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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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!
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!
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.
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!