I don’t get any keepers. Either way, I’m satisfied that I only keep my very best images, and sometimes I even get enjoyment in deleting everything knowing I’m keeping my standards high.

Do you have a bunch of images that should be deleted? Do you keep them all for a certain reason? Let me know in the comments!

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Tom Jensen's picture

To add to this problem: Not only do people post crap, but half of their friends on social media feel compelled to give it a like and possibly a "Great shot!!" comment. (Photography "likes" on social media is pretty much all a popularity contest and has nothing to do with merit.) Now the poor photographer thinks his shit is a brick of gold and keeps putting up the same crap. Let's help people out. If it's not a good photo, keep scrolling, or give gentle, constructive criticism.

Darian James's picture

I understand what you're trying to say, but you also have to realize that not everyone has the same eye. Not everyone is posting images thinking that it's world class. So some of those likes are in fact genuine. They don't necessarily mean validation that it's "a world class image" but are more along the lines of, "oh hey, that's neat" and then they keep it moving. Like I said though, I do understand the point you were trying to make. You said yourself though that likes have nothing to do with merit so if we as photographers just remove ourselves from that mindset then we shouldn't be looking to rain on someone else's parade.

Stephen Angulo's picture

I can't get over this title...I know you mean polish like to shine your boots, but I can't help but read Polish like the sausage.

S M's picture

Mmmmm, meat polish

Mike Dixon's picture

I was literally trying to imagine "meat polish" for a second until I figured it out. LOL

Ivan Lantsov's picture

is problem when you make upper case everything , my Inglish better!

Deleted Account's picture

Why delete *Everything"?
Just keep the cap on the lens while shooting…

Andy Hutchinson's picture

It all depends on what the purpose of your photography is. If you're a 'fine art' photographer taking moody black and white five minute exposures of pier supports in lakes, then yes, you should probably restrict yourself to just 10 images a year. And while I consider myself a landscape photographer, I'm a practical photographer too. I sell a lot of images to local businesses, tourism agencies, travel companies and tourists. All of these are promoted through my social media - some shots because I simply like them and some because I think they'll have value to someone else and can be resold in digital or print format.

I often get approached and asked if I have an image of a certain beach, mountain, lake, village or river. If I had deleted them because I wasn't quite happy enough with the light then another photographer would have got the sale. So - I delete only those shots that are completely useless - out of focus or blown out for instance. Everything else (all 200,000 images) are neatly catalogued in Lightroom, tagged with GPS in the EXIF so that if someone needs a shot of a certain place I can quickly find and share with them. I often sell images I'd never let within a mile of my own wall, because everyone's looking for something different in their photography.

So perhaps the title of your article could have said, "If you only ever take photographs for artistic purposes, learn to delete everything." Because brother, some of us are out here earning a living, not just stroking our chins thoughtfully as we consider how lonely a tree on a hillside needs to be before it has artistic merit.

Albert Whitcombe's picture

This is a multi level process for me that evolved way back there in emulsion days. FIrst view the junk goes. On 2nd view if there is no redeeming quality, gone. View 3, are there any great shots, will anything be useful if i manipulate it, use part of it, etc. or it's gone. View 4 thru ... is there actually anything great here or are the remainders archives for a later potential. With the minimal expense of storing images locally or online, I find my archived stuff often useful.

Robert Lawton's picture

Hi Mike,

Your advice is... OK. I do delete completely unusable images to save storage space. This includes out of frame, out of focus, and images with major lighting issues.

I also soundly agree with learning from successes and from mistakes.

And yes: don't post crap for public consumption.

However, there are exceptions to your ideas that are worth considering. Here's why I don't subscribe to the "keep the best, delete the rest" philosophy.

1. sequential photos, though (mostly) redundant, can be later used in animations. I've often been glad that I've been able to go back and pull images from a long ago shoot to use in an entirely unanticipated manner.

2. taxes: photos are a log of my day and can serve as evidence justifying deductible expenses

And my #1 reason by far...
3. death: (not mine) I've been photographing people for decades now, and sadly, several of my subjects have passed away. My "not good enough" photos tend to be far superior to anything their family has, and my images of a family's loved one and the events in which they participated are often the centerpiece to their memorials. Some are even "immortalized" on YouTube. Indeed, years later, I see some of those unlisted videos getting views, so I know they continue to provide friends and family some comfort.

I organize my images in folders that include the date and subject key words thereby making them easy to locate. I also use a dual USB 3.x HDD docking station. This allows me to back up each shoot onto an external HDD. The dual slots mean I can copy an HDD with just a button push. The docking station costs about $30, and a 4TB HDD costs about $120, so it's a pretty cheap solution overall.

By using this setup, my workstation contains only current projects (on a very fast SSD), I spend very little time on backups, and when I get the sad word that a subject as died, I'm able to put out a memorial in very little time.

Mike Dixon's picture

You’re correct on all your points, however that’s where your determination of what a keeper is comes into play. I also keep most of the people images I take, especially of other photographers. Sadly I had to use one last year when a photographer friend passed away unexpectedly.