How-To: Sort Images Without Mercy

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I’m firmly convinced that the biggest strength of Lightroom is not making RAW files pretty, but making it easy to identify our best images from a shoot, organize these in a meaningful way and find them easily later. The fancy phrase for this is “asset management.”

Photographers love to shoot images, but they hate to take care of them. If you are not able to quickly show me your 25 best images of all time, or the top 10 of last year, or your best portraits/macros/sunsets or what whatever else you love to shoot, you should be managing your photographic assets better.

I know, I know, it’s a hard and tedious process, but the rewards are immense:

  • Your image library is small and well-structured, so you can find any image within seconds. And then it only takes a few mouse clicks to create an impressive slide-show or a web gallery.
  • By keeping, seeing and presenting only your best images, you gain pride in your work and impress your audience. (Actually they are impressed by your camera, but you know that it’s really your eye and your skills that produced those images).
  • Being very picky when culling down images makes you a better photographer. In fact this is the fastest and most efficient way to get better! It’s significantly more effective than reading photography books or buying new gear.

Let’s examine each of these now in more detail.

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A small and well-organized image library

A small image library fits completely on the small SSD of your laptop, and it’s easy to back up, so you won’t be afraid to take all your images with you. It’s also well-organized, so you can find any image quickly and easily, clutter is immediately obvious, and you are motivated to clean it up quickly.

But can I be honest with you? My image library surely wasn’t like that in the beginning. I used to come home from a shoot and just dump all images in a folder on the hard drive. I’d quickly look through, identify the 10 best shots, edit them, show them around, then move on to other things. And after a year or two of this, I had a mess and couldn’t locate any of my hero shots any more.

So how did I transform my image library? Here are the main steps:

When looking through the images from a shooting, delete all redundant and uninteresting images. Be as merciless as you can. Edit all remaining images and rate them from one star up to five stars, then assign descriptive keywords. Finally give a descriptive name to the directory containing the images.

“Edit, rate and assign keywords to all images,” you ask? Well, all remaining images. So delete as many as possible and keep this thought as motivation:

If an image is not worth editing or assigning keywords to, then it’s not worth keeping.

Once you are done, you can search for all five-star images, or for the four- and five-stars from last year, or for all five-stars with a particular keyword — the possibilities are endless. And whenever you open your library and see directories without descriptive names or images without stars and keywords, it’s time for asset management again.

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View and present your best shots only

Each directory in a small and well-organized library contains only strong images without repeating content and technical errors. Each image has been edited to completion, so each directory looks like a finished image gallery. I guarantee you, when you get there, one of your favorite activities will become opening random directories and enjoying the images in there. The joy will soon turn into pride, and you will start showing your images to everyone and making compelling online-galleries.

The pride will also motivate you to wait less and be even more critical when you are looking through the next batch of new images. And you will need all the motivation you can get because normally when you shoot, you remember only the good images, but when you get home and browse the “catch of the day” in Lightroom, all you see are dozens and dozens of mediocre and bland-looking images. You literally have to fish out the good ones and delete the rest to bring back the feeling of pride.

Here is an example. In April 2013 Katja and I spent 3 days in Istanbul, where I shot 495 images. About half I deleted straight in camera and ended up importing 246 into Lightroom. Here is a contact sheet of those images: Istanbul (originals). Do you see what I’m talking about? Dozens and dozens of … nothing. I’m having a tough time spotting anything exciting here, so at this point I almost give up.

However after forcing myself to spend 3–4 evenings of editing and mercilessly deleting 85% of the images, I ended up with this: Istanbul (selects). What a difference, right? Every one of the 35 selects is strong, interesting and shows a unique subject or composition. All that’s left is to order the images thematically and then I can show them around. This is not a particularly strong lot, by the way: I’ve only got one 4-star image in there (along with twenty-one 3-stars, ten 2-stars and three 1-star images. In the contact-sheet with the select you can also see my ratings.)

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Become a better photographer

If you follow the advice above and spend the necessary time with your images — forcing yourself to pick just one from a bunch of similar ones, deleting those with a weak composition, those without a clear concept and those that have technical flaws — your photographic eye and mind will become trained to quickly and easily recognize better compositions, notice distracting elements and identify technical problems. Also editing an image to completeness or wondering if it should be awarded one more star or one less contribute greatly to turning you into a better photographer.

I go through several sessions before I’m completely finished with a bunch of images. In the beginning I edit the best ones, delete the worst ones and get rid of obvious duplicates. On the next day I notice more images that need work or do not quite deserve to be kept around. I then group images with similar content and force myself to delete at least half of them. At this point I start assigning stars and keywords, but I’m not done yet. A few days later I do a final round. By now I don’t have many images left, so I critically examine each image: it is too similar to another one, does it deserve more or less stars, does it need any more keywords, is the crop optimal, is it edited to completeness…

After doing this for a while now, I notice that I shoot less, but have a higher percentage of keepers. I’m more confident about choosing one image over another, and I spend much time in Lightroom.

Try it, it feels great!

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