When I first started doing portrait sessions, I didn’t cull my images very well. If the picture was in focus and the photos subject’s eyes were open, it was a keeper. Which meant that in a 45-60 minute session, I would come away with 250+ clicks and end up giving the subject(s) several dozen images. Over time I trained my eye to judge each photo individually and to select strong images over ones that were just sort of “there,” and now I’m only handing over the strongest images from the session.
I used to like to watch Americas Next Top Model, and I’m pretty sure in like every episode of ANTM that I saw, Nigel only took around 100-200 frames during the sessions. The model only got to come away with 1 shot, their best shot supposedly which made me mad because there had to be more than one decent shot of that model. Then when I started modeling for fun/trade after I moved to California, I thought photographers were cheap for not handing over all the shots. So when I started photography, I would give my subject all the images from their session as long as they at least met my standard of decent.
Anyway, I started to practice culling my photos of models, which lead me to do it with all types of sessions. The principle behind culling images down to the very best ones is that not every picture is a picture even when it features a professional model. So why would portraits be any different? The process of narrowing down photos to the very best captures helps me better satisfy the part of myself that needs to feel like an artist. I like to have control, and make deliberate decisions regarding my images. After all, other artists or other photographers are going to judge me by my worst picture and not my best.
For my Fantasy Fine Art Themed Portrait Series “Tragic Beauty” I culled my photos down to the extreme. Only keeping 1-4 images for each character. Reason being that I was approaching each piece like a fine art portrait with a heavy painterly type edit and each character was a part of a larger series.
Anyway, this being a technological age with almost everyone capable of taking decent photos all on their own it’s best to assume your subjects are in need of something special. Plus, culling through the shots from a session means I’m better able to value my time and my subject’s time as well. Ultimately people don’t want 50, 60, 70, or even 100 images from a portrait session unless it’s a special event or occasion or some kind of once in a lifetime occurrence. Handing over that many images means your subject has to dedicate their own time to deciphering which image is best which is something you should have already done as the photographer. Consequently, your photos subject may choose to print or share an image that is not as strong as the one you, the photographer might have selected, and now that weaker image is representing you.
Of course, it’s important to provide the subject(s) with options because everyone views their face and body differently from the photographer but including weaker images along with stronger ones often undermines the talent of the photographer. It’s better to share the back of the camera with your subject(s) at the end of the session and let them mark their favorites. Trust me, they’ll have fewer favorites than you, but you’ll have an idea of what they like. However, there have been times when I’ve delivered photos that I absolutely hated because they had something wrong with them either technically or aesthetically, but sent them along anyway because it was the only shot of their kids and husband all looking into the camera at once or whatever the reason may be.
The take-home message here is to do whatever you need to do to keep your subjects experience with you positive so that they’ll have good things to say about you when they tell their friends about the session. However, that does not give you the excuse to undermine your talent by prioritizing quantity of images of quality of images. Moreover, culling photos down to the essentials is a good way to monitor your growth as a photographer, it also encourages you to accept that mistakes are inevitable and accidents can be happy as well as teach you to shoot with more intention and discourage spray and pray type photography.
Here is an example of me ruthlessly culling through an hour-long photo session of two sisters. I started with 330 total shots for the session, which I then narrowed down to 107 shots and eventually culled all the way down to 17 images which I edited and delivered to my subjects.
I do this even with photos I take of my own child for example for this session I ended up with 239 shots which I culled down to 121 and then eventually down to 16 final images which I edited.
Such is my process with everything that I develop and edit with my computer software, but my method is a little different when I’m sharing images that I just casually take during the week. Those images I capture with my camera, and then I export a jpeg copy of each of my favorites to my phone which means I’m generally taking fewer shots and then only keeping the ones I’m interested in exporting, the keepers. The rest end up in my computer archives along with all my other image files.
So, If you’re currently giving back 50-100 images for a family portrait session, and aren’t quite confident enough to ruthlessly cull through them but want to try, then practice a little at a time by choosing 1-3 images to edit from each part of the session. For example, say you have pictures of all the kids together and all the kids individually, then keep one headshot and one body shot for each, perhaps include a silly or candid type shot if it pleases you, then just 1-2 shots of them all together or however, you break up the session.
If you’d like to read more about why photographers cull photos then check out this helpful article.
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