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Percentage of Keepers

May 4, 2009

I see a lot of novice, and even some moderately accomplished, photographers who feel frustrated at the percentage of “keepers” they take. It seems that many people have this unrealistic idea that nearly every press of the shutter button should yield a full-blown work of art.

This topic is the very first thing I addressed on the very first page of my first book. My own rough estimates say that, for most people, only about five percent of all your photos are likely to be gems. I think with study and effort, most people could increase that to around ten or fifteen percent but anything greater is probably not realistic for a hobbyist.

Once you get beyond the fifteen percent mark, either you have become professional caliber or your standards are not high enough and you’re letting junk through that should be cut.

All of this came to mind because this weekend I finally sat down to cull through more than 500 shots I had taken over the past couple of weeks. Naturally, I made a backup of every single shot before I did anything. That’s just good practice and to do otherwise is foolhardy. Then I began by rotating all the images that required it. (When I make my backups, it’s of the originals. I don’t rotate them first, I don’t rename them. I basically don’t even look at them.) After rotating, I make a first pass and delete all the images that are obviously garbage. Anything blurry, overexposed, underexposed, etc.

On subsequent passes, I look at groups of similar shots together. So if I took seven shots of more or less the same thing, I’d cycle through just that subset comparing each against the rest of the set. My goal is generally to find the one best image from that subset and delete all the others. (I used to keep redundant shots if they were both ‘good’ but I’ve since come to the conclusion that there’s no value in that. When you read a magazine, you will never see duplicates of more or less the same shot. They pick only the one very best one. So I’ve recently started doing the same thing.) On very rare occasions, I may keep more than one shot from the same subset if two or three are all great and if they’re substantially different from one another.

Having done that this weekend, I culled 525 shots down to 93 keepers. That’s about 18%. I consider that a pretty extraordinary keep rate. I would never have expected it nor do I believe I can get an 18% keep rate every time I go out to shoot. Many of those 93 shots will make their way into workshops, books and other projects I’m working on. Some will trickle their way onto my Flickr stream.

That’s a topic for another post.

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