How many photos is too many?

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It’s easy to get carried away with digital photography – since it doesn’t cost anything to take a few thousand extra shots. 😉 So, how many shots do I take when I’m on location? It varies, of course – and there’s no “correct” answer. I generally shoot lots of images – but as I shoot, I delete the ones that aren’t worth keeping. Let me walk you through a typical morning shoot.

I’m up bright and early, ready to get to work. I’m at Graveyard Flats in Banff National Park (Alberta, Canada). Mist is rising off the lake, and the world looks positively blue. The sun isn’t up yet, so I set up my camera for a long exposure, using my tripod to keep my camera perfectly steady. I take my first shot. Maybe it’s a little underexposed, so I take another to correct the damage. I will compare the two images, and then delete one of them right there in the field. This makes some photographers nervous – it’s easy to accidentally delete the wrong image – and the last thing you want to do is delete all the images on your card… but I like to clean up my card as I work so I don’t have to worry sort through lots of extra images in post.

Banff National Park, Alberta - Canada, USA

I’ll probably try the scene from another angle – maybe I’ll lower my tripod to get a shot from down low, or I might take a few steps to the left or right. Sometimes, I just look at the scene through my viewfinder and reject it, but I might take another shot or two if I like what I see. Each time I shoot, I compare the tiny image on my monitor, check the histogram, maybe even zoom in to check the focus… and delete any image that isn’t quite right. When I get home, I choose the one that looks the best and delete the others after I’ve finished my processing.

varina-canada

The light changes as the sun nears the horizon, and I want a shot that shows the strange and beautiful landscape surrounding the lake. So, I set up my tripod close to the ground for another shot. I follow the same steps, and I’ll pay close attention to my histogram. I need to make sure that I’m capturing the entire range of light as the sky gets brighter… and that my shadows aren’t too dark. The histogram shows me that I need just one image for this photo – but I take two anyway… one a little brighter than the other, just to make sure. In the end, I don’t need that brighter shot, so after processing, I delete it.

Graveyard Flats, Banff National Park - Alberta, Canada

While I’m waiting for the sunrise, I try out a couple of compositions. Another shot survives… it was taken with my tripod just a few inches from the ground. It highlights the patterned rocks by the water, the mist still hanging around the mountain, and the appealing curve of the lake… but I’m still hoping for something better.

Graveyard Flats, Banff National Park - Alberta, Canada

Now the sun is rising over my left shoulder. I’ve been waiting for the sun to light up the top of the mountain because I want to capture its reflection on the surface of the lake. My tripod is already set up with one leg in the water at the edge of the lake, and I’m careful not to create ripples on the crystal-clear surface. I’ve found these interesting stones that make appealing foreground elements, and I have my camera on my tripod as low and as close as possible. I’m glad to see a little bit of mist still hovering at the base of the mountains, and although the sky is clearing, I still have some pretty little clouds hanging over my mountain.

Graveyard Flats, Banff National Park - Alberta, Canada
At this point, I’ve probably pressed the shutter release 30 or 40 times, but I’ve deleted a good number of images that I know won’t make the cut. I might have 10 or 15 shots from this location remaining on my card. A few bracketed images, a couple of different angles and compositions, and shots from different times. When I get home, I’ll pull the images off my card and compare them at a larger size. In this case, I end up processing four images. And then, I take this last shot and convert it to black and white. Everything I haven’t used gets deleted. In the end, the file for Graveyard Flats contains 9 files… four original RAW files, 4 processed color TIFs, and a black and white TIF.

Graveyard Flats, Banff National Park - Alberta, Canada

Five processed shots. Typically, just one or two will end up in my professional portfolio – and the rest will never see the light of day… unless someone asks specifically for an image from this location.

Of course, this approach works well when light and conditions are changing slowly. I won’t waste time reviewing and deleting if I’m in a hurry to capture a scene that is changing rapidly. When I need to work fast, I’ll worry about deleting later – but I still check my focus and exposure settings frequently so I can correct any issues that might come up as I’m working.

I know so many photographers who shoot thousands of images at each location – and if that’s what works for you, by all means, keep doing it! For me, the problem with that approach is that I can’t process all those photos. So, if I shoot and keep that many, most will never get any attention. Worse – the good ones get lost in amongst the junk. On an average day, I’ll leave a location with 2 to 5 images (maybe as many as 20 if I’m bracketing). Even if I visit several locations in a single day – and get great skies all day long – I won’t end up with more images than I can handle.

So the question is this… how hard is it for you to delete photos as you shoot? I know lots of photographers who won’t delete anything until they see the image at full size on a good monitor… and others who don’t delete at all. Ever.

Do you come home with 5 shots? Or 5000? Feel free to share you own workflow and thoughts on the subject in the comments below.

About Author Varina Patel

There is nothing more remarkable to me than the power of nature. It is both cataclysmic and subtle. Slow and continuous erosion by water and wind can create landscapes every bit as astonishing as those shaped by catastrophic events – and minuscule details can be as breathtaking as grand vistas that stretch from one horizon to the other. Nature is incredibly diverse. Burning desert sands and mossy riverbanks… Brilliant sunbeams and fading alpenglow… Silent snowfall and raging summer storms… Each offers a unique opportunity. I am irresistibly drawn to the challenge of finding my next photograph, and mastering the skills required to capture it effectively.

  • I like your methods outlined here Varina. When I shoot, I will have to try to be a little more subjective to what I’m shooting and how many I keep.

    A question regarding your final tiffs — are those 5 files flattened or do you keep the versions with layers?

    • Thanks Karl. I rarely save the layers in my tiff files if I am finished with an image. The layers increase the size of the file substantially, and I don’t want to fill disk space too quickly. I flatten the files when I’m sure I’m done with the changes I want to make, then save the file. I will occasionally save files with the layers if I don’t feel good about the processing, or if I know I want to return to the image later. And I always save the RAW file so that I can start over from scratch if I want to redo the processing later on. Great questions! Thanks for asking!

  • Tor Ivan Boine

    I usually dont delete pictures at the scene. Though I delete the obvious bloopers on the spot. Sometimes I delete a picture on the scene if im certain that it isnt useful for anything.

    With the power of lightroom, I first do a fast review of the pictures, one by one. x-ing out the bad ones, and mark possible keepers for the second review.

    • Quick reviews are a great way to clean up image files, Tor Ivan. I often go through and mark my favorite shots in Bridge – giving five stars for the best ones and 3 or 4 for others that I want to keep. Then, I’ll delete any files with no stars. Thanks for the comment!

  • Matt Kuhns

    Good discussion, and wonderful to know how others approach the issue. I suppose I am overkill compared to you Varina but I generally dont delete anything. I find a scene and shoot it from multiple angles, usually bracketed and then move on to the next location as light dictates. I then download them and review them in lightroom (I like the big screen), perhaps 200 for a night of shooting. I will flag 15 for further review and just file the others away. I really like that your method forces you to stop and think hard about the shot youve just taken though.

  • Carlo Didier

    I envy you for your discipline in deleting while shooting. I rarely manage to do that and afterwards I complain about having too many images to process. I’ll try to slowly get to your approach, but it will be hard to get there, I’m afraid.

    • I understand the difficulty, Carlo! Especially when you are focused on getting the shot.

  • Thanks for the post. I have been getting into landscape photography more and more over the past few years and I always struggle with knowing when enough is enough. Then I end up sifting through so many pictures at home that I find myself dreading the process or glossing over good images because I am burned out.

    • We hear that a lot, Heath. Digital photography allows us to shoot so many images that we end up with more than we can handle. It’s good to get into the habit of shooting less – and deleting more. 🙂 I’m glad you appreciated the post. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  • How many images? It is highly dependent on the subject. I like shooting air shows. No amount of images is too many. It is impossible to compose, get a high percentage of perfect focus and no motion blur when shooting a propellor driven aircraft at 1/125 sec with a 400mm f-2.8 with 1.7 teleconverter. Less than 2,000 pictures in a day is a good goal. On the other hand, with landscape, a dozen may be more than enough for a location and then move to the next. Few landscapes move at a rate of 90 degrees per second. 🙂 🙂

  • Sandeep

    Thank you for the write up and the tips.

    What format would you recommend to save the image to print it later ?

    Thanks.

    • You are more than welcome, Sandeep. 🙂 I generally save my image as TIF files, and many photographers use Adobe’s proprietary PSD files. You want an uncompressed file type. Both of these can also handle layers, so if you aren’t finished with an image (or want to take another look at it later) you won’t lose your work.

      Good luck with your photography!

  • Leslie Dizon

    Why do you tif files for saving, is it better than PS files?

    • Hi Leslie,

      That’s an excellent question. I use TIF files simply because they are non-proprietary and useful in a broader range of applications. Photoshop’s proprietary file types are perfectly good – they can handle multiple layers and are not compressed – so they do not corrode over time with repeated saving. They are also smaller than TIFs in some cases.

      More and more applications are now built with the capability to read PSD files, so it’s not necessary to go in and change all your old files to TIF. And of course, if you need to, you can always convert to TIF in Photoshop and use the files elsewhere.

      I do use the PSD file type for one other reason – though this probably means very little to anyone else. When I don’t have time to finish working with an image – or if I’m not sure about my results – I save the file as a PSD. So any file with that file extension is unfinished and still needs attention. It’s like a little flag for myself when I get into processing mode – “Look at me! I need attention!” 🙂 Files with a TIF extension are finished. Like I said – I’m not sure that’s a tip other will find particularly useful. But it works for me. 😉