What is Photo Culling? Best Practices for Culling in Photography
At its core, photo culling is whittling down the thousands of images you've shot to a smaller selection that you're prepared to send to your clients. But culling photos is about more than just reducing the number of images you need to edit — or simply deleting the out-of-focus images and missed moments. Photo culling should be a crucial part of your creative process. Ultimately, the pictures you present to your clients represent your brand and style and the type of photography clients can expect to receive from you if they book you.
That sounds like a lot of pressure to place on image selection or photo culling.
As photographers, we take hundreds — if not thousands — of images during a shoot. In the hopes of capturing the most magical moments, we often snap more images than we ultimately present to our clients. So curating your image selection becomes a necessary creative step in the post-shoot process.
Reducing the number of images you send your clients makes you and your work look better. They only see the best shots — or those that best represent your body of work as an artist — and they don't get overwhelmed scrolling through endless images. Every photographer has their own process for culling photos as part of their photography workflow.
While it can seem tedious when you're doing it, photo culling also saves you valuable editing time in the long run while helping you showcase your best work as a photographer.
What Is Photo Culling In Photography?
Culling in photography is your first pass in the process of reducing the entire collection of photos taken during a shoot. Before presenting your work to a client, you'll want to remove double-up images, out-of-focus shots, and those frames where you've caught a seriously unflattering expression on someone's face. You'll likely also want to curate your selection further, culling photos that don't help to tell a story or aren't in line with your brand and style as a photographer. Once you've eliminated unnecessary shots and created a smaller collection of your best images from the day, you may want to involve your clients in the next review and final selection. However, many photographers continue culling photos until their image collection tells a refined story. This selection might be a couple of hundred images for a wedding, reduced down from over a thousand, then beautifully presented in a gallery. From here, clients can mark their favorites, share the entire collection with family and friends, or create smaller selections to share with specific people. Ultimately they can also pick which images they'd like to use in the photo album they'll keep forever.
If you are a wedding photographer, imagine watching a married couple look at their photos for the first time. Most likely, they remember the joy of that day, the faces of their loved ones, and feel excited to see all the special moments, like the bride walking down the aisle. They want your photos to help them revisit that day and create a positive connection to the memory, even years later. When you curate your selection of images through photo culling, you're also curating the images that tell this story best — removing moments that don't add to their memories or including more shots from their favorite parts of the day. Through careful and intentional photo culling, you create a more powerful connection between your client and the images. Your photos are a gift that continues to provide enjoyment long after the day. And photo culling is critical to ensuring that the story is clear and a good representation of your clients' memories
Image selection: Photo culling 101
As you choose the images you will hand over to your client, you’ll want to ensure you’re telling a flowing and cohesive story. Photo culling is the way you make the story stay on track. Not only are you removing anything that isn’t your best work, but you’re also ensuring you have a balance of images representing all parts of the day.
The collection should document the day or the session but should swell and include more images and a greater variety of shots around particularly important or meaningful moments. For example, a collection of pictures from a wedding should consist of a balance of photojournalistic images that document the day, with clusters of artistic shots around key moments, such as the ceremony. Look at the overall flow of the pictures you present, and ask yourself if you have too many of one type of image. For example, too many “getting ready” images can make the collection feel top-heavy and distract from the ceremony and vows. Keep an eye out for dense clusters of similar or repetitive images that could benefit from photo culling to keep the narrative flowing.
As you cull your images, ask yourself: does this move the story forward? Or is it redundant? Is this a unique image that enhances the narrative? Or is this element of the day already represented?
Culling in photography saves you and your clients time
If you took 1,000 photos, chances are only a fraction of them would be your best work. The original set will be full of double-ups, and probably quite a few where the lighting wasn’t quite right, the moment was off, or there was a better angle a few shots on. It would be a waste of your time to edit and retouch all these. While the first pass of looking through your photos might be time-consuming, culling photos is your chance to quickly weed out the ones you don’t want. Editing or retouching a smaller subset saves you time in the long run.
If you asked your client what they wanted, they’d probably tell you that they’d rather receive more photos and be able to choose themselves. But in reality, they don’t realize this means looking through countless shots that are very similar, trying to decipher if their smile looks slightly better from one to the next. Culling photos and sending them a refined selection saves them a lot of time while delivering a better overall experience. Plus, the quicker they review your photo gallery and select their favorites, the faster you get to the next step of album sales and design.
Why culling photos makes you look like a pro
If you are like most photographers, you went into the profession because you enjoy the art of capturing a moment, telling a story, and creating art. Every photographer develops a unique style, and the photos you share should showcase this.
Photo culling allows you to hone in on the images that represent your style in the best way possible. Whether it is capturing raw emotion, creating a mood in the way you frame your subjects or your signature lighting setup, you can distinguish yourself from the competition by sticking to a consistent look and feel. Not every image you capture will represent your photographic style well. By distilling the selection of images you choose to share and only including photos that match your artistic style, you preserve the version of your photography that you’ve built your brand on.
Chances are, your clients hired you because they love the look and feel of your portfolio and want to recreate that for their shoot. By culling photos and managing the look and feel of the images you present to your clients, you can deliver the aesthetic they booked you for in the first place, leaving you with happy clients. And satisfied clients are more likely to make referrals and repeat bookings.
Tips to make photo culling easy and effective
1. Cull Positively
Culling photos positively means choosing only the images you wish to keep instead of flagging the ones you don't want to present. Many photographers begin culling by marking the photos they want to eliminate — or culling negatively. When you cull positively, you will likely choose fewer images, resulting in a more refined selection and a much faster color correction and editing process.
Culling positively also trains your mind to pay attention to what's working instead of focusing on what you don't like. Growth mindset experts agree that positive reinforcement is much more effective for growth in the long run than negative feedback. So culling positively can improve your skill by affirming the elements of your photography that you love and creating a positive feedback loop.
2. Work quickly, then refine.
It’s easy to get stuck in the weeds deciding between a handful of images, especially as you dive deeper into the photo culling process. This can really slow down your workflow and waste a lot of unnecessary time deciding between nearly identical images. To avoid decision fatigue, doing a quick ‘pass’ first is best. Try not to overthink your selections and go with your gut instincts. Begin your photo culling with a no-hesitation approach, choosing everything that is usable.
What makes a quick cull easiest is to remind yourself that you will go back and refine your selections later. The first pass doesn’t have to be perfect. It just needs to get you started. So trust the process, work quickly, and refine afterward.
3. Consider getting help from smart software
There are some great tools on the market that automate parts of the photo culling process for you. One of our favorites is Narrative Select, which is free, fast photo culling software that uses smart tech to automatically detect and warn you when a subject is blinking, or their face is out of focus, helping you quickly get rid of the shots no one wants to see.
Photo culling in photography
In short, photo culling is necessary for every photographer and their workflow. It takes a little time to do it well but much more time to do it inefficiently. You'll be glad you took the time to refine your photo culling process because your clients will appreciate getting their hands on fewer, better images. If they don't have to spend hours mulling through a thousand photos, they will have a much more pleasant experience and feel 'wowed' by the curated selection you present.
Photo culling is necessary for photographers to present the best, most relevant images for their clients. But more than that, it's a way to focus your efforts on only the strongest pictures — and one of the best ways to become a better photographer.