Short Tips: Finding Keepers

Outdoor Plumbing

In recent weeks, I’ve mentioned the importance of deleting photos, and also of viewing your work objectively. In both cases, one of the resons for doing these things is to narrow what you’re saving down to your “keepers,” the photos you want others to see, or may want to do something with at a later date. One of the challenges you can expect to face as you try to cull your work — separating the wheat from the chaff, as it were — is figuring out what, exactly, is your best work. There are a few quick ways to do this that can help to cut down on the time you’re spending on your sorting process.

Often as not, when I’ve just come back from a day of shooting, the first thing I want to do is load my work onto the computer, view it, and critique it. After all, seeing your work at full size on a large screen is often a great way to realize what works and what doesn’t. I’ll generally sort by three categories: the stuff that’s obvious crap (out of focus, hopelessly under- or over-exposed, badly composed, or a photo that just isn’t “about” anything); the stuff that could be useable given some reasonable editing (a slight crop, maybe some work on color and contrast); and the stuff that works more or less as it is. The issue is when something doesn’t fall neatly into one of those categories. Maybe it doesn’t work as it is, but could later; maybe there’s just the nagging sense that something’s “off.” When that happens, it’s time to take other measures.

1. The Thumbnail Test: Let’s say you’ve viewed all of your work at full size, and there’s a handful of shots that you’re still not sure about. View these shots as thumbnails, rather than poring over them repeatedly at full size.* When you’re looking at something at 1,024 x 768 resolution, you may find yourself getting caught up in a series of details within the overall picture, versus seeing it whole. This can be useful if you can pull a decent-sized chunk out of the whole to function as an image all its own (let’s say that you’d end up cropping about a third of the image), but if the only thing that works is a solitary squirrel in the corner munching on a bagel, you haven’t exactly got a keeper. Viewing a thumbnail allows you to see the entire image at once, and to evaluate it in its entirety. You may not want to use this for your initial cull (something that looks sharp in thumbnail form might in fact be badly out of focus; similarly, you might miss some small detail or splash of color that could redeem an image that needed a little something on the first pass), but it’s useful if you want to narrow things down after you’ve gone through the batch the first time.

2. The Calendar Test: Let’s say you have a handful of images that might be keepers, but you’re not sure if they’re as good as you thought they were the first time out. Start by asking yourself a question: If this was on a calendar, would I really want to look at it every day for the next month? Of course, you’re not going to start printing calendars like they’re going out of style just to evaluate your images. But try putting a folder together and revisiting it on a day-to-day basis, or setting an image as your desktop background. If it’s already revealed all it can tell you by the second or third day, you might want to reconsider it.

3. The Audience Test: It’s hard to be objective about your own work. On one hand, we can become so attached to our own work that it’s hard to give it an honest critique. On the other, we can at times be so critical of our own work that we’re set to throw out something that might, in fact, have been done very well. If you have someone whose eye, judgement, and honesty¬†you trust, ask their opinion. The perspective that a fresh set of eyes brings to your work can be invaluable in evaluating the quality of what you’re doing, and also in measuring what you’re trying to communicate with your images versus how an audience — even just an audience of one — receives them.

But those are just my tips. What are some things you’ve found useful in critiquing and sorting your own work?

*If your workspace has sufficient room, you can get a similar effect by backing away from your monitor.