Dealing With Lots of Digital Images

Many of my articles have a genesis in a question that comes in via email or is asked at a workshop. Someone noted, for example, that I probably average 10GB a day when out shooting on my own (that was based upon what I've written elsewhere on the site; I'd say my average is probably half that, but that's still a large number of images piling up). 

Here's the question that was posed to me and that triggered this article: "How do you keep you sanity reviewing all these pictures? How do you rate and select your pictures?"

Some of you, of course, will immediately answer that I'm not sane, and there's some truth to that. I'm almost always testing equipment when I shoot, and that means I'm carrying more gear and shooting more photos than I would if I were just a working photographer with a specialty. On those few trips I make when I'm not testing, my shooting is much more sane and moderate, though.

But regardless of my sanity, there lives a real question that needs to be answered: what do you do with all the images you shoot? While this is a workflow question, I'm not going to get much into optimized workflows here. What I really want to answer is the basic question of how you get control over quantity and quality when shooting digital. In so doing, hopefully I'll answer my reader's original question. So here goes:

  • Don't shoot. Film had this nice moderator: direct cost. Every time I pressed the shutter release on my F100 it cost me about twenty-five cents. Press the shutter release 100 times, that's US$25. You can't not be aware of that cost, because you have to stock up on film before a trip and you have to have the film processed after the trip. And then if I wanted to print one of those images, well, a good scan often cost me US$75 or so. When costs are relatively direct like this, you very quickly find ways to evaulate whether to pull the trigger or not. Do I really need to take 200 rolls of film to Africa for three weeks shooting? (That represents US$1600 or so.) Do I really need to print this image large? (That's US$75 every time I answer yes.) The downside is that you can get too conservative when costs are direct. As Wayne Gretzky said, "you miss 100 percent of the shots you never take." Still, the direct feedback of shot=cost definitely moderated use for most photographers. Digital, of course, doesn't really have that moderation, at least not directly. Eventually you'll opt for more cards, more hard drive storage, etc., and those have costs. But on any given day when you're out shooting and have your 16GB of cards with you, you've got near infinite shooting capability with no clear direct cost to you. Even a D3x user can get 300 raw shots onto that much card. That's a lot of images (US$75 in slide film terms). So my first answer to the question is "limit what you shoot." 
    • Make sure you're not shooting randomly hoping to catch a break. Have a clear photographic goal and don't press the shutter release unless what you're likely to capture has some chance of meeting that goal.
    • Wrap each card in your carrying case with a US$20 bill. Not only gives you a nice stash of emergency cash, but reinforces the "images cost money" theme. In actuality, you don't have to do this more than a couple of times before it starts to sink in.
    • Recognize what's a "planned shot" versus what's a "spontaneous shot." Scenic and landscape shots tend to be planned. You shouldn't be coming home with 300 variants (US$75, remember) of slightly different shots of Yosemite Falls. Develop your technique and vision enough that you trust it. Come home with 10 choices to choose from (US$2.50). Shots of your kid riding the bull at the rodeo? Well, you're not sure what your kid or the bull will do--you'll need to take the full sequence of shots because what happens won't repeat and it's very spontaneous.
    • If you still are having troubles understanding this step, here it is in my classic six word form: Shoot less. Make every shot count.
  • Chimp and delete. A lot of folk deride "chimping" (looking at your images on the camera's LCD after taking them). I don't. Not as long as you're using the chimping to refine your shooting choices. The nice thing about digital is that the feedback loop between trying something and seeing if it worked is short. With film, it sometimes was three weeks before I saw what my shot actually looked like. If I was experimenting with something like flow of water, that meant I had to shoot extra shots in the field if I was at all unsure of the shutter speed I needed. With digital, the answer is instantaneous. 
    • On "planned shots" test your assumptions and refine them using chimping. Delete the failures.
    • On "spontaneous shots" do a quick review in your downtime between events and remove the obvious failures.
    • It used to be on some early cameras that deleting in camera was risky, as you sometimes corrupted the card structure. I've not seen that with any recent camera, so I've reversed my ban on deleting in camera. Still, be on the lookout for any signs of corruption and stop using the card if you see any.
  • Rate and metadata on transfer. Don't wait until you get home from a long trip to transfer images. Do it every night if you can, and start your rating process immediately. That's why many of us use Photo Mechanic or Lightroom on our laptop for the transfer process: we can start looking at full sized previews the minute the first image has transferred over. So we're already starting to review and rate images before the card has even been fully transfered. 
    • During transfer, I'm applying as much metadata as possible. Certainly Copyright and photographer contact information, but usually also some place information and basic keywords as well.
    • Find the obvious deletes and guess what, delete them! No use wasting space on them. The earlier in the process you get rid of images that just aren't going to be used by you for anything, the better off you are. Technically, you should have caught these in "chimp and delete." But some will get by and now is the time to make the cut, before they start clogging up space on your image server.
    • Find the obvious winners and uniquely mark them. Enter complete metadata for these, always.
    • I usually suggest that you don't try to rank any further than winners, keep, and delete at this stage. You'll eventually look at all of the retained images again when you've got time, but you've weeded out the chaff and marked the ones you really want to work on in a unique way that allows you to find them again. However, if you can batch apply any additional metadata to groups of the remaining images, it's useful to do so at this stage, it'll save you time later.
  • Use the ABCs. Galen used to use an ABC ranking and storage system with his slides, and I think it still works fine. Trying to get further discrimination amongst how good one image is versus another takes too much time and gives you too little additional usefulness (quick, when would choose an E image over an F image?). As for how you mark them, I tend to use stars (5=winner, 3=stock, 1=keep), this gives me the ability to put shots I have questions about in the tween categories for later final determination (usually with someone else giving me their opinion). 
    • A images are your winners (5). For Galen, these were images he either was going to put in a book he was working on or have printed for the gallery. Make sure they're really winners. Here's a hint: you don't have very many. Ansel Adams once said that if you shoot a dozen great images a year, you're doing well. If your A category gets much higher than a 100 images over a few years of shooting, you're probably not being critical enough. But note that your A images are ready to go. You can find them instantly, and they have full metadata associated with them already. As you later post process them, you're essentially ready to transmit these images (if necessary) the minute you're done.
    • B images are what you sell (3). For Galen, this was the bulk of the images he sold for stock. My definition here is "it's very publishable and it's an image that I'm proud to have my name associated with." You see a lot of my B work on this Web site (especially lately, but none of my A work). Your B image collection is going to get large if you're any good, so make sure you are using metadata as much as possible. Any chance you get to add metadata while you're browsing or working on your B images, do so. It'll make it easy to find and sell them later.
    • C images are ones that someone would find publishable, but you wouldn't care if your name was or wasn't associated with them (1). Some photographers often call these "reference photos," as they tend to be styleless recordings of some thing or event. For instance, a dramatic snowstorm in Yosemite Valley produced two of my A images. I've got a lot of B images taken in Yosemite when the light was dramatic. But a mid-day picture in summer of Half Dome taken from a position that anyone can drive to, well, that's almost certainly a C image in my files. I sometimes call these my US$20 photos, because that's the most they'll ever earn. However, do you have the practice of throwing away twenty dollar bills? Didn't think you did. Amazingly, I run into professional photographers who not only will delete this type of image, but they won't take it in the first place when the opportunity arises. The usual grumble is "it wouldn't be worth much and it'll just clog up my workflow." Thing is, when I'm out shooting I sometimes run into dozens of these twenty-dollar photo ops a day. Twenty plus twenty plus twenty...well, eventually we're talking real money ;~). Every now and again there comes an opportunity to monetize these C images. For Galen, it was when Corbis took them off his hands for a hefty up front lump sum. It was a win for Corbis because now they could say they represented Galen Rowell images and they got a huge number of images to add to their files. It was a win for Galen because he got cash and he kept the images he knew were better and could make more money off of. True, such opportunities don't come around often, but when they do, what are you going to do, sell all your B images? Probably not. You'd have nothing left to compete with and be starting your files over from scratch.

Amateurs are probably wondering why any of the above was important. Well, if you're a good amateur, there may come a time when you cross the line into pro ranks. All pros were once amateurs, including myself. If you've thrown out your C images and not metadataed anything, good luck with finding anything and making the maximum amount of money off it. Of course, if you're not a good amateur, I'm not entirely sure why you're reading this article or my Web site ;~). 

But even if you won't ever go pro, if you've got your images ABC'd then the day when you need to delete something to make room in your files is easy (it's the C images, though I'd suggest you archive them somewhere). You always know where your best images are (the A images). And you spent the most time on your most important images, and the least on your least important images.

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