How Big is Your Wastebasket?

When I was a kid, my uncle loved to show the slides he took on family vacations. Watching him set up the projector and screen was interesting, but ten minutes after he started showing the slides Iíd start wondering if it was possible to die of boredom. Many pictures seemed like the one previously on the screen, but perhaps from a slightly different angle. Some of the adults had a reaction different than mine, their heads occasionally bobbing as they struggled to stay awake. This was my introduction to the dreaded ďslide showĒ. I didnít realize it at the time, but it was also my first lesson in how not to edit images. His photographs were not horrible, but I don't think he ever threw one away. 

I have heard more than once that the biggest difference between professional and amateur photographers is the size of their wastebasket. There may be more to it than that, but the adage does speak to how people perceive the quality of your work and how they react to it. Whether we show our images in slide shows, on the web, or in photo albums, no one wants their photos to be boring. Editing the photographs you take is a big job, and one I have always hated. It is hard to throw away something after you labor hard to get it. It is harder still when the image brings back good memories of the time you spent out in the field doing what you love to do. If you know the best way to handle this, please let me know. In the meantime Iíll tell you a few techniques that seem to help me.

Try looking at your images as if they were taken by someone you donít know. Itís far easier to think that some anonymous person did a crummy job than it is to think that you screwed up a nice photo opportunity. Try not to let familiarity with a subject color your judgment. Would the photo still look good if you knew nothing about it? Good images should stand entirely on their own merits.

Be ruthless. Sometimes nearly everything from a particular shooting session is simply bad. If so, close your eyes and get rid of the images. Especially with wildlife, you might spend many hours and take many photos while hoping for something special to happen that never does. The fact that you spent an entire morning on a set of images does not make them good, it only makes them hard to toss.

Look at the flip side. I often find it much easier to look for what to keep instead of looking for what to throw away. With film I lay a large grouping of slides out on a light table. I then look through them with a loupe, not giving more than a few seconds to any one image. If an image grabs me when I look at it, I put a mark on the mount. When Iím done, those are the keepers. With digital images it works in a similar way. I page through full screen images, tagging the ones that make a good first impression. If you have to study the image for a long time before it looks good, it should probably be gone.

Wait. To some extent the purely emotional ties to an image fade with time. If an image still looks good after you return from your next photo shoot, maybe it really is. Conversely, if the image loses its luster, maybe you should lose the image.

All of these techniques need to be tempered with a little common sense. If I have images of an extremely rare photographic subject I keep some of the best ones, even if the best is not very good. I tend to be a little less ruthless with digital images because they do not require scanning, theyíre easy to catalog, space is not an issue, and a few may be used for some yet unknown purpose. I keep some images just because I want to, for no justifiable reason. Even with these transgressions, I keep far fewer images now than I did in my early years of photography.

Another thing to keep in mind is that you donít need to show everything you keep. An image of a prairie dog holding a blade of grass is probably not made more interesting by an image of the same prairie dog about to eat the blade of grass, or another of the prairie dog actually eating the blade of grass. Unless someone has asked to see a photo sequence of a prairie dog eating grass, pick the one you think is best and leave the rest in the file.

Editing images is still a pain in the backside, but with a little discipline it can be easier. Remember, it's the quality, not the quantity, that counts.

Happy shooting,

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Copyright 2004 Dean M. Chriss
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