Choosy Photographers Choose JIF

Ok, so a lot of people ask me how I decide on a single photo, or two photos out of the two or three hundred that I sometimes take.  So I thought I'd write a bit about my process.  Most of the time I'm thinking about portraits, but I guess this applies to any set of shots.

I'm always changing the way I work, which wreaks havoc on my system for keeping things straight, but then again, I'm a cluttermonster.  I just can't seem to spend time tidying something that's going to get untidy again anyway; I've got better things to do.. though I'm sure my accountant hates me.  This is how I've been working for the past year or so.
Oh, and I apologize in advance for jumping between first and third person voices.

I do it in iterations using ratings (I use Lightroom for this purpose and raw conversion, but the same thing could be done in Aperture or  iPhoto or Picasa or whatever software you use).

is to do the first glance cut.  This is to separate the ones that have no chance from the ones that do.  So things like blank frames when the strobe didn't fire, or pictures of the setup while trying to get the exposure right, or subjects eyes closed, goofy face, wardrobe malfunction, or whatnot.  Anything that gets by this round gets one star.  I then go and delete everything with zero stars, because while I've got a few terabytes of storage it fills up faster that you can ever imagine.  This probably cuts it down to about 50% of the original shoot.

is where I get a little zen about it.  It's all about the blink moment, and first impressions.  Either a photo says something to me or it's just a snapshot. It has Quality or it does not.  Photos that say something get 2 stars, those that don't stay at 1. 

This is also where if there are multiple shots that are very similar, I choose the best and leave the others at 1 star.

I wish I could explain my process more, but it's not the kind of thing that easily put into words. The one thing I have noticed is that my blink answer is almost always right.  This is not the step to stress over (that comes later).  Trust yourself  and mark the ones that 'feel' right.  You should be down to about 40 out of 200 now.

is similar to step 2, but with more stringent standards.  This is where I'll start comparing photos.  That one's pretty good, but is it on the same level as that other one? Do they both deserve to make it to the next round?  If so, give them 3 stars.  To make it to 3 stars they have to show some real promise.

If we started with 200, I usually get down to 15-20 by now. This isthe level at which I would feel comfortable showing any one of the shots to most people.

and now we're getting somewhere.  The ones you have left are probably a pretty good set.  You know when they show screengrabs of iPhoto on the apple site and you say, "ok, no one has photos that all look that good"?  Well they must have had the filter on two stars because these should all be pretty decent.

The selection process here is a longer version of step 2.  Where there I looked at them each for a second or two, now I bring each one up and take my hand off the mouse (or trackball as I use (or tablet which I sometimes use)) and really look at the photo.  I may play around with contrast and exposure and see how it 'pushes'.  That is, see how it reacts to manipulation.  Does making it a bit warmer or brighter change how I feel about it?  Does it spark creativity?  and perhaps most importantly, does it make me go "Oooooo" when I stare at it? If so it's 4 star material.

Photos on the edge sometimes flip between 3 and 4 stars, but usually that means they don't belong there.  The picture has to be sure of itself.  Usually 5 or 6 out of 200 make it to this level, so about 3%

now that I have the final selection, it's time to actually work on them.  So I look at what I've got and pick one to open up in photoshop and do some retouching on it.  Not final final stuff mind you, just to see how they polish..  if the chrome under the rust is as pretty as it looks.

I usually start with my favorite and then work down.  Not all of the 4 star images get this treatment, but  the 3 or so that do are the ones that I choose the final from.

The psd files get 5 stars, and if they don't clean up well, the psd gets deleted.  So the files with 5 stars are the A students; they're the ones that make me loose my mind trying to decide between.

Is where all of this culminates in the hard decision.  Sometimes it's easy and one of them calls out to you.  Usually if this happens, it's been your favorite from the start of this process, and sometimes it's even your favorite since you pressed the shutter.  Sometimes it's that easy.

Other times it's a nightmare.
OK, here's an example as well as 2 photographs of James Burke.  Now... meeting James Burke was one of the top 5 moments of my life, he's been one of my heroes for as long as I can remember so choosing his portrait was especially tough. Plus, when it came to 365, whichever I chose, that's it, it's done and permanently part of the series.

I shot these in Barnes, outside London last August and Andrea will remember what a nutty I staged trying to decide.  She like the one on the left, because she said that it was what she remembered he was like.  Laughing and painfully friendly.  I agreed with her, and I loved the giant smile on his face, but for some reason I kept coming back to the one on the right.

For one, you can see his eyes, which for me is a big thing.  I'm all about people's eyes. Secondly, he's an author and historian, so there is a serious nature about him.

I anguished over these two photos for about two hours.  Looking at them, putting them aside, arguing with Andrea, looking at them again.

And in the end I chose the one on the right, and that's because I thought to myself "If this were going to be the only photograph of him in 100 years, which should it be?"  I decided that the one on the left, while delightfully adorable, was to me, an excellent snapshot.  The one on the right was a portrait.

Also, between the two, it was my 'blink' choice.  It had higher Quality.

It certainly could have gone either way, and you may have chosen differently, but I'm still happen with the decision. Which to me says that I made the right one.


This process isn't perfect and just because it works for me doesn't mean it works for you.  And there are plenty of times where I get it down to 3-4 pictures in 2 rounds instead of 4.  Depends on the subject and the goal. 

In many ways, I think the process of selection is as important as the taking of the pictures in the first place, because ultimately you'll probably walk away with 2 or 3 finished pictures from a shoot. Which 1% are you going to choose to represent your work?