Culling: Photography’s Most Overlooked Skill

Culling: Photography’s Most Overlooked Skill

Do you ever wonder how many photos you should deliver from a session? Here is why I believe that you are giving too many.

“How many photos do you deliver from a typical portrait session?” I recently noticed this question in a photography group on Facebook. The answers varied widely. Several people commented that they gave somewhere between 25 and 35, with a few saying even less than that. My thought was that this seemed reasonable. However, as I continued to scroll, I was surprised to see the range of answers. The majority claimed to give right around 100 photos and from there the replies just seemed to keep getting higher. People insisted that they provide 150, 250, 450, or 600 or more pictures. Is it just me, or are those numbers shocking?

I wondered why this was, but there was one comment that seemed to continually pop up that gave insight. It went something like, “I wish I could deliver less, but I can’t seem to get it under 150 photos.” Photographers, if you find yourself saying this, you should take a break and learn how to cull your photos. It should be one of the most developed skills you have.

Less Is More

There is probably always a “to each their own” argument to be made for things like this. If you want to be a photographer who delivers hundreds of photos from a short session, then go for it. But first I want to give you the other side of the argument of why less is more in photography.

The first question you need to consider is what is best for your client? From their perspective, is it better to have more? Sure they might think so because as a consumer receiving more for your money is better. But is that true in photography? If you are giving your client hundreds of photos, do you ever wonder if they even have a use for that many? They won’t share that many on social media and they definitely won’t print that amount. They will pick out a few that they like and share those.

I believe there is actually a stronger argument to be made that a large number of photos would prevent a client from enjoying them. Have you ever been to a restaurant that has a menu with hundreds of items on it? It’s impossible to know what to choose and giving your client such an abundance of photos is the same thing. It’s overwhelming. As Dr. Suess wrote, "So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.”

When Great Photos Get Lost

“Good is the enemy of great.” This quote by author Jim Collins leads into my point. Good smothers, dilutes, and often ruins great. If you give me your best 20 photos from a session, I will likely consider you to be a very talented photographer. If you mix those in with 100 average ones, my thoughts about your talent change considerably.

Including too many photos that are only good enough prevents your final product from being great. Some photographers can’t weed down their photos because their threshold for what’s acceptable is decent, or even worse, merely usable. Why isn’t great your cut-off line? Why not put only your best work out there and let it truly shine without being watered down with hundreds of mediocre photos surrounding it?

In his book, “On Writing,” Stephen King said, “When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.” My point is simply that in photography, sometimes your forest is so abundant that you lose the beauty of the individual trees. The more ordinary trees you have surrounding the great ones, the more the great ones will blend in with the rest.

Fewer Photos, Less Editing

My last point is simple, and a little selfish. Photographers are notorious for making a minimal income per hour. I believe that other than poor pricing, poor culling is the direct cause of this. Editing takes a considerable amount of our time. For most of us, it is probably the bulk of what we do. When you can’t cull a session down, you are multiplying your editing time. Editing 150 photos takes five times as long as it would for 30 photos. There is an argument to be made for choosing fewer photos and using the extra time to improve those, and if nothing else, get some of your time back.

So I ask you, would you prefer to deliver 150 alright photos or 25 great photos?

Three Tips for Culling

If you are buying into the 25 great photos argument, let me finish by giving you three tips for culling:

1. Remove Duplicates

This is probably the most common issue I see. You are editing an engagement session, and you have a great photo of the couple. The next picture is similar, but their hands are in a different place. The third photo is the same except for you are zoomed out a little more. You can’t decide which one you like the most, so you deliver them all. And my response is: if you can’t choose as a professional, do you think your client is going to be able to?

You making the decisions rather than your client is a good thing. You are the professional. Use what you know of posing, lighting, and composition and choose the one that is best.

2. When in Doubt, Cut it

This thought has been at the forefront of my mind when culling for years now. If there is anything that makes me hesitant about a photo, then get rid of it. If I notice something I don’t like, from experience I know that my client is likely to notice it as well. Photos that are slightly out of focus, have body parts cut off, or contains distractions of any kind usually get cut. I don’t try and salvage it. I just move on.

There is one thing that trumps this rule for me, though, and that is the importance of the moment. For example, as a wedding photographer, I might capture a great moment of the bride with her father that is less than perfect. In photos like this, the moment rules all and I do my best to make it work.

3. Kill Your Darlings

My friend and fellow Fstoppers writer Aaron Patton said one time that when editing you need to “kill your darlings,” quoting author William Faulkner’s popular advice on writing. It applies well to photography. There are times in your creative work that you have to remove something you are personally attached to so that the final product remains excellent. It’s hard to get rid of photos. They are yours after all. Sometimes you can’t get rid of a photo because you know once you do, no one will ever see it again. But that’s alright. Sometimes a picture is so close to being what you wanted, but you just missed it. Often, the best thing you can do is let it go.

Culling is a painful process, and few do it well. Remove a little here and there so your client can enjoy each photo well. It’s an art that takes practice. But eventually you will take a step back and look at the beautiful forest that remains, where each tree can be clearly seen, and you’ll be glad you did.

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36 Comments

Yet, the demand of asking more and more pictures is coming from the clients. I find it useless to have hundreds of photos... Less is the best but we are leaving in a consumering time unfortunately.

There's always something I never would have guessed that a client doesn't like about themselves. Give them more and let them delete the ones they hate.

Jason Lorette's picture

I hear "That's it" all the time when I quote package numbers to some potential clients, followed shortly there after by "well, so and so promised me 200, with a disc, and print rights and their first born"...it's frustrating to combat when some are over delivering and that's what clients come to expect.

Mark Alameel's picture

I've seen 400 images promised quite regularly. When I talk to a bride, I never give them a number. I tell them what I'll be shooting, what I'll be deleting, and what I'll be delivering. Usually, this is enough explanation.

I've also noticed that the lower my wedding price point goes, the more images the bride wants. Go figure.

Jason Lorette's picture

"I've also noticed that the lower my wedding price point goes, the more images the bride wants. Go figure."...that sure is an interesting quirk isn't it?!

Vincent Alongi's picture

That's insane. I give, at most, 20. How many looks can you come up with in a given session anyhow?

David T's picture

1-3 per look, 3-5 looks per shoot...

Lots of girls insist on 3 per look tho, because of instagram rows 😂

Just an observation on the use of the term "editing". To me, editing has always meant culling since the it has its origins back in the days when you cut and edited your film and the material that didn't make the cut got left on the cutting room floor.

Scott Cushman's picture

This was a conversation my coworker Steve and I had once upon a time that cleared up some confusion. He came up in the days of film; I didn't get serious about photography until digital was well established. To him, "editing" is culling and sorting. To me, editing is what happens in Photoshop, which he would more precisely call "retouching." I suspect this will always be a divide between people who started photography after about 2006 and those who started before. To me, photography is an extension of the computer and digital technology. To him, the computer is now an extension of photography. It's a subtle distinction to make linguistically, but a huge difference in how you think about your art and your deliverables.

Jon Kellett's picture

I started with film in 2000 (I count myself a late comer to photography). Before I even started scanning my results, I'd refer to the task of making selects and rejects as culling. That didn't change after I started scanning, nor did it change when I moved to digital in 2005.

So like yourself, I also think of "editing" as retouching.

As for the computer, for me it's an integral part of developing the image after the shutter press. I'm excited by computational photography, I'm excited by how you can average images together to simulate long exposure (whilst also decreasing noise). The two (photography and computing) are separate, but joined at the hip.

John MacLean's picture

Quality over quantity

jon snow's picture

In the days of film you'd get 3 looks from a 36 roll of a model test shoot.

Ryan Burleson's picture

Culling is something I do repeatedly, but I never delete raw files unless totally missed shot. Over the years going back over my main backups fresh off a memory card I choose different photos to show each time it seems as my taste always change.

Vincent Alongi's picture

I never trash a raw file unless it's not in focus or just an unusable shot.

Jon Kellett's picture

I tend to only kill a raw file if the focus is badly missed, or the file won't ever be remixed (absolutely terrible composition) or is a "spray and pray" duplicate. I'm brutal about it too. I culled 1400 shots from a trip to Asia down to 450. That may still sound like a lot, but it was four weeks and as many territories, so really only 100 shots per week.

That said, as I use Lightroom for my DAM software, I import everything, add a yellow label and cull whatever. After that I rename per my scheme and try to rate images, then remove the label. Only two stars or higher will ever see the light of day. Three stars for me to actually show somebody.

The value of keeping the old shots (properly keyworded) is hard to overstate, especially with the low cost of storage. Also as technology improves so do some shots - I reprocessed some shots from 2005 using the latest version of LR and was seriously impressed at how much better a result I was able to get.

Heratch Ekmekjian's picture

Thanks for a nice article. You make some very sound points.

Through the decades one hallmark of the finest photographers has been ownership of a big trash can - and the willingness to use it.

This is terrible advice... If you are shooting a wedding all day and can't deliver 800+ quality photos then you are doing it wrong. Important moments are happening left and right and the best portraits are the candids that happen between the poses. Keeping Just 3-5 from each set is measly. My second shooter and I shoot 5-7000 photos on a wedding day and I typically return 900+ edited images. Its super doable and the clients love it. Just be a little trigger happy and shoot through the happy moments to get all those epic candids.

Phil Wright's picture

"Do you ever wonder how many photos you should deliver from a session". A session isn't a wedding...

Andrew Smith's picture

I'm not a wedding photographer and I remember back to when I got married, which was pre digital. I think we had a proofs book of around 80 pics. So with that in mind, how can you deliver 900+ different pictures? A ten hour day, that's an average of 90 an hour. I know the article doesn't specifically say wedding photography. But a two hour portrait shoot, for me, will only have me delivering around a dozen pictures at most. Two or three per outfit, or person.

Nope. Nope. Nope. Sure, people find they got more bang for their buck when you deliver hundreds of pics. But at the end, you just get 5-10 awesome pictures diluted into mountains of crap, no matter what. Plus, looking at 900 pictures would take hours, how do people even do that ? At the end, we only need a dozen of powerful pictures, all the rest will rot on hard drives to be never looked at again.

Robert Nurse's picture

800????

Reading all this I am glad I am a retired wedding photographer. This was always an issue even in film days.The photographer should really set the scene as to how many photographs.Glad I don't need to be concerned anymore. I guess more is expected as producing a digital file is so cheap.Well they appear cheap because everyone has a digital camera or camera phone.Once prints and films and processing had to be factored into the cost. How much you charged in some ways was governed by your costs. In my early days of wedding photography and starting out I shot 3 to 4 rolls at 36 shots a role. Try shooting a wedding these days and limit yourself to 144 pics. It would be a good exercise to set up a challenge like that in say a mock wedding or if you are training wedding photographers on a real shoot.

Sarah Dugan's picture

I often think of the quote "More isn't better; sometimes it's just more." It's one of the myriad of reason I, too, decided to bow out of the wedding race...

Thanks Sara. I looked at your website.Great work and I love your bio introduction.Keep up the good work. Geoff T. Adelaide ,South Australia.

as a hobbyist I want as many as i can get, ive recently shot a couple of great pieces and dont want to cull them and show them. i find it hard to cull my work but there are some which i just cull and its done its a hard one.

Robert Nurse's picture

I'm a hobbyist/amateur also and I feel you. I usually go over a session three times. I have to absolutely love my keepers for all the reasons stated in the article: good focus, no amputations, the moment, etc., etc. I'm absolutely brutal on each pass. The remaining shots are the ones my subjects pick from for post-processing.

For a portrait session I take something between 70 & 150 photos, for a personnel project I use less than 8 photos for client 20 max.

Jostijn Ligtvoet's picture

Culling is difficult, but very rewarding because it gives me some space to look at the photos from some distance. I'll send a contact sheet with some low resolution choices and they must pick max 2 photos per look. Saves me time.

Richard Twigg's picture

What a great article. Thank you for this!

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