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Psst! Want to know a secret? The best photographers make bad photographs, too.

Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop. — Ansel Adams

Not all of the time, of course. And as you get better, your ratio of good to bad shots goes up. But no matter how good you get, you will still make a lot of bad photographs. The secret, the reason some photographers never seem to take a bad photograph, is simple: they only show the good ones. Self-editing is a simple concept but it takes discipline to do it. Many people, myself included, become attached to photographs as soon as the shutter is pressed. There was a time when I was saving every single photograph I took, even the ones that were out of focus. I look back on those now and wonder what I was thinking. Most of them have no value to me now.

Use the delete button on your camera. Delete the photos that are obviously bad when you’ve got a minute to flip through them. There are going to be borderline cases because LCD screens are small—save those for later. After you get the images downloaded to your computer, do another round of deleting while viewing each image at full size.

What you’ll be left with is a set of images that is pretty good, images that are technically good or you just like them for one reason or another. Now is the time to be extremely critical. Choose the one or two that really stand out above the rest, the ones that have the most impact, that seem to speak to you. Those are the ones you print enlargements of. Those are the ones you upload to a photo-sharing site and share with other people. The rest, it depends… at best I reserve those for 4x6s. Often I’ll just delete them all. But I take a lot of photos of my kids so they often have some sentimental value.

Getting in the habit of taking photos in batches and downloading them to your computer regularly helps with this. I usually download photographs from the camera after each “event” or subject so that all of the photos in a folder are related. When that’s not possible, I’ll switch memory cards to keep them separate or just sort them into different folders after I’ve got them on the computer. Then I edit each batch separately to pick the best photos.

It’s a tough thing to do, deleting photographs. Sometimes I’ll get back from a morning of shooting and try to find something to salvage only to delete the entire batch in frustration. It can cause some anguish, especially when the photograph is of a subject you love. But the process will improve your photography. You’ll begin to develop a more critical eye as you delete. Importantly, you’ll start noticing the things that will make you want to delete a photo later while you’re looking through the viewfinder.

And no one has to know your secret. It’s okay to let your friends believe you’re a godlike photographer who only makes perfect shots every time. I won’t tell.

John Watson

John is the original founder of Photodoto, but after running it for 4 years he had to focus on different things. If you’re interested in what John has been up to recently, you can check is personal blog or browse his photo blog.

  • I agree from a professional’s perspective. but not all photos are created equal. in sense that there are definitely those marquee images and then there all those images that may not be technically perfect but when collected into a group, create a deeper meaning. this is mostly associated with visual storytelling of a particular event. I struggle with this issue for my blog. I love uploading tons of images and creating some sort of slideshow of a particular day or event, this example more closely follows something like a photo journal. On the flipside, I like to showcase particular images in more of a “one a day” format or photo blog. my blog is more of a muddled middle-way approach, showing both “kinds”.

    When I upload to my photo sharing site of choice, I often worry I’m polluting my photostream with mediocre photos. But the photos usually come together into some kind of coherent story, once they make it to my blog. In my case, I’m often more interested in the storytelling value of a group of photos rather then their standalone value.

    I guess it’s just a different way to work with images. maybe a little professional.

  • “I guess it’s just a different way to work with images. maybe a little less professional.”

  • I Am guilty of this, though I have practiced some restraint and do often delete. Some I’m saving to play with or using as part of a series of notes to myself even. Others are for informational / instructional sets of photographs depicting a series of events or movements – some of them I call “life of a…” sets and are still only developing, they will make more sense when I’ve had a year to build them.
    Using Ansel’s theory Flickr would lose it’s whole meaning though wouldn’t it? Flickr isn’t really marketed in the way that I would consider my photostream as a collection of “perfect shots every time” but rather as a collection of photographs that I want to document and back up by having them on an on-line and off-site storage facility. Having a pro account and virtually unlimited upload allowances, this makes sense. Should something happen to my hard drive my photographs, at least the ones I have loaded to Flickr, will still be available – it’s only a small part of a lot of other safeguarding but is still another option. Also those photos are available anywhere I might be and be on-line, and that’s handy too!

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