Photography with a Curator Mindset: From Shoot to Print
These days almost everyone carries a quality camera in their pocket thanks to smart phones. People take more pictures than ever before. It doesn’t cost you anything to take a snap and a huge amount of storage can be acquired for a paltry sum. What becomes of all these photos though? After an initial share to social media, they tend to accumulate in a digital landfill of forgotten images.
When I was growing up, digital photography didn’t exist. Every photo we cared about was printed. The best photos got stuck in photo albums and it was fun to revisit them every once in a while. Having something tangible and tactile to hold in your hands while looking at a photo is something that many people have forgotten about or never experienced.
The number of photos we used to have in the pre-digital days was a lot less than we’re used to contending with now. As I considered how to manage my own hoard of digital images, it occurred to me that printing could be an effective way to help cull and curate the photos that are truly meaningful. We effectively have unlimited input with digital photography. Printing is a way of placing a limit on output. Having an end goal with certain limitations helps to guide an entire process of approaching our photos with a curator mindset.
I’ve developed a workflow that helps me think about my photography with the mind of a curator every step of the way, from capturing the images to printing. In a nutshell, my process involves:
- Capturing images
- Consider the subject
- Set limitations
- Culling in camera
- A multiple pass image culling process
- Initial culling through an intermediary program
- Additional culling pass in main editing program
- Final culling pass of edited images
- Creating a short, carefully curated book
- Laying out a story or a collection of images for print
- Printing an inexpensive book or magazine
- Sharing your work – no social media required
Let’s get started!
Step 1 – Capturing Images
The curator mindset begins when you pick up your camera. It’s easy to start snapping away and fill up a memory card. What I suggest is being a bit more mindful and maybe setting some limits. Here are some things to consider when you venture out to take pictures.
Consider your subject
This may seem obvious, depending on the situation. Before you raise the camera to your eye, consider the subject of the photo. Why are you photographing this person or thing? What are you trying to say about the subject in your photo and how best can you accomplish that? Having a good idea of what you are looking for will help you get there in less frames. Be intentional with each shot.
Something that really helps me is to think in terms of an artificial limitation. I may tell myself that I’ve got a roll or two of film and that’s it – so I stop shooting when I hit whatever that limit happens to be. For example, when photographing a band on stage, I might treat it like I have a 36 exposure roll of film. When I hit 36 shots, I put the camera away. Another limitation might be time based, such no more than 10 minutes with a single subject. Think quality over quantity.
Culling in camera
This may not be comfortable for some people, but it’s worth considering. If you have time to review images on your camera before you get back home, you could do some preliminary culling of photos. I often do this out in the field if I’m somewhere that I can sit and go through my memory card on my camera LCD screen. I’ll delete images that are obvious rejects so that there are less images to consider back at home.
If you’re not comfortable deleting images in your camera, see if you have a feature that lets you rate images. On some cameras you can assign a rating that a software application on your computer can read. This rating can be used as a guide when selecting images for import.
Step 2 – Image import and culling
I find it useful to make my image culling a multiple step process, leading up to a final curation of images from a shoot. The extra steps keep my primary photo library cleaner, as well as giving me more opportunities to scrutinize things with that curator mindset.
I like to use separate processes for getting images off of my camera’s memory card and importing them into my main photo library. This ensures that only the images that I think have value are ever copied to my system and ultimately to the cloud service I use. Clutter is kept out of my library and less space and bandwidth is required once I do import into my main library.
For the first step, I can recommend a couple of options. For most people who work off of a Windows or Mac computer, I recommend using Photomechanic. It’s a paid app and it’s worth every penny. This app is lightning fast at whipping through images on your memory card so you can quickly tag the ones you want to import to your system hard drive. You can also add metadata to the images while you’re making your selection. I discovered this app when I was doing high volume sports photography and found it to be excellent at what it does.
Another option, if you have an iPad or Mac, is to use Apple Photos for the initial import. For smaller numbers of images (a “roll or two of film”), this works well. You can easily go through images and view them at full screen size on a tablet, which is more than enough to judge images. Make your picks and import into Photos. You’ll take those imports into your main library in the next step. A number of popular editing and library apps can pull in the images from Photos.
Apple Photos import screen (iPad)
Don’t put too much thought and time into the initial culling of images. Go with what immediately resonates with you, even if it isn’t technically perfect. You’re trying to separate the wheat from the chaff as much as possible at this point. Answer just one question – do I love this image or not? Your first impression is probably the “correct” one. The opportunity for closer scrutiny comes once you’ve identified the most likely batch of keepers.
Import into library
Now that you have a subset of potential keepers ingested from your memory card, it’s time to import into your photo library. I use Adobe Lightroom myself, but the process works the same on similar photo management systems. The images from the initial ingest get brought into Lightroom in my case. Once in the library, make another culling pass through the imported photos, this time with an even more critical eye.
Lightroom import screen (iPad)
During this secondary culling sweep, narrow down similar images to a single best shot. Zoom in and check sharpness on images where that is critical. Flag those that don’t meet technical rigor or are redundant. Go through each image at full screen. Look at them quickly and consider your first impression. Is the image a “hell yeah” or a “meh?” If you’re not excited about an image, flag it. Once you’ve made this culling pass, delete the flagged images. Don’t worry about how many images are left. Just keep what you are truly happy about. Would you print these images? If not, let them go.
Like a sculptor chiseling away at a block of marble to produce a work of art, the culling process takes you toward a final curated collection that you can feel good about printing. Note that by the time you get through this secondary culling, the photos you didn’t pick no longer exist on your drive. At this point, I'll confirm that my images are synced with my cloud service, then do a local backup. At that point, the memory card is formatted. There is no going back.
Edit and final curation
Left with only the select images that represent your best work, it’s time to edit. When I say edit, you're probably thinking post-processing. Well, sure, that's a part of editing. However, the editing process should involve final selection of images to keep and use in your curated output. Stay in that curator mindset. What images are strongest through editing? Which ones would you add to a printed book? Think in terms of a limited set of images to print – maybe 12-24 at most.
Once you’ve completed your editing pass, it’s time to take a break. Get away from the images for a while. I recommend sleeping on it and coming back with fresh eyes the next day.
Come back after your break and look through your edits one more time. Use full screen views. Be ruthless in this final curating pass. What you want to remain are the strongest, most meaningful images, which you’ll ultimately be printing. If you aren’t completely sold on any of these images and aren't sure you'd want to print them, now is the time to drop them.
Step 3 – Creating a book (or two)
About the books
Certainly most people are aware that you can print photo books from your digital images. The problem is that it can be time consuming to lay out lengthy books and it’s a costly affair with most print labs. I wanted to bring back some of the joy of holding printed books in my hands with minimal fuss and without breaking the bank. After lots of research and test printing of various products, I found some options that are just the ticket.
Before I go into my specific recommendations, I’d like to mention some of the things that are important to this style of curated printing.
Simple – I wanted to be able to print things frequently without making a big production out of it. I’m a photographer, not a graphic designer. I wanted something easy-to-use that lets me add photos to a book layout without spending hours at my computer fiddling around with complicated software.
Inexpensive – For the kind of casual printing that I wanted to do with virtually all of my work, it has to be inexpensive. Of course, it needs to look good and be something that I’m proud to share with others.
Compact – It doesn’t make sense to create bulky books for frequent printing. They shouldn't take a lot of space and they should be easily shareable with friends, family, even potential clients.
The products I use and recommend are produced by Magcloud. Their digest, square, and magazine formats work best for the easy one-off prints of curated images that I’m talking about.
Magcloud landscape digest books
Laying out images
A book might be derived from a single photography outing or event. It could be an ongoing project. Whatever your goal is, keep the image count to a modest amount. Most of my books are in the 12-24 page range. I've done a lot of short books and I find that for a single theme, 24 images is a good maximum number. I base this on years of experience watching how people interact with a book. People are used to scrolling feeds and bouncing between sites. Many people will start flipping pages quickly after a dozen or so images and put the book down soon after. Attention spans are regrettably short.
I recommend one image per page or possibly a two page spread for featured photos. The idea is to not cram as many images as possible into a small number of pages. You are creating a work of curated images and they should be as large as possible on the page. I’m partial to full bleed edge-to-edge prints myself. People are accustomed to staring at phone screens. Here's the chance to wow them with a comparatively large print.
Don't wait too long after shooting to put a book together. It's best to act while you are inspired as a result of your careful curation and editing. Even if you're working on a long term project, I encourage you to print milestone books. Think of them as chapters that eventually find their way into a larger book. Nothing brings a sense of accomplishment like holding your printed work in your hands.
Printing a book
I recommend choosing a book format that lets you layout your photos as naturally as possible for the way you shoot. Do you work mostly in portrait orientation? Choose a magazine or portrait digest format. Are you a landscape orientation buff like me? A landscape digest would work best. For the most versatile option, you might do a square book. The square format allows you to go between landscape and portrait orientation seamlessly.
One advantage to keeping a minimal page count with my preferred printer, Magcloud, is that page counts of 16 or less get printed on a heavy 100# paper that looks and feels great. This would be comparable to the type of paper you would see in a high end photo book. I love printing quick little 12 or 16 page books that bound with staples. You can get a book printed for about $3 in that range!
Always do a proof print by ordering a single copy of a book before placing a larger order to share with friends. Images will always look a bit different on paper than they do on a screen and sometimes you may have to tweak your edits a bit. I tend to do orders when I've got at least a half dozen different layouts prepared, to save money on shipping.
Magcloud square books
Sharing your work
Back in the day – wow, that makes me sound old – we'd get film developed and get double prints to share with family and friends. Printing small, inexpensive books brings back the joy of sharing your work. I end up giving a lot of what I print away and ordering a new copy for myself. People aren't used to seeing prints these days and even a cheap little photo book can have a huge impact.
I gave one of my magazine prints to a friend recently. She owns a live music club and I curated my favorite shots of performances there into a neat little magazine. I'd been providing digital photos for her to use on her site for years. This one modest printed collection of work made her stop and linger over the moments that took place in her venue. I enjoyed seeing her slowly look at the pictures, ending up with tears of joy in her eyes. There is a connection you make with prints that you just don't get when looking at photos on a glowing screen.
I hope that the workflow I've shared helps you develop your own curator mindset. While it may take a little more effort along the way, the end result is a lot less digital clutter and a much smaller quantity of carefully curated meaningful images that you can hold in your hands and share with others. The digital world is temporary and fleeting. A printed work brings a sense of stability – almost permanence.