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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.
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