Deleting Images

My teaching partner and I have this on-going discussion (argument?) about images: do you delete any images or not? If so, when and how? Short answer: everyone will have a slightly different take on this.

This isn't a topic you should approach lightly, though. You really should take some time to think through what you're doing and why. That's what I'm going to try to get you to do today.

The usual argument "for" deleting images has to do with storage. A few make the argument that it also is about time (e.g. amount of time it takes to ingest, handle, backup images). 

My argument is that storage is cheap, and if you're using the right cards, card reader, and drives (Thunderbolt 3 SSD, baby), time isn't typically an issue. That said, I've been going through over 15,000 slides recently to look for images for an upcoming presentation I'm giving, and I'm understanding the time issue a bit differently today as I look at page after page of slides on a small light box trying to find the right images, while ignoring all the images I'll likely never use. (With digital images and products like Lightroom, good categorization and keywords would help you breeze through this task.)

I'm a "keeper." Okay, I throw away the images I accidentally take of my feet or pants legs while running from one end of a stadium to the other, but if there's a subject in the image, I keep it. Including any out of focus ones in a sequence. Why? Two reasons: 

  1. I can go back and look through a shooting session and see my errors. Bad images help me figure out what problem I was having and then I work to solve it. I'll be the first one to admit that I make mistakes. Plenty of them. However, I also look closely at my errors and try to figure out how to improve. It's much tougher to improve when you just vaguely remember you had a problem and think you might know what it is, compared to when you have the evidence right in front of your eyes and can test assumptions against it.
  2. Software has gotten better at correcting errors. Missed exposure and focus can amazingly be "corrected" far better than you thought it might be when you actually took the image. Image stabilization didn't exist back when I took a lot of those slides, and some of them have a bit of motion blur to them. If you've got enough computer horsepower and the right software, it's amazing how much you can recover these days. Had I thrown those marginal images away when I took them, I'd be kicking myself today.

What the heck happened here? Right in the middle of a dozen nicely framed images was this one. Patagonia winds, that's what happened. A nice 60 mph gust (note the water drops in upper left) hit my setup just as I was pressing the remote. The slightly circular blur is because I grabbed one of the legs so the camera didn't hit the ground. But having this image in my files was useful. I kept looking at the effect of the slightly circular blur, and then set off on a long series of attempts to find a subject that worked with that (more on that later).

So let me put a few points out for you to consider in your debate about how aggressively you delete images:

  • If you haven't optimized for speed, you should. Whether you keep all your images or just half of them, using slow cards, slow card readers, and slow drives is just going to frustrate you and keep you wondering if you should be more aggressive about deleting images. Remove the temptation. I've seen people who could have saved more time just by having faster speed gear when compared to all the time they spent deleting images. Oh, and invest in really fast viewing software, such as Photo Mechanic or FastRawViewer. Lightroom is not all that fast for massive image reviews.
  • In camera deletion is still something to avoid when possible. It used to be that deleting in camera caused all kinds of file system errors with digital cameras. Despite every camera maker using some derivative of DOS in their file system, that was all recoded in Japan from scratch and the camera makers had to relearn all the lessons learned stretching way back into the DEC PDP era (from whence much of the FAT idea came from). Today I still find that card errors can occur with deletion, particularly in two scenarios: (1) deleting from a full or nearly full card; and (2) deleting from a card that's been in multiple different cameras without having been reformatted.
  • In camera marking can be your friend. Some cameras allow you to put ratings or protection marks on images. If you take a lot of images at a time (or don't ingest your card for days at a time), having the images you like that you marked while shooting and using software during ingest that will pick up that mark is your time saving friend. I use this method all the time when photographing sports: between plays I'll chimp and mark images to push quickly (sometimes I'll do it immediately via SnapBridge, but more often I just grab the marked images at halftime and push them then). 
  • Can you recreate the image you're deleting? I go exotic places and take photos of ephemeral things. If I miss focus or exposure a bit, if I shake the camera, if something partially obstructs the view, when possible I'll take another image (assuming I noticed my mistake). But if not possible, I still want that image around, due to #2, above: I've learned over 30 years of working with digital images that I can get more out of images I thought completely lost with the latest, greatest hardware and software. Something obscured? Content-aware fill. Something slightly out of focus or camera moved? Piccure+. Underexposed and noisy? Topaz Denoise AI or maybe DxO Prime. Tilting buildings and horizons? LR/ACR Geometry. On the other hand, if I can easily go and get the correct image—often the case with static objects, such as buildings—then maybe that's the better use of my time as opposed to a "fix session" in Photoshop. 

As many of you know, I'm highly analytical and data driven (though I can also be spontaneous, a rare combination). I want to be able to explore my mistakes and look for commonalities, because when I make the same mistake more than once I know I will make it again if I don't correct my problem. 

Today I'm going to ask you to be a little analytical (and perhaps data driven), and figure out what your real approach to deletion is and if it's the right one. Let me start with a few ideas:

  1. Keep everything, use it to study and discover your patterns (both good and bad).
  2. Keep anything that's not a lens cap or a pants leg or the bottom of the bag shot (i.e. remove only images that have no useful data in them).
  3. Keep only those images you know you can correct today (e.g. modestly missed exposure, wrong crop).
  4. Keep only images you know that you'll revisit and post process.
  5. Keep only "winning" images (those images you think will wow an audience).

I'm a #2. My teaching partner is somewhere between a #3 and #4. 

Today, what number are you? How did you determine that? Is that really where you think you should be? Are there images you remember taking, but deleted and now wish you hadn't? Are you truly aware of what software today can recover and what it can't, and can you imagine what AI software might be able to recover in five years?

Answer those questions and then go back to that last numbered list and figure out which type of Deleter you should be, as opposed to the one you are. Maybe you've got it just right. Maybe you should change. But make sure you know what you're doing and why. Once those pixels are gone, they're gone. 


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