Culling photos is by far the most difficult part of the process for me when creating photo books and montages.  I tend to shoot “volume”, meaning I take a lot of photos at the time and hope that a few turn out (thank goodness for digital!).  This generally turns out well, but it definitely involves some extra work!  I don’t have any magic tricks, but I do have a general strategy when culling photos – the secret for me is multiple rounds of work.

I use Google’s free Picasa software for managing photos on my PC.  You can adjust the settings so it does not ask for confirmation before deleting each photo, which is a big timesaver (if you make a mistake, you can restore always photos from the Recycle Bin).  Picasa uses a 1-star rating system, which works for me – choosing 1-5 stars is too time-consuming for my purposes.  And I can use the Left and Right arrows on my keyboard to fly through the images quickly.

Round 0 – The non-Round

Some people try to save time by deleting bad photos in their cameras.  I avoid this myself, because it can lead to funny photo-numbering.  “Deleting” a photo in your camera really only means, “Tell the camera this slot is available to overwrite for the next new photo”.  I like my pictures to be in order, so I find it confusing when a new pic gets saved amongst a bunch of old pics.  There is also a very small chance of technical failure than can happen during any operation, so why add a “Delete” if you don’t absolutely need the room on the card?

Round 1 – Low Hanging Fruit

As soon as I transfer my photos to my computer, I go through and make all the easy delete decisions – is it blurry?  Is someone blinking?  Did I hit the shutter button before the action started?  These are photos no one would really argue should be kept, and they are an easy”win”.  I usually cut between 1/3 and 2/3 of my photos during this round.  Then I can pat myself on the back at how well I am doing 🙂

Round 2 – Redundancies

The next time I make a pass through the photos, I start looking for redundant shots – similar angle, same people, same setting.  I know if I use this event at all in a book or montage, I would only need one of these photos, so I might as well pick the best right now.  These photos might be cute, but I don’t need twelve shots of my baby in front of the Christmas tree!  No reason to let them take up room on my hard drive or in my brain.  Sometimes I will keep a couple versions of the “same” photo in case I want to do an action sequence, but that isn’t very common.  I imagine each photo by itself on a page and try to determine which shot really “captured” the feeling of that event.  I zoom in to see which photos have the sharpest focus, and I decide which have the best lighting and visual balance.  Picasa also has a “dual image view” that’s great for comparing really similar shots.

Round 3 – Quality Check

Now that I’ve seen my photos twice, I’m getting a pretty good “gut sense” of how high my standards should be for this bunch.  I’ve already seen some pretty awesome shots, so I know I will have something to represent this event.  Now that I have that confidence, I can go through and delete the “so-so” photos.  I wouldn’t put something mediocre in a book, so there’s no point in keeping it here.  These are photos with not-quite-right facial expressions, or sub-optimal lighting, or they’re just … boring.

Last Round – Rock Stars

My last round of culling doesn’t actually involve deleting photos.  I find it emotionally difficult to delete a “perfectly good” photo, even if I know I won’t need that many pics for a book or video.  For this round, instead of deleting ones I don’t want, I “star” the ones that I do want.  I can use the spacebar to star photos in Picasa, so I don’t even need to take my hands off of the keyboard.  After I’ve chosen the cream of the crop, I can turn on the Starred filter, so those are the only photos I see.  If I feel like it’s a representative bunch, my work is nearly done!  I export the starred photos to a new Highlights folder, which makes them easier to work with when editing books and montages.  I can also drag-and-drop to change order and then rename them using Batch Edit.  This means I have multiple copies on my computer, but I have enough space that it’s not a problem for me.

That’s it!  That’s the magic.  I usually follow my last step with an upload to Facebook for the many grandparents around the country waiting for baby pictures.  Once I’ve confirmed the photos are on my computer, somewhere online, and backed up to our external drive, than I use the “Format Card” option in my camera to wipe the card cleanly.

If you’re just getting started on a backlog of photos, make sure to break the job into manageable chunks, like a month at a time.  You’re never going to look at a year’s worth of photos and think, “Hey! I can finish that before dinner!  It looks way more fun than watching another episode of Game of Thrones!”  But if you promise yourself to get through January 2011 pics (no judgement here) by the end of the week, it just might happen.*

Obviously, this is just the strategy that works for me – you may find it simpler to just look at each photo once and make your decisions.  What’s your favorite way to tackle this task?

* And if you’re really overwhelmed, it just so happens that I offer this service myself, and even turn your dusty folders of pixels into beautiful printed photobooks and videos. </obligatory self-promotion>