Delete Your Sh!t: Why You Should Trash Most of Your Photos

Apr 21, 2016

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand.

Delete Your Sh!t: Why You Should Trash Most of Your Photos

Apr 21, 2016

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand.

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Delete Your Reject Photos

This is one of those subjects in the photography world that is strangely controversial – like Nikon vs. Canon, DSLR vs. Smartphone and Prime vs. Zoom … the idea that you should delete your sh!t – or in other words – why you might want to permanently delete most of the photos that you’ve ever captured (on purpose)!

Lets start with a universal truth.

99% of the photos that I take, that you take or that any other photographer takes are junk that nobody will ever see, or ever want to see.

So in this article I am going to encourage you to trash everything except your best work – after hitting delete you’ll feel better, I promise.

Picks vs. Maybes vs. Rejects

OK yes – 99% junk is a bit harsh and somewhat of an exaggeration, but the point is that we all capture way more photos than we did just a few years ago and the vast majority are either not good, or very very VERY similar to other images that are better.

From the photos that we capture professionally, to our personal family photos to just what we snap day to day on our mobile phones, this all adds up to tens of thousands (or even hundreds of thousands) of individual photos that all have to be sorted and stored somewhere…on an ongoing basis.

Add timelapse or HDR (or HDR timelapse!!!) to the mix and you’re talking about exponentially more images.

Lets start by separating every single photo you have ever taken into three categories.

1. Rejects

This is a no brainer – these are photos that are blatantly bad. The exposure is wrong, you snapped a photo of the inside of your pocket or you happened to catch your subject just as they were about the sneeze.

I delete these without a second thought.

2. Picks

Again, a no brainer. These are the photos that you deliver to a client, that you share on social media or that best tell the story of a family gathering – your best work that you obviously want to keep.

3. Maybes

This is where things get difficult. These are your images that are OK. You might have 10 (or 100) slightly different versions of the same scene and you can’t decide what you like best, or you might not be sure how an image will look with different processing or you’re just not sure if this is a event you will want to keep a record of in 20 years time.

Delete Your Reject Photos

Reasons To Save Your Photography

There are obviously many reasons to save your photography and I am sure that the “save everything forever” camp will explain everything in the comments.

However, be honest with yourself – most of the reasons for permanently archiving every photo that comes off of our camera(s) are just little white lies we like to tell ourselves.

For example:

“I might want to re-process this shoot another way in the future.”

“Storage is cheap so its actually easier to keep everything.”

“I will re-process this timelapse to 4k once I get a better computer.”

“I like all of the 299 photos I took of my kid blowing out their birthday candles on continuous high speed.”

“I’m only going to do a quick edit now, I’ll fix the rest later.”

“I only created one HDR from this series of 10,000 photos I took of the same thing – I will process the rest later.”

“Clients actually prefer to receive 5000 images.”

“I can’t fix this photo yet – but the software of the future will be able to do it.”

“I don’t like it now, but I might like it better in a few years.”

“I need 1000 photos to tell the story.”

Lies, each and every one!

Delete Your Reject Photos

Reasons to Delete Most of Your Photography

Lets start with good old fashioned practicality.

Yes storage is cheap (although that argument starts to fall flat once we start talking about more than a few terabytes of space), but time is money and more and more data takes longer and longer to manage.

Have you ever tried to transfer several terabytes from one place to another? It takes hours – days even (depending on your devices).

But it is more than moving data around.

Just indexing that much data takes ages, making incremental backups and verifying files much heavier tasks than they need to be. This is especially true for cloud backups where the initial upload can last for months – never mind how long it would take to retrieve all of that data in an emergency.

Secondly, its just stressful to manage and browse through thousands and thousands of photos while adding thousands and thousands more on a regular basis.

Want to post a photo of your daughter’s 10th birthday to Facebook? First you have to find it, then decide which one of the 299 nearly identical photos is the best one to post.

Wouldn’t maybe 5 or 10 great photos of that event hold just as much (or more) impact and interest? So then why hold onto the rest?

This goes for commercial work too. If you captured 500 images for a gig and delivered 50 to your client (a pretty realistic ratio) – you never have to look at those 450 other photos again – so why not do yourself a favor and trash them?

Of course we can take this one step further – if your client purchases licensing to 3 out of those 50 photos you delivered – you don’t really need to keep the other 47 on file forever. It might be a good idea to keep them for a few months or a year just in case (you can even use the threat of permanent deletion as leverage to sell a few more licenses a few months after the original sale) but is it really your responsibility to keep them on file indefinitely?

Unless its a portfolio image – trash it!

Delete Your Reject Photos

The 80/20 Rule

Everyone has a different concept of what is important and what isn’t – there is no right and wrong, so how you manage your image files is up to you.

For me its a balance between culling, archiving my professional work, and keeping a record of day to day family life.

Here is an example on how I handle my personal photography.

Over the last few years between my wife and I we capture in the order of 10000 personal photos per year between our various cameras and mobile phones (with my kids soon to be added into the mix as they get their own cameras).

Many get deleted on camera and the rest get imported to Lightroom.

I have found that I can cull that down to around 1200 photos per year (or 100 images per month) without too much sweat and tears (which is still an obscene number of images).

A catalog with around 1000 images per year is manageable, easy to navigate and still has more than enough individual photographs to keep track of our family life without becoming overwhelming.

On the professional side – if I didn’t deliver it to a client, it gets deleted right away.

Anything that a client licenses I keep for my records, along with any images that I like or could be re-purposed as stock or used in my portfolio.  Sometimes I keep the rest and sometimes I delete them after I am sure the client is not going to come back and ask for additional licenses – it depends on the profile of the job.

This goes for source files too.

I know from experience that I will never return to reprocess a finished job.  So for individual time lapse frames, HDR bracket sets and video clips – once the job is finished, I have produced the final product and payment has been processed, I trash the majority of the source material.

One further factor to consider is if you have distributed an image to a 3rd party in any way – shared it on social media, emailed it to your mom, delivered it to a client or licensed it for public use – it is a good idea to keep a copy of the original. That way if when your image is stolen you have proof of ownership.

Delete Your Reject Photos

What Do You Think?

Do you archive all of your photographs or do you think that it is useful to cull and permanently delete your photos?

Have you every wished you hadn’t deleted a photo?

Leave a comment below and let us know!

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JP Danko

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand.

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31 responses to “Delete Your Sh!t: Why You Should Trash Most of Your Photos”

  1. Renato Murakami Avatar
    Renato Murakami

    I just take the experience I had while working in a very small studio editing stuff for a weekly real estate show: we didn’t have a whole lot of space to work with, and my bosses weren’t too keen with the idea of investing a whole lot on backup.
    Losses were kinda predictable. It happened.
    We had to take a hard stance on deleting everything possible, sometimes including stuff that we didn’t use for the week’s show, but perhaps would be useful in the future for… something. :P

    Unless it was something we were relatively sure that could be used for a specific purpose in the future (like portfolio stuff, or recurring usage), it just had to go. If it was anything vague, we’d see if it was really worth it, so it either became a solid project with a date to work, or it had to go.

    Same thing for when I worked as an intern editing the material journalism students brought to compose the University news show. As long as the clients – in this case the students – were warned previously that we were not responsible for keeping raw material for long (there was a pre-estabilished period in accordance with the space we had… I think it was a couple of months tops), and they had to come with media to record it if they needed to, it was fine.

    I guess this philosophy is just more common with videos since they take so much extra space.

    The only real reason I still have a lot of junk from my personal stuff is lazyness. It’s not that I even think I’ll use it someday, it’s just that I can’t be bothered going through everything to select what stays. xD Photos I take gets automatically backuped without previous filtering. I honestly invested a bunch of time and money just so I don’t get bothered about that.

    But then again, I’m not a professional photographer, so there’s that. When I have to go through it, edit, and select what to send/post, then I just delete everything I’m not going to use. If I ever have to start dealing with videos and photos professionally again, I’m putting the axe on most of it. Losses and errors will happen anyways…. you just have to make sure the client/boss is aware, try to set reasonable expectations, and go with it – not irresponsibly, but also not wasting too much time and resources on that. Avoid the slippery slope. xD

    That’s only for me though. Strategies will vary depending on how valuable your material is, how important for the client the raw stuff is, what sort of contract you are estabilishing with them, how many of the photos you take are actually worthless…. that sort of stuff. I guess it also varies a lot from the type of photography. I imagine that sports photographers and perhaps wild life photographers will eliminate tons and tons of uneeded photos. Any photographer that goes in burst but has a clear target there.
    Things probably starts becoming complicated when you have lots of flexibility in post though… worthless photos could produce interesting results.

  2. Wing Wong Avatar
    Wing Wong

    Very useful perspective… Time to go through the archive and whittle it down.

  3. Kim Chi Avatar
    Kim Chi


  4. Stephen Douglas Avatar
    Stephen Douglas


  5. disqus_wOrGhvH1jk Avatar

    I don’t understand why you would take so many photos in the first place. It must be huge storage media in todays cameras. I’m not the one who will tell you that you should limit yourself to a 64MB card so you just take only the best two photos you could get for the day; but come on, 20 pictures of the same sunset, no change of settings or framing is 19 too many. You can see this wth smartphone photographers too, the just carelessly mash their screens and snap off dozens of pictures of the same thing, then scroll through their galleries to find the one to post on social media. It is rediculous.

    You can think first and then shoot, or you can just shoot and think later at home. Safe yourself the pain of backing up or deleting thousands of unneccessary photos and just think about what you do in the first place.

    Sometimes it really feels like people nowadays need the common sense equivalence of those ‘caution hot!’ or ‘if you drink this poison you will die’ signs for everything. And I thought those were stupid already…

  6. Steve Avatar

    Hey JP, I understand what your saying but to this day, I still shoot like I did in the film days – trying not to waste frames and much more deliberate when I press the shutter.

    1. JP Danko Avatar
      JP Danko

      As much as I try – I can never get down to sets of 24 – its an ongoing challenge to be more efficient right from capture – but you’re absolutely right. However, going back to film is the other extreme – I could fit all the photos I have of the first 20 years of my life into one photo album – now I’m struggling to limit myself to 100 photos a month of my own kids.

  7. Tim Evans Avatar
    Tim Evans

    I can understand why a professional would want to be ruthless with their decisions to keep or trash. However, I don’t think, for a hobbyist, that reasoning is quite as applicable.

    First, for most hobbyists, our photographs, even awful ones, have some personal memory or emotion associated with them. Second, at least for me, I learn by reviewing the bad shots. I see it and I think about what could have made it better. When I’m facing a situation I don’t encounter everyday–say photographing Christmas lights–I usually pull up photos from previous years to quickly remind myself of the mistakes I made so I hopefully won’t repeat them.

  8. Roger Lambert Avatar
    Roger Lambert

    “Lets start with a universal truth.

    99% of the photos that I take, that you take or that any other photographer takes are junk that nobody will ever see, or ever want to see.”

    You do know that the above is a perfect example of the “Begging the Question” fallacy?

    I know you are being humorous, but I am not very convinced you are taking this topic all that seriously. Granted, we all have lots of images we COULD get rid of and it would make no difference.

    But here is a reply to that argument: So what?

    The benefit of getting rid of 80-90% of your images is minuscule. Storage has never been less expensive or obtrusive. You can always take those bad images and get them out of the way someplace else, so finding a good picture will take you less time. Take the trash and burn them to gold Blu-Ray discs. Good for 200 years.

    One of the biggest problems we face with digital photography is the loss of portfolios when people die, or suffer a hardware issue, or a natural disaster hits. And there is another aspect to this:

    We all do not know just how good our work might be to different eyes. Two words: Vivian Meier. Thank goodness she didn’t through her trash photos out.

    1. JP Danko Avatar
      JP Danko

      I don’t agree that storage is inexpensive or that trashing 80-90% of data that would otherwise be stored is minuscule. A good quality NAS with say 8tb of storage in a mirrored array (4x4tb drives) would run a few grand. You need two if you want an onsite backup. Add unlimited cloud backup for somewhere around $30 / mo. So you’re looking at an initial investment of 5 or 6k plus $30 / mo+ indefinitely just to store 8tb of data – which is relatively modest amount of space.

      1. Craig Pulsifer Avatar
        Craig Pulsifer

        totally with you on this one, JP.

  9. Tim W Avatar
    Tim W

    At first I always kept all of my pictures (except for really bad ones). I only slowly realized that I use 10-15 Pictures (sometimes more) from a shot with 150+ pictures taken so I started to better reject my photos.

    Now I’m at the that I reject around 70% of the photos taken. From the last 30% I took my own picks and ask the people I worked with whats their Fav’s ( their and mine picks are often the same).

    Also I’m deleting my old photos (starting 2010/2011) to reduce my old sh!t.

    But at some point I think this whole thing from “saving every photo” to “I’ll save the best 10%” is a individual learning process and this, probably, makes you better. The requirement for this is, to realize it.

    And: Yes I hate myself for deleting a handful of photos.

  10. Matt Jensen Avatar
    Matt Jensen

    This is pretty tough to do, but I find a lot of my pictures are the same.
    I’ll go through and rate my own personal photos like this:
    “Rejected” these are black frames, too blurry, shooting my foot, etc.
    1-Star. Pretty much trash. They _look_ a photo tried to happen.
    2-Stars. Trash, but with a little more merit.
    3-Stars. While technically nothing wrong with these photos, they just aren’t there or interesting enough (like taking 20 photos of the same thing). I may keep one or two 3-star photos for posterity or something.
    4-Stars. Worthy to share with friends and family. Sometimes blurry photos are 4 stars if it is good enough.
    5-Stars. Nailed it. From expressions, events, scenery, sharability, to just an awesome photo. Good enough to print or put in a book/album.

    3 Star and below photos are pretty much deleted, and it does feel pretty good to know I don’t have to deal with them down the road.

  11. Matt Jensen Avatar
    Matt Jensen

    I guess photos are the easy part to get rid of. Does anyone have a good system for keeping videos? I can record a 3 minute video, but only a few 15 second clips could be “gold,” does anyone have a quick way of going through and trimming only that 15 second part out of the 3 minute video?

    I’m curious what people do for that and to make it a _quick_ process and nothing major such as re-rendering the video out and losing quality or making the file size larger because the render quality doesn’t match the codec used in the original recording.

    1. JP Danko Avatar
      JP Danko

      That’s a great point – video is killer – especially once we start talking about 4k. I think you can cut clips right in Lightroom but to be honest I’m not sure exactly how it works.

      1. JP Danko Avatar
        JP Danko

        You can trim video in Lightroom – but it looks like its non-destructive so it doesn’t actually delete the parts you trimmed off. I think you would have to export to apply the trim – which kind of defeats the purpose of trimming it to save space…

  12. Shane Prestridge Avatar
    Shane Prestridge

    Very classless title DIYPhotography….. Have a little integrity and learn to use words that get your point across with being trashy….. What is wrong with ppl these days. There was a time in his great nation where ppl would be embarrassed and ashamed to curse in public.

    1. Nick Dunlap Avatar
      Nick Dunlap

      Ugh shut the fuck up. You’re the worst type of fucking person

    2. Shane Prestridge Avatar
      Shane Prestridge

      Nick Dunlap
      Ephesians 4:29
      Let no foul or polluting language, nor evil word nor unwholesome or worthless talk [ever] come out of your mouth, but only such [speech] as is good and beneficial to the spiritual progress of others, as is fitting to the need and the occasion, that it may be a blessing and give grace (God’s favor) to those who hear it.

  13. Jodee Mahurin Avatar
    Jodee Mahurin

    Why? What if Vivian Maier deleted all of hers?

  14. JB Rasor Avatar
    JB Rasor

    I keep absolutely everything! Storage isn’t super cheap…but it’s pretty cheap. It’d take me months to go through my catalog and ditch work. The anxiety!! I’d just assume keep it. Why not?

  15. Wil Fry Avatar
    Wil Fry

    It probably also depends on how many images you shoot. As soon as I became a hobbyist again (after several years at a newspaper), I resolved to shoot *less* in an attempt to get better. I think it’s worked, but the point is that I now typically only have two or three images of the kid blowing out candles or one photo of the post-thunderstorm sunset, etc. I suppose you could think of it as “pre-deleting”. I’m deleting the images before I even make them, by not making them in the first place. It took *years* for me to get to this point, but those years were spent going through thousands of photos from a track meet (or baseball game, or crime scene, or city council meeting, etc.), almost all of them identical in many ways. Avoiding those images in the first place kept me from every having to worry about deleting them.

  16. Aankhen Avatar

    Storage get cheaper, transfer times go down, both become irrelevant over time. Moments, on the other hand, come only once. Rather than trashing your photos, start taking better ones.

    1. Not quite Avatar
      Not quite

      The “storage is cheap” argument is dumb. It’s not the monetary cost, it’s the life cost. I do not have the space nor time to deal with multiple back ups especially when I also have thousands of transparencies and negatives to deal with as well. Who wants a room full of hard drives? Especially when the future comes and hard drive and USB are obsolete….what then?

      1. Aankhen Avatar

        If you see your work as disposable, that’s your call. Setting up backups is more difficult than it should be but hardly the life-wasting ordeal you make it out to be. And I don’t understand what your point is re: hard drives and USB drives becoming obsolete—if you have a bunch of stuff backed up, you’re obviously going to want to transfer it to the presumably better new medium at some point, which will only make it easier to deal with.

  17. Jurgen Lobert Avatar
    Jurgen Lobert

    Even though this may be true for yourself, you are wrong in the assumption that everyone takes 100s of photos or that only 1% are good. I specialize in night and long exposure daytime photography with some urban exploration. My photography is very slow and deliberate and I rarely ever use my D4’s 12 fps frame rate. Of about 80 photos I shoot a night, never less than 1/3, usually 50% and often 2/3 are good, get a flag, processing and a star rating. I agree to cull the obviously bad stuff, but I usually do that right in the field when I realize that is is blurry or overexposed.

    Sometimes, I shoot HDR and that triples the number of shots. And when I do star trails, 20-60 images are stacked into one output file, so, yes, only 1 or 2% ends up being seen, but I still need to retain the 20-60 images if I ever want to recreate that output file.

    In the end, I believe you need to rethink your own paradigm of shooting with the shutter pressed on burst rate all day and take more time to capture a winner. As the recently posted comic states: 1950: film with 12 images and 6 are great. 1980: film with 36 images and 6 are great. 2010: SD card with 1000 images and 6 are great. I think you’re following that paradigm, rather than making sure each click is worth your time…

  18. TerraPhoto Avatar

    Pretty much right on.

  19. Al Lloyd Avatar
    Al Lloyd

    Shoot as much as you think you need is ok. To keep trashy photos or not it can be relative. Some trashy photos that you think you have… someday it might mean something more special. Trying to empty some space I went back to some old libraries on my external drives and I discovered that many of then can be rescued due the capabilities of some filters, plugins, add ons, new features on editing software, etc.
    In my case I shoot many meetings, when people are making their speeches, there are some gestures that needs to be selected meticulously from many other shots… in some shots the people close the eyes, in some the position of the hands are not helpful, some people if not all make strange faces if shot in certain moments, not everybody keeps passive facial gestures when at the stage, etc., until the final one perfect or close to perfect come out. The gestures we think now are not useful… Hmmm… maybe it can become an interesting material later…

    Similar situations when I do handheld shooting, I want shoot more than I might need just to be sure that one of the shots is without shake even years of experience but when getting tired of hours of shooting carrying at least 2 cameras might affect the hands stability.
    I believe is a personal choice what you and or others consider trashy, useless, etc. Many images that are considered artistic, are a kind of trashy images that we might delete if customers don’t choose them or we don’t like them… but in hands of other person, it might get some use if creatively edited.
    If you shoot only for customers then any thing your customer does not buy or pay, then is trash… but if when shooting you are adding a little bit about what you like instead only what customer want or need then keeping some files might become interesting.
    Maybe one day you can not shoot anymore… then you might wish to have more files to recreate, re-edit, re-select, re-publish, re-keep, re-print…
    Space-Cost issues? Why to be cheap or tight with ourselves about what we do and create?
    Every some years the storage space double or triple for the same cost or less and with a better technology…

    Its about having a wider and deeper criteria about what and why to keep…

  20. Luís Flôres Avatar
    Luís Flôres

    why think about what’s in and what’s out? deleting is a waist of your time and brain!

  21. Rufo Avatar

    Well, I see it very simple: you can’t undelete.
    I prefer to have and not need rather than need and not have.
    Besides this, I have a pretty simple as well as good organization of all my photo sets, not much time expended when I have to go back to this or that set.
    Altought HDR timelapses are other thing, but ¿seriously? ¿Terabytes and terabytes?

  22. Bob Avatar

    When I first started shooting slides you went through them and kept ONLY the good ones. Everything else went in the trash. That was normal for photographers then. Why would you keep five shots of a tree? You do not need to keep piece of sh$t photos. Ditch them. Detach yourself. If you say you don’t have time to go through and edit your work, than choose another hobby. Why are you shooting in the first place if you’re never going to look at your work?