How many photos is too many?

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.

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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.