How to Pick Your Best Photos
The way to select better photos is to set yourself a criteria as to what makes a ‘good’ photo.
My criteria of selection works as a hierarchy. Because you may not know exactly what you’re looking for at the start of your selection, it can be beneficial to use a process of elimination.
As you go through your pictures, ask yourself these questions as you make your final cut:
Is it Quality Standard?
Most of the time decent photos will stand out from the duds: The focus is sharp, the composition is right or the exposure is correct- on the hierarchy of elimination, these are the base requirement. When making a first pass, axe any photo that doesn’t meet these standards.
Remember however, your quality standard is not always the same for all situations, depending on the purpose and end product in mind. For example, unless it’s intentional- motion blur might makes an image unusable, while high grain and a softer focus are not deal breakers when shooting street photography. Different types of photography also have a circumstantial emphasis on quality standard criteria- such as having the eyes sharp for portraits or having the camera completely level for landscapes, so keep these in mind.
Because I almost always shoot in RAW, I won’t even import images that do not pass Quality Standard, to both make selection easier and to save on space on my hardrive.
Does it Catch the Eye?
It’s obvious: don’t use boring pictures. The best way you can tell if an image is boring or not is if they don’t work small, they won’t work at all.
Look at your images as thumbnails. If they don’t work at their smallest size, it's unlikely that bigger will make better. Your winners should stand out to you from the film strip display. You don’t have to view all of your photos full size to see what your shortlist are.
Use a birds eye view and hone in on the ones that jump out. You can either do this in Lightroom from Grid View, or if in Photoshop go to FILE > AUTOMATE > CONTACT SHEET II to create a proof such as the one above.
Of course sometimes tiny details make a huge difference in a picture. Perhaps it’s an expression or small, meaningful object or word that appears in the photo that makes a world of difference. But the image as a whole has to catch the eye, otherwise it’s not worth the time you will spend in editing trying to get it to work.
Does it Tell a Story?
It is said that pictures are worth 1000 words; but how often is that really true?
In the Vice series Take it or Leave it, Bruce Gilden reviews photos that people send to him. What inspires the most contempt for Gilden are those photos that are just plain ordinary and lack any real guts or brains. There are many objectively ‘good’, eye-catching photos that get absolutely blasted. The photos that get picked out as ‘winners’ are weird- and I think for a lot of us, especially those who are used to fretting over likes and popular accolade, are reasons why similar photos won’t make the cut.
The lesson that Gilden can teach us is this: photos that are technically imperfect, but which tell a story are far better than those with nice composition and no depth.
Take this photo for example that Bruce picks-
As he notes in the video, the positioning of the apple and the expression on the man are not perfect, but they are elements of a story. From these visual ingredients, Gilden projects the story of a sorceress and magical fruit onto the picture.
When picking photos, borrow the eyes of the outsider who will look at our work with objective indifference. The ultimate goal is a picture that tells a story; one that is apparent without need for caption or explanation. It doesn’t need to be the same story that happened in real life, so long as it portray drama, or movement or change. Failing that- your pictures need some hook, whether it be a joke or an idea. To show you what I mean, here is a picture that for a long time I displayed on my website:
I always thought it was the strongest shot on this roll- namely because it rendered the girl in the most flattering light- she looked striking, there was a clear background and the expression looked good.
As one of my friends pointed out while showing them through my pics, aside from the girl’s obvious good looks, there is nothing really interesting about this image. This story doesn’t tell a story or evoke any feeling.
However later on down the roll there was also this shot, which I paid little attention to because it lacked the ‘perfect’ cleaness of the previous image:
Despite the distractions in the background and the less flattering rendering of the subject, it actually has some grit to it. Her expression and licking the chocolate wrapper clean has an innuendo and humour to it. For this reason alone, that for me at least, it’s an far better image.
A test you can run to determine if your photo tells a story- write a caption for it. If you can’t come up with more than a sentence about them, it’s probably not worth your or anyone else’s time.
Can it Make a Series?
As Gilden says: “Strength in numbers”. One image can’t tell a story the way 50 can.
Anyone can take a great photograph. Curating a great series of work takes talent, dedication and forethought.
This criteria is the hardest and most important because it’s the way your photography can tell complex stories. The benefit of understanding it better in your process is that once you do you save time in both shooting and editing, while your pictures become better and you create your style.
Unless you buy a photo book or go to a gallery or pick up a magazine, the custom is to think of the image as it stands alone. We are encouraged to think of photos as one offs, because typically that is how they are displayed- as a post or an ad. The fact however is that we form our initial impressions not only from the first image we see but the series we see after it. Just like you use Instagram- you see an image that you like, click to the profile, and if the images that cascade under it are of consistent style and quality, you will likely follow the creator.
The most highly followed accounts are one’s that have found their ‘micro-niche’. They are not just tagging all the right hashes and posting all the ‘gram slayers’- they are creating series, whether that be their whole feed or themed chapters.
One way I have improved my curation is to think of it like writing; in that it is hard to critique a sentence (or a single photograph in this analogy), but much easier to critique a story. Coming up with a tale worth an audience’s time and attention is a much more praiseworthy accolade than a great one liner, no matter how witty. It’s also easier to deconstruct and look at what went wrong or right, because there are far more moving parts. It is the best starting place to think about how you shoot and your intentions as an artist- giving you purpose to organise your current collection and direction for future work.
Back to that image of the girl eating the melted chocolate bar. After I decided that it was a better photo, I remembered that I had yet another shot of Anna from 2 years ago, with chocolate on her top lip:
From here there is the beginnings of a photo series; maybe something along the lines of ‘The Model Diet’ or ‘Chocolate Chic’. So long as there is a theme running through the photos, you have a basis for interesting series:
So when it comes to considering your selection for a photo book or your website, remember that those star ratings in Lightroom shouldn’t simply indicate how much you like an image. Use them as the basis for a criteria of selection- like the way a teacher would grade a paper: