Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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When I started with digital photography, I used to keep a copy of ALL the photos I took on a backup drive, "just in case". As the years have gone by, I have become more ruthless, permanently deleting the very worst technical shots (severe focus & exposure problems), then deleting most shots that were not sharp, and then later I started deleting "good" photos because they were duplicates or uninteresting.

Apart from photos of family or maybe travel, etc., there are very few pictures that I ever go back to.

I realize this process is very personal, but are there any guidelines or rules of thumb as to deciding which photos to keep and which to trash?

A related and possibly even more inappropriate question; What percentage of photos does the typical serious amateur end up keeping?

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+1 great question. I have 30,000 images on disk and just spent about 20 hours importing them into Lightroom 3.3, and have resolved to start being ruthless with "delete from disk". –  Jim Garrison Jan 18 '11 at 3:14
    
"How many photos should I keep" — percentage summary: 99%, <1%, ≈100%, 13%, 100%, 95-99% –  koiyu Apr 25 '11 at 22:10
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12 Answers 12

There is no simple answer other than:

1) when i doubt, keep the image

2) if the image could ever be of any use or has any memories attached, keep

But else? Some people might keep 10 brilliant shots, others might have 1000 bad ones... Having said that, keeping slightly more than necessary is easy enough to do with today's harddrives.

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My process is the following: First I sort out all technically bad photos.

I often take multiple pictures of a scene using different settings, perspective, or just to make sure that everybody smiles and has open eyes :-) So in case there are still multiple good pictures of a scene, I pick the best and delete the rest.

At this point, usually a third of the pictures is gone. Then I then give them star ratings:

  • 3 stars is the short list, usually also candidates for photo books
  • 2 stars is the full list which I show only to people who are really interested in the pictures
  • 1 star are usually snapshots and just pictures which are memories for people which were with me when the shots were taken
  • 0 stars are raw material for me, e.g. to play around in after processing

I then start to do the RAW conversion for the 3 star pictures, then 2 star pictures. They get full attention. 1 star pictures are usually only converted to jpg with a default setting. 0 star is just used when needed.

3 star and 2 star pictures are often 25% of the technically good pictures each. The rest is 1 star with a few 0 star.

So in the end, I keep the majority of pictures at least in RAW format. However, my system allows me to

  • have a short list of the best pictures ready so I don't bore people to death
  • focus after processing time on a fraction of the original number of pictures
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When you die, your next-of-kin is going to eye all your photos, and close relative as she/he is, it is going to be a deeply emotional trip through your life. Been there, done that, did not like the T-shirt too much.

But, at digital age, there will be a gazillion photos on all those drives and backup disks that you keep filling up one after another. Nobody is ever going to go thru all that mountaineous amount of pixelized history of yours. Your story will not be told by those photos, due to the sheer mass of it.

So, my advice is to keep your photogallery tidy and approachable.

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On the one hand that's true, but on the other it depends how well you catalog them. If they are fairly well organized, it is easy to look through the good photos and then on the things that they really fondly remember, having the not-so-good photos to look through can be nice too. The trick is you need good cataloging to make a large collection accessible and searchable. –  AJ Henderson Jun 5 '13 at 14:15
    
@AJHenderson - Yep, tidy and approachable. –  Esa Paulasto Jun 5 '13 at 18:31
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I agree with Esa, I am currently writing histories as a personal historian and I have been in professional writing and publishing for years. When someone wants to tell a story, he or she pulls out the most important parts and files the rest. A lot does not always amount to quality or richness. Just a thought. –  user21595 Aug 14 '13 at 20:51
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I delete 8/10 of the photos I take. Those 8 would just end up on a hard drive anyway, and no one, including myself, would ever see them.

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Personally, I keep 99% of the photos I take, and I keep them at the original quality.

I trash out just the ones that are really out of focus/blurred/underexposed/grainy.

Unfortunately, even if I return on those that haven't been published online, most of them just aren't good for others to see :)

Anyway, it's nice to turn back and see how and what you photographed months ago: it's a good way to learn from your errors.

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I (like others here) keep most of what I shoot unless it was deleted immediately after for some obvious technical detail (such as out of focus).

However, when I post online (if I post online) I choose only high quality photographs that don't expose more personal detail than I would like. Same thing for photo albums of whatever kind: I only keep all the photos for future reference or future editing, etc.

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To answer part of my own question; Out of about 10000 photos I've taken, I think the number I would consider really worthy of keeping is in the few dozen.

I talking here about photos I think are intrinsically good, outside of any personal meaning.

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I'm practicing this method: I leave almost 100% of the pictures I shoot (except really bad pictures). But sometimes we with my wife look through all the pictures that >2 years old. And if a picture still not evokes any feeling, than this picture goes to Recycle Bin ;)

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+1 I think it's a good idea not to be too strict on deleting, but eventually doing it with time –  clabacchio Jun 7 '12 at 11:17
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Nice question. This is an issue we all face.
My answer has two parts:
1) keep as much as possible
2) religiously tag your photos in an organized way.

1) Why keep as much as possible?
Your perspective changes with time and 20 to 30 years later your photos acquire a historical value that transcends their artistic value. I discovered this when I started scanning my 40+ year archive of film.

2) The bigger problem is being able to retrieve your photos and a good tagging system makes this possible and makes the number of photos less relevant.

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+1 for "[y]our perspective changes with time". –  Wok Jan 17 '11 at 20:27
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You are right, that is a personal question and it will vary tremendously, some situations like fast-moving actions will often get a higher hit-to-miss ratio, so I do not think you can get a useful numeric answer.

My motto for this is 'Delete is my friend' :) I first delete anything that is not technically perfect (with extremely few exceptions, less than 0.01%) and then delete anything that has no point of interest or is too similar to another shot.

I've also put myself on the challenge to simply not shoot the bad ones and its been working, so my deletion ratio is diminishing while the quality of my shots is augmenting. I'm now at about 87% deletion. From what's left, only 5% get shown, either off or on-line, and about 2% get sold as prints or licensed to publications.

The most common reaction I get to this is that 'storage is cheap' and I agree, only I find the cost of managing storage is not (and my process is quite automated at that).

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+1 "only I find the cost of managing storage is not" - indeed. –  rfusca Jan 17 '11 at 15:17
    
Ditto, looking over my backups now sigh –  gerikson Jan 17 '11 at 16:05
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+1 What good does it do me if I rarely delete pictures "just in case" when I end up with too many files to really make use of the good ones hiding in there? –  Benjamin Cutler Jan 17 '11 at 16:43
    
I seldom delete shots, because I hope that, one day, Google (or whatever society) will eventually provide us with a tool to get the best photos out of all my back-ups. Fast and easily. Just one word: computer vision. –  Wok Jan 17 '11 at 20:25
    
+1 see my comment to the OP –  Jim Garrison Jan 18 '11 at 3:14
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I keep everything I didn't delete just after shooting. Just in case. Anyway, hard drives are cheap nowadays.

Many of my pictures are artistically bad but are informative in some way. Bad colors but nice composition for instance. Or the subject has its place in a bigger story, despite its low quality.

Years ago I took a picture inside a church. The slide was strongly underexposed, mostly black in other words. Some months ago I decided to scan it. I saved most of the image.

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Harddrives are cheap, but my time to sort through 10000 bad images two years later, isn't. –  rfusca Jan 17 '11 at 15:16
    
@rfusca: This is another problem, you can store easily, now just wait for a good computer tool to sort through the photos. –  Wok Jan 17 '11 at 20:30
    
@wok - If a computer deems something as artistically or historically significant, it still doesn't mean I do. –  rfusca Jan 17 '11 at 21:56
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I am a lazy person. I find it tedious to delete photos... Actually since moving from JPEGs to RAWs last summer, I rarely even convert the photos to JPEGs and usually do it only on a need to basis. I don't think there is a rule of thumb here, as, as you mentioned, it is a very personal process that depends on many factors - including on how much storage space you have. I estimate my undeleted ratio to about 95%-99% of the image I ever shut.

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