Deleting Photos: When Is It Too Much and Should You Stop?

Back in film days, you loaded up a 24 or 36 exposure film and shot away until it was used up. Frames were precious because when your film was gone, it was all over. Digital removed that barrier, which has just created different problems. So, should you delete photos and, if you do, when should you stop?

If you shot on film back in the day, think back to those times and what it was like to carry film and shoot with intent, knowing every click of the shutter cost you money. As a result, frames were precious because they were expensive. Not only did you have to invest the money into buying the film, but also in developing and printing it. However, there was also a significant investment in time because you had to wait until the frames were developed before you could even begin realizing your image. Good technique was critical because you weren't able to check your images until well after the event. So, how many film images have you got? From when I shot in the 1990s, I have around 1,000 positives, alongside some 4,000 negatives. And while that's a fairly small number of images, it took some considerable time to scan into a digital archive.

Those long invested in the film will have considerably larger archives. Renowned photographer Garry Winogrand was adept at near-continuous shooting, and on his death at age 56, he left some 2,500 rolls of undeveloped film, alongside 6,500 rolls that were developed but not proofed, and only about 3,000 rolls that had made it to contact sheets. By some counts, he left around 300,000 unedited images! They sit alongside the Garry Winogrand Archive at the Center for Creative Photography, which comprises over 20,000 prints, 20,000 contact sheets, 100,000 negatives, and 30,000 positives.

Half a million images seems to be about the mark for prolific photographers, and perhaps what's notable about Garry Winogrand is that every one of those unfinished frames will be sifted through in order to learn as much about the man as possible. Each frame was therefore not only valuable from the perspective of the photographer but also from those viewing his images after his death.

The Arrival of Digital

Digital photography has changed all that but for more reasons than we might at first think. Let's take those in turn. Firstly, there's the obvious point that digital cameras have essentially an unlimited capacity, although the equivalency to analog is perhaps between the physical film and the memory card. In the early days of digital, it really wasn't unlimited, and the key selling point was in the immediacy of digital files. However, depending upon your style of shooting, the vast capacity of today's cards makes digital essentially unlimited. If you shoot moderate resolution JPEGs, then you are unlikely to fill them up. And, of course, one memory card holds a whole lot more images than a single roll of film!

Secondly, and perhaps we take this for granted, being able to view the images is a game-changer. We might mock those that incessantly chimp their screens, but you genuinely can check that you've got that keeper. I was reading Greg Heisler's remarkable anthology "50 Portraits," and the very last image (shot on film) is of Julia Roberts. The lighting setup is remarkable for the way it reproduces beach light, however what stood out was that he had just missed focus. So, the vagaries of film...

Thirdly, there used to be a solid differentiation between film in that one shot still frames and the other, continuous frames. A solid manual wind technique might have gotten you one to two frames per second, but it is a testing technique, even more so if you are trying to focus. Then came motor wind systems in the 1970s, which really did allow you a fast shooting rate. My Nikon F100 from 1999 hit 4.5 fps, a far cry from the 24 fps used in motion pictures. Digital has literally blown this ship out of the water, with the Sony A1 able to shoot up to 155 full-frame compressed raw images or 165 full-frame JPEG images at 30 fps. When you move into the gray area between photo and video, then things become more interesting. Sony's RX100 can shoot short bursts of 90 fps full-resolution JPEGs, as well as lower resolution at 1,000 fps.

Fourthly, Panasonic has made great play of 4K video based around extracting individual frames. This is surprisingly effective given the bump in resolution that 4K offers; however, Panasonic has built an ecosystem of modes to facilitate this.

All of the above now means that we are accumulating photos at a faster rate than ever, and that's before you take into account the smartphone sector. One area where you really don't want to miss that moment is at any kind of event. Expect the digital image output from the Tokyo Olympics to be vast; however, this holds for weddings as much as sports. In the film era, a wedding photographer might have shot several hundred frames; I know that I will routinely shoot 2,000, and award-winning Dutch photographer Damon Pijlman shoots 10,000. The sky really is the limit.

It is perhaps strange to think that while digital cameras have opened the flood gates to image creation, supported by huge memory cards, they have created a different problem with their storage and archival. In fact, many digital photographers, particularly where this is unlikely to be any potential for downstream re-licensing, will have a data retention policy that will see them deleting images after a period of time.

Deleting Photos

All of which brings us to the actual topic of deleting photos. Perhaps the unlikely starting point is not to take the photo in the first place! Obviously, you can choose to take less photos, and Leica can help you in this regard with the M-D, which has the rear screen removed to stop you chimping. The next step in the process is doing it in-camera, which can rapidly remove complete duds; however, it's important not to be overeager and unwittingly remove images you might actually want.

Perhaps the most efficient point to remove images is to import them into your tagging and archiving software. Photo Mechanic has been the tool of choice for many high-volume shooters, but Lightroom is perfectly capable. In short, don't let the images on your PC if they aren't good enough. Once you have your images imported, it's typical to start ranking, and it's at this stage you might decide aren't up to mustard.

Unfortunately, those notional solutions simply highlight the extent of the problem: we are shooting lots of photos and don't have effective storage and archival solution. As I've noted above, the problem is so acute in some sectors (such as wedding photography) that we simply delete the images after the end date. The client may or may not be contactable and, retrospectively, may want a greater selection of imagery. This highlights the fact that we actually don't know the utility or value of images after their initial creation which is obviously why it is important to maintain an archive. For our own personal photos, we will take more care, but that doesn't make the culling of them any easier. I tend to err on the side of retention, deleting obviously repetitive or poor images, where "poor" is blurred or miscomposed. However, that doesn't mean I don't regret some of the deletions. Where is the bar for deleting photos?

Lead image composite used under Creative Commons courtesy of Annie Spratt via Unsplash and janjf93 via Pixabay.

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4 Comments

J.d. Davis's picture

"... every one of those unfinished frames will be sifted through in order to learn as much about the man as possible."

Once heard a Curator talk at length about the 'meaning of red' in a fellow photographer's work and how the Rule of Thirds never came into play in the images presented. While interesting I find it impossible to know the intent of the work without hearing from the source.

If you become famous - and who really knows if you will be, there is great wisdom in NOT leaving such a legacy. Who has the CHUTZPAH to finish an Unfinished Symphony?

Charles Mercier's picture

Billions and billions of photos. Who's going to have the time to go to through them all, especially if you aren't famous? Seriously, how often does one regret deleting photos that were deleted years ago - and who will care? My nephew couldn't care less about his grandfather's amazing photos from Japan in the 40's and 50's - and he loves taking photos!