One of the most challenging things in photography is to choose our best photos. It is easy to click the shutter. But to “edit” (select our best work) is heart-wrenching. We often need to learn how to “kill our babies” and disconnect our personal memories of the back-story of a photo (to judge whether it is a good shot or not).
Shoot a lot, but select a few photos
I think in street photography, it is best for us to shoot a lot of photos, but to be extremely selective which photos we decide to show.
Street photography is one of the most difficult, random, and challenging forms of photography out there. You can’t control whether you capture a decisive moment or not, you can’t control the look of the subjects, the light, or all these external factors. You can only control your positioning, and when to click the shutter.
But the thing you have 100% control over is which photos to share and which photos not to share.
Personally, I have a very difficult time deciding between my photos. Here are some tips or strategies which have helped me:
1. Is this my best photo from the month?
As a general ‘keeper’ rate— getting 1 good photo a month, and 1 great photo a year is solid. That means 12 good photos a year. That means in 1 year, you can have a nice little coffee shop exhibition. Or in 2 years, you can put together a small magazine of your work. Or in 3 years, you can put together a book of your work. Or after 4 years, have a more epic body of work.
We often over-estimate what we can achieve in 1 day in our photography, but under-estimate what we can achieve in 1 year in our photography.
Therefore when it comes to editing my work, I always ask myself: “Is this my best 1 photo of the month?”
Not only that, but at the end of the year, I always ask myself: “What are my 12 best shots of the year? And what is my 1 great photo of the year?”
Over time, these numbers accumulate favorably in your favor. So stay patient with the process, and never quit shooting.
2. Look at your photos as small thumbnails
I used to look at all my photos full-screen on my laptop, one-by-one during the editing or selecting phase. Yet this wasted a lot of time, and often I would let the subject-matter of a photograph fool me whether it was a good shot or not. Because sometimes I would photograph a very interesting subject, but the background would be very distracting. Yet I would still want to keep the shot.
The solution: look at your photos as small thumbnails. This is what Henri Cartier-Bresson did (looked at his contact sheets). Not only that, but he would often flip his photos upside down, which would make his photographs look more like geometric shapes. This would help him judge his compositions better. You can do the same thing when you’re looking at your photos in Lightroom (select all your photos as small thumbnails, and rotate them).
I also got the tip from Bruce Gilden that when you look at your photos as small thumbnails, your best shots “jump off the page.”
So try to look through your photos as small thumbnails, and then only enlarge them when you think you’ve got a killer shot.
3. When in doubt, ditch
If you’ve got a really good shot, it should hit you in the gut. You should feel excited. You should feel an emotional reaction.
If you’re not sure whether a shot is good or not, it probably isn’t a good shot.
So as a general rule think: “When in doubt, ditch.”
If you have to hesitate on a photograph, you’re just trying to rationalize whether it is a good shot or not.
But if you look at a photograph, and think it is a great shot. Hold onto it. Then ask your trusted peers for their feedback.
4. Find your inner-3
This tip is from Josef Koudelka: he does the following when he wants to judge whether a photo is good or not: if he thinks a photo is good, and his 2 close friends think a photo is good — the photo is good (case closed).
If you ask too many people for their feedback, you will never be able to make a decision.
So who is your inner-3?
Your inner-3 should include yourself and two other friends, colleagues, or family members you trust.
If your passion is street photography, it is generally best for you to ask for the feedback from another street photographer (whose work you admire).
Or you can take the opposite approach — ask a friend who is trained in the classical arts, who might have a more discerning eye (when compared to photographers).
5. Time is the ultimate judge
Time has sharp teeth which cut through everything. Wine tends to get better with age. Time burns through all things and leaves no ashes.
When you are editing your shots and deciding which to choose (and which to ditch), time is your ultimate counselor and judge.
It often takes me a few months, or sometimes even a few years to decide whether I really think a shot is good or not.
For me, the best shots tend to get better over time. And other shots tend to get worse over time.
As an assignment, make it a practice to regularly look at your old work. See which photos continue to grow on you, and keep those for safe-keeping. See the photos which you begin to despise looking at, and learn how to ditch those shots.
Trust mother time.
It is always good to get feedback from others you trust, but the most important person you should trust is yourself. And the most important (and difficult) person to please in your photography is yourself.
If you make photos that make you happy, that should be enough. Don’t seek the affirmation of others. Don’t outsource your ego to social media — and have others have the control whether your shots are any good or not.
You are the ultimate judge. Make the best photos you possibly can, and never stop innovating with your photography.
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