Culling The Hoard

We sure have it good these days with digital photography, don’t we? Back in the film days there were physical and economic limits on how many photos you could make. Comparatively, digital photography allows for virtually limitless capture of images. You are really only limited by the storage capacity of your memory cards and hard drives, both of which are relatively inexpensive these days. That’s great, right? Or is it?

The past several months I’ve been spending a lot of my free moments painstakingly going through old photos and purging those that have no business taking up space on my drive. In fact, I’ve deleted more photos than I’ve snapped lately. Several of my photographer friends seem quite puzzled by my doing this. “I don’t delete anything.” “Why not just get a larger drive?” “Storage is so cheap, just buy more!” They’re right on one point. Storage is cheap. However, the angst caused by the clutter of files in my library is quite expensive. Too much is too much and that only brings about stress.

For a little over a year now I’ve been working toward a minimalist lifestyle. This touches every part of my life and my photography is not excluded. I’m down to one digital camera (well, two counting my iPhone). I’ve shed lots of possessions, including photography gear, that amounted to dead weight in my life. Moving to a new home provided a great opportunity to really scale things back. As I packed boxes, I was amazed and appalled at some of the clutter I’d been holding on to for years. I’m now finding out that those physical things were easier to deal with than the cluttered mess I’ve been hoarding on my hard drive.

Like many photographers these days, I’ve tended to overshoot and ended up with lots of data. I’ll be honest here — most of it is crap. By that I mean nothing of substance artistically, technically, or emotionally — just digital junk and lots of it. After 10 years of digital hoarding I now have a new perspective and clarity of mind about what brings me value. I’m left with the digital spring cleaning from hell. Now that I’m trying to go back and curate my old work, oh how I wish I’d done a better job of culling back when I originally took all these photos. I’ve spent countless hours purging digital clutter. It’s a tedious process, but it feels so good as I make my way through each archived month. It’s nice to be able to scroll back through old work to see only the good stuff and not wince at the not so good. That’s not to say that every photo is some amazing work of art. It’s just that remains are images in which I find value.

I’ve learned my lesson and culling is now job one in my post-production photography workflow. The sooner I can separate the wheat from the chaff, the better. After I get home from a photography outing, I pop my memory card into my system and open Photo Mechanic. This is a wonderfully fast application for whipping through photos to make selections and apply keywords. I started using it back when I was doing sports photography and now I use it for everything. In Photo Mechanic, I quickly go through the images directly on my memory card. I look at the large preview of each photo and tag my selections. This is done very quickly. I won’t look at a photo more than 2–3 seconds. I try to avoid the urge to zoom in to 100% during this process. This isn’t a technical assessment really. I’m trying to answer one question — do I like this or not? No maybes — this is either a workable image or not. While I’m doing this initial pass, I’m not thinking in terms of quantity. If I shot 100 images and only tag 10, so be it. 10 strong images alone is way better than another 90 mediocre or downright crappy images.

Once the tagging pass is done, the picks are ingested onto my hard drive. From there, I import into Lightroom CC. In Lightroom, the second culling pass starts. I go through each image again at full screen. Depending on the nature of the image, I may zoom in at 100% to check details. I will delete images that have technical issues on closer scrutiny, if something like sharp focus is needed for the image. If I imported similar images, I will choose the best one and delete the rest. “Best” is not necessarily technically best, as in sharpness, exposure, etc. A shot that captures a powerful emotion is going to win over a humdrum image with better technical traits.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself, it’s that I’m most at peace when my choices are few. After two passes of culling, I’m left with a much smaller set of images to post process. Now, I make my post processing pass. The first pass is relatively quick — maybe a preset, tone curve adjustment, highlight/shadow adjustment, etc. This is to get the overall look I have in mind for the photos. After that is done, I do one more pass at full screen and make any final cuts. If an image is a “meh” rather than a “hell yeah” after initial post processing — delete. Once I’m happy that what remains are keepers, I’m make another editing pass for fine tuning. Note that by this point the photos I didn’t pick no longer exist on my drive. After I have confirmed that Lightroom CC has synced to the cloud, I’ll perform my backups. One to a backup hard drive, and one to my Backblaze cloud account. At that point, the memory card is formatted. There is no going back.

While talking about my culling process with a photographer buddy, he said culling is his least favorite part and basically avoids it. He has a flock of hard drives to prove it. No thanks — I’m perfectly happy with the single hard drive whirring away on my desk. Now, everybody is different and maybe some people find value in holding on to high numbers of photos. Professional photographers may have no choice. I just know that’s not for me. Are you stressed out by having to deal with an unmanageable hoard of digital files? Consider culling up front to prevent compounding the problem. Yeah, hard drives might be cheap. Peace of mind from a clean, curated body of work — priceless.