How to do an Initial Edit of Your Images

 In Newsletter, Picture

You’ve come back from vacation with several memory cards full of photos, and it’s time to download several 1000 photos to your hard drive and try to decide which ones to delete and which photos to keep. The chore of deleting the bad ones feels hard, because you have an immediate emotional connection to all the images; they remind you of the vacation. You know some of the images deserve to get deleted, but if you’re like one of my students, who asked the following question, you don’t know which ones to delete. She asked,

“My question on deciding what photos to keep and what to delete was a serious one because I have problems with making those decisions. I often hear people comment on how the newest version of Lightroom or another new program allows them to “save” and improve photos that they had considered to be bad photos. So, my question really is what things get considered in deciding to keep a photo rather than delete it – do you consider composition first or technical considerations first — or it is really just a personal preference? I’m always reluctant to delete any photos because I’m not sure if it’s just a matter of my lack of skill to process them.”

I’m going to let you know what I do with my photos during the initial edit. It may help you with your initial edit as well.

  1. Import photos into Adobe Lightroom and make a backup of the images.
  2. Add general keywords on import.
  3. Look over the images and see if any grab my attention right away.
    1. I look for obviously bad photos: people’s eyes closed, out-of-focus, bad compositions, messed up filters, boring waves, messed up exposures. These all get labeled as rejected. (Note: on the rare occasion that I didn’t fix the exposure on the next shot, I may keep a shot with a messed up exposure, but I usually don’t).
    2. I look for obviously awesome ones: great light, great composition, great subject. These get rated with 1 to 5 stars (see below).
  4. Delete the shots that I set as rejected in step 3.
  5. Look at the images that I didn’t rate obviously awesome (you can set Lightroom to show you only those images). Many times these will be similar shots with different clouds, slightly different compositions or different light or different waves. They may be awesome, but I need to figure out which is the best. I work my way through all of them comparing the differing features to find the one I like best. For example, if I like a wave in image 1 better than image 2, then I may set image 2 as rejected. If I find image 5 has the best wave, then images 1 to 4 get rejected. The goal is to find the best of all the similar shots and delete the rest. Sometimes, it might be worth saving two similar shots because although they are similar they evoke a different emotion.
  6. Rate any images that didn’t get rejected from 1 to 5 stars (see below).
  7. Delete rejected images.
  8. Look at all the images again and look for more images that just aren’t up to the level that I want my photography to be at. Reject and delete those images.
  9. Keyword remaining images
  10. Work on the awesome images. Select a few to share on social media and eventual add to my website.

In the below example from sunset near Grand Marais shows a typical edit for me. I’ve already deleted a few images that were terrible. From left to right and top to bottom: missed exposure so rejected, proper exposure and left unrated (will probably delete because I don’t like the composition), missed exposure, missed exposure, needs rating (probably 1 star), photo of Paul Sundberg (will send it to him to use as he likes), crescent moon covered by clouds (rejected), crescent moon covered by clouds (rejected), 2 star on shot with crescent moon showing, 2 star of new composition, 1 star on final shot.

Note: if the photo has friends or family in it and I want to be able to remember that moment in the future, I’ll probably even keep a bad photo if a good one of that memory doesn’t exist. I take so few pictures like this (and never with my real camera) that it isn’t usually an issue.

initial edit of photos in Lightroom

Star Ratings

For star ratings, I use them slightly differently than some other people out there. I forget where I learned this system (maybe Thom Hogan), but it works well. I use stars from 1 to 5. A 1 star image is an image that might sell at some point and I don’t really care about having my name associated with it. A 3 star image is good and I want my name associated with it. A 5 star image is one of my best of the year (usually only take 10 to 15 of these a year). A 2 star means I can’t decide if it’s a 1 or 3 (it’ll probably end up as a 1). A 4 star is one that I can’t decide if it is a 3 or 5 (usually ends up as a 3).

Be Ruthless

My best word of advice is be ruthless. If the picture sucks and you think it sucks, delete it. If it’s below your typical level of shooting, delete it. Among the photos you keep, try to find five from each day that are the best. Then share only those.

A Final Note

crescent moon over Lake Superior

Why did this get only a 2, you ask? The moon is in the wrong place. Had it been a little lower and to the right, I would have rated the shot a 3 right away. See the location at the tip of the arrow below. But, it’s a 2 because I can’t decide if I like the location of the moon.

moon over lake superior

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  • Cindy DeCesare

    Hello Bryan,
    Thank you for posting a needed and well written newsletter on how you process your photos after a shoot. This is so timely for me, since I am now just going through my photos from the past five years of vacation photos. They were all backed up in three external drives, but never rated, had keywords, with many not fixed in Lightroom. The bad images are now be deleted, which is an easy task, which wasn’t the case when I began.

    All signed up, and looking forward to your class, Achieve Your Vision: Processing Photos in the Digital Darkroom, on Nov. 14 & 15.
    …Your future class is the reason I had begun the clean up!


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