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