I remember watching the movie “A River Runs Through It” when it first came out. It was really a beautiful movie,. There were so many scenes that were purely photographic – images depicting the majestic Montana landscapes that few of us will ever see.
One of the things that sticks with me the most, however, is the scene where Norman’s father teaches him to write. Every day growing up Norman would be required to write something for his father. He revised the writing until his father was satisfied. The recurring theme of this interchange was the phrase “Again, half as long.” I really couldn’t help but smile as I watched Norman struggle to get both the content and the length right. Once the piece was accepted, Norman’s father exclaimed “Good! Now throw it away.” I think this scene is very instructive for photographers who struggle to cull wisely, so I want you to think about this story as I tell you that you’re dying a slow death by keeping way too many pictures.
Step Away from the Camera!
The first thing you do after a shoot is get your files on the computer and look at every image. I honestly can’t think of a single exception to this rule. Even when I didn’t get home until after midnight I looked at every image before I went to bed. It’s like my report card — I want to see how well I did and I can’t wait until morning. It’s a nice break after a long day of shooting. This is also the last break I get before the real grown up work starts.
You see, I really love shooting,. It’s my favorite thing about my job. I’m happy to explore, experiment, try new angles, new models, new lenses, new lighting… everything. Culling is a bit of a different story. It’s very hard to narrow the images down to the essence of the shoot. It reminds me of a quote from Mark Twain: – “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” You have a story to tell, and your job is to tell it in as few images as possible.
Many of us, through years of mindless word count requirements in grade school essays have assumed that more is better, but in so many cases the meaning can be lost in the jungle of unnecessary fluff. If you view your culling similar to a word count requirement then you’ve likely missed the point of your job. I know you might think that the more “keepers” at the end of a shoot the better you did. That is simply not the case; it only means that you’re not done culling yet. The job is to capture the essence of your subject in a new and interesting way. If you hand over a series of images that are essentially the same, you’re detracting from that one perfect moment that captures them all. Photography is about emphasis, and you can’t have emphasis if you don’t have the discipline to cull mercilessly.
I want you to imagine I just said the following to you: “I can tell your skill as a photographer by looking at your final cull, unedited.” You might be skeptical, but it’s true. Handing your cull to me is a rough draft of your shoot. Believe me, you can tell everything from a rough draft. I once knew a guitar maker that used to tell me about the process of making a custom guitar. He knew early in the process of making any guitar if it was going to be a “keeper” or not.
If the project went south he had a simple solution,: he would cut the guitar in half and start over. He didn’t archive a copy of it and keep it in his basement for posterity, he threw it away. I hope you can appreciate that the decision wasn’t easy for him. Every guitar cut in half is a lot of money down the drain, but years of experience had told him to cut bait and do it again. I know it’s not easy to send your images to the recycle bin, but you’re never going to be great until you cull like a boss.
How Do I Know When I’m Done Culling?
One easy but painful answer to this question is that you will learn to cull properly only after years of keeping way too many images and making way too little money. The pain you experience in the job will eventually make you cull better. The harder but better way starts a lot like the story we began with. Get to the point where you think you absolutely can’t toss another image, then tell yourself “Again, half as long.”
This obviously is just a starting point. The great thing about this process is that you will master it with practice, but you’ll never vanquish the beast unless you decide to face it. Make the decision to cull wisely and I promise you won’t be sorry.
photo credit: Ryan McGuire