Why You Should Never Delete Photos

As you take pictures over the years, your mountain of images will grow. Many of them — indeed, most of them — will be forgettable, uninteresting, or unwanted. So, should you just delete them?

I've made lots of mistakes in my career as a photographer, but there's one area I got right. From the first time I got my camera I identified two important things: 1) My tastes and skill change over time, and 2) storage is cheap. So, I didn't delete any images unless they were completely out of focus. I remember a far more senior and experienced photographer telling me as a novice that it was silly to keep all images and that I'd never look at them again. I could see his point, but I didn't agree. It's not like putting knick-knacks in the attic for several decades in case you ever want it.

In the last year, I've started to get the fruits of this bizarre behavior of digital hoarding. I started going back through trips I'd been on and seeing if I could figure out how to edit some landscapes in a way I like. Regular readers of mine know well that I am not a landscape photographer and when I do try, I can never quite get them to the ridiculous, unachievable standard I aspire to. Nevertheless, as lockdown had me climbing the walls, I started going through trips to interesting places where I'd only edited one or two images. In this task, I created multiple sets of images that I now really like, a few standalone images I will get printed, and re-edited a few near misses. For the tiny amount of money it takes to store and back-up old photos, it really is a no-brainer to me.

Do you delete photos? Why, or why not? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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14 Comments

Andy Coleman's picture

I wonder if there's a generational aspect, sort of how people who lived during the depression never wasted anything for the rest of their lives. My formative digital years had such expensive memory that I can't help but delete unused content. I need to get better at keeping my one-star images.

Charles Mercier's picture

One suggestion is to store those photos in another external HD. Anyway, of course I delete photos. Too many photos are just too overwhelming. As soon as I take a set of photos, usually at the end of the day, I go through them and delete the cruddy ones.

Tom Reichner's picture

I absolutely delete ... lots of them.

Why?

Because as a wildlife photographer, I will often take dozens, or even hundreds, of photos of the same animal in the same place, all within a few minutes of each other.

If I have 200 frames of a deer standing still in the forest, all taken within 5 or 10 minutes, and all while he was in exactly the same spot, then I try to narrow it down to two or three dozen images, and delete the rest. There will always be a great number of frames where the deer is blinking, or has his tongue out in an awkward position, etc. And there are always so many frames that look exactly the same - so much so that I cannot tell any difference between them.

Why in the world would I keep every single shot, when there are so many hundred of duplicates and/or very near duplicates? Why would the author ever suggest that I keep every single frame that I ever shoot? Given the way that I shoot, and the enormous volume of images that are amassed, that sounds like insanity.

Charles Mercier's picture

It's insane, I tell you. IT'S INSANE!

Dan Jefferies's picture

I go after birds a lot. After a certain point any particular bird is "killed". I have enough poses in focus and anything else is just gravy. Unless that gravy has a snake wrapped around its head its going to the delete file.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Event photographer joins bird photographers. At the end of the day - we are both shooting animals in their natural habitat.

90% of photos moved to garbage without any regrets.

I still to have a glimpse of inspiration to come back to those folders (can’t even call them files).

Jim Arco's picture

One of the reasons I seldom delete images is the fact that technology is constantly changing. I have resurrected dozens / hundreds of images that were considered underexposed, overexposed, too noisy, etc as the available tools improved. I often say that we can fix almost anything except out-of-focus - and who knows what Photoshop 2023 might be able to do. Storage space is just too cheap to trash anything but the five-star images.

Additionally, my needs/wants change over time. A poorly-posed image of my pouting youngest child fell into the "reject" category until I ran across a very similarly-posed photo of HIS child at about the same age. Putting the two of them side-by-side made for a popular final image.

Of course, there is a difference between storing an images and having it available right there in your face. Most tools that I've used have some way to put the lesser quality images aside (star rating, reject, etc) so that the can be out of the way but available whenever I might want to see them.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Yep, sure do. To me, it's a waste of space, not to mention silly, to hold on to, let's say 1000 photos for the day. I'm not going to hold on to all of them due to anxiety and indecisiveness. There will be other photoshoots and other shooting opportunities so no need to fret.

Kenneth Tanaka's picture

I disagree, at least to a point. The central retention thesis made more sense in the chemical era when most photographers were limited by shots per roll. Today people are coming home with thousands of images from just a few hours of ... nothingness. Learning to coarse-edit and then, later, fine-edit your work is a skill essential for distilling your eye. Yes, you might have to live with the fear that you’ve deleted something you might have valued in the future. But it’s highly unlikely if you have any sense at all.

BTW, “So, I didn't delete any images unless they were completely out of focus.”
Some of my favorite images, and the most celebrated images of all time, were technically out of focus. Be careful of deleting all these technically imperfect frames. That’s where many of your future gems may be found.

Jim Cutler's picture

If you're not deleting, someone is going to throw out your massive collection some day when you die. It's simply too much to go through. Or for the same reason they will miss the best of's because there are too may versions. If you do keep everything, make a really obvious set of your very bests. I don't mean by having someone someday apply a 5 star filter to your entire catalog to see the bests because they probably won't know how to work Lightroom. I used to keep everything since all family photos were precious. Then I saw how my family skips past most images because there are so many. Then I culled everything except the best (or at least one or each) of the keepers. Attention spans of your viewers, family, clients, etc are shorter than every today. This works well for me and is just my opinion, I could be wrong.

Steve Powell's picture

I delete hundreds of photos, mostly duplicates, and have no regrets.

Tom Reichner's picture

I have a question for the author.

Robert, when we have hundreds of images that are almost identical in every way, why do you think that we should keep all of them? Why not pick out the three or four that are a wee bit better than the others, keep them, and delete all of the rest?

This is what I am talking about (see attached pic). I'm sure that we all have archives that look like this, with hundreds of photos from every decent opportunity that presents itself to us. Why keep every one of them, when they are so similar that it takes hours of pixel-level examination just to be able to see a difference from one frame to the next?

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

I didn't notice this the first time around, but, looking at the article closer, I believe the author was referring to landscape photos. In that sense, I can see how one wouldn't be taking so many photos of the same subject(s). I'm no landscape photographer, but, when I do take some landscape snaps, it's usually just 2 or 3 images per area/subject.

Ivan Konar's picture

Today "modern" photographers takes images like a machine guns, and waist the 99% of them. Is a nonsense to keep all this surplus. In my case after 50 years of doing photos, at the old fashion way, meaning one or to photos of a subject, I have not erase almost nothing, especting my descendents find at the attic a hard drive tresor of about 100.000 different photos...