John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

To Delete or Not to Delete

That is the question!

One of the advantages of digital photography is that you can take as many shots as you like, then get rid of the crappy ones. Unlike using film, those shots don’t cost you anything. That’s the easy part. The hard part is deciding which ones are “crappy.”

Deleting in the camera

Unless I’m really pressed for space on my cards during a shoot, I rarely delete images in the camera. A shot might look inadequate in the LCD, but that display is not an accurate depiction of how the photo will look on a computer or in a print. After all, it’s a tiny image, you have little or no control over the ambient light around you, which affects how the image appears on the screen, and the LCD is only an approximation of what the sensor recorded. Of course, the reverse is also true: something that looks great in the LCD could very well turn out to be mediocre.

Although the histogram in the camera provides you an accurate depiction of the exposure range – for example, if you underexposed or overexposed – it’s just a chart representing tonal values, not the actual photo. I wouldn’t trust it either as an indication to trash an image. Even if you know something went terribly wrong – like you were moving when the shutter opened or the camera settings were far off – you might want to hold off on clicking the erase button.

The temptation to delete an image right away might reflect something psychological. It’s only human to want to cover up our mistakes. Let’s erase all evidence of it and pretend it didn’t even happen. And if someone wants to take a peek at our shots in the camera, they’ll only be scrolling through respectable ones.

Learning from good and bad shots

While later viewing the images on our computers, we can learn from both the good and bad shots. We can better understand the variables like camera settings, viewpoint, and composition that lead to a high quality photo when we compare it to the ones that went wrong. We do learn from our mistakes.

The sequence in which you take shots also reveals a lot about your approach to a particular scene or subject. Deleting images punches a hole in that sequence as well as the opportunity to understand the chain of events leading up to and following both the duds and the gems. If you preserve all the images, you might detect a pattern that reveals when the good and bad photos appear in the progression of shots.

So let’s say we examined the poor shots as well as where they occurred in the sequence of images. Maybe we learned something, maybe we didn’t. In either case, can we please delete those crappy shots now? Well, hold on a bit longer. There’s always the possibility of learning something new later on – weeks, months, or years from now - when we examine all the images from a past shoot.

Are bad shots good?

Even setting aside that possibility, we’re still stuck with the dilemma of deciding what a crappy shot is before we delete it. Is there some potential in it that we might be overlooking? On more than a few occasions, I’ve taken what appeared to be lousy photo, then succeeded in transforming it into something quite good, either by cropping to some interesting part of the scene or by post-processing – sometimes quite radical post-processing that produced unusual but interesting results. Even very underexposed or overexposed images – ones that your histogram had cried out to delete – can be rejuvenated or transformed in Photoshop. Of course, it won’t look like a technically well-exposed photograph, but that’s not the definitive criteria of a good image. Over time, as we improve our eye for seeing images and our skills in shaping them, we might go back to old crappy shots and discover potentials in them that we did not realize before. Improving one's skills as a photographer means acquiring this ability to see what an image can become rather than just what it is.

If you think something went terribly wrong with a shot, but the composition is basically good, I say keep it. If you think a shot looks horrible, but it’s one of a kind because you didn’t take any others like it, I say keep it.

If you have several shots of the same subject, you could decide which ones are the best, then delete the others. But think twice about the criteria you’re using to decide what’s good and what’s bad. Are you thinking about exposure but not composition? Are you focusing on the colors of the subjects’ skin but not considering their facial expressions? Be clear in your own mind about the most important elements of the photo before you delete shots that don’t meet those criteria. On the other hand, a careful deliberation of all your images from a shoot might not be practical when dealing with hundreds them. Experienced photographers who shoot a lot sometimes rely on intuition to spot the excellent shots among the mediocre or poor ones that they will later delete. Truly excellent photos will "jump out" at you. These gut-level reactioins do often work in identifying a good image to save, even though you might not be able to fully explain why.

It’s very possible that if you have multiple shots of the same scene or subject, you might be able to create a composite image that combines the best elements of each. For example, let’s say you have several shots of a group of your friends. In one you accidentally chopped everyone off at the knees – which tradition considers a photographic faux pas – but Joe looks good in that photo. You could transplant his head into the well-composed shot where his eyes are closed. Afterwards, you should probably save the amputated friends image, because it’s always a good idea to preserve the source images that you used to create a composite.

Too many images!

The more images we have, the greater the challenge of storing, organizing, and finding them, which becomes a real issue for people who shoot often and a lot. As camera resolutions increase, with file sizes growing larger and larger, we might also worry about having enough storage space. Fortunately, the price of high capacity storage always seems to drop, so unless you’re struggling with a tight budget or shoot boatloads, you probably shouldn’t worry about deleting images in order to save money.

Saving and deleting personalities

Once again, we might also grapple with some psychological issues in deciding how many images to delete. Some people are savers, perhaps even compulsive savers. Others are impulsive about throwing things out in order to clear their space. Feelings about saving things or not can run rather deep. Understanding what it means to you to throw something out, or save it, might shed some light on how you think about your photography.

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Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche