With 2014 almost over, and no more shoots planned for this year, I went through my yearly exercise of selecting my top ten photographs, and today I share my selection process with you, as I believe this exercise is something that many of us can benefit from. I’ll be talking a little about each of my final selected ten images in next week’s episode.
I find it incredibly valuable to select my top ten each year. It gives us a holistic view of our year, and of course, forms a record of our achievements within that year. I really recommend that you do this yourself too, and if you do, I’d love for you to share a link to your own Top Ten once completed, via the comments section below this post. I always enjoy seeing what you’ve created as well.
If this is the first time you do this, your 2014 top ten will become your baseline. This is your stake in the ground. But if you’ve done it before, or as you move forward to future years, you can come back and compare your work to previous years, and hopefully feel that you have improved with each year.
As we discussed in The Evolution of the Photographer, if you’ve been to some amazing location in previous years, you may still feel as though that work was your best to date, but that amazing work should still elevate you to higher ground from which you shot this year’s work, and the results should hopefully be more refined and higher quality, even if you were not able to visit the best locations or find the most amazing subjects etc.
The Selection Process
You may have followed my Top Ten posts from previous years, and so some of this will be repeated, but let’s walk through the technical aspects of this exercise as well as my thoughts on the agony that I’m sure you’ll also feel as you do this. I work in Lightroom, so that’s what I’ll focus on today. If you use another piece of software you’ll have to translate for your selection process.
In the Library module I have a Collection Set called “Top Tens” and inside that I have some of my previous year Top Tens inside other Collection Sets. If you only want to save your final Top Ten for 2014, you can just create a Collection called 2014, but I like to leave a record of my selection process as well, so I use Sets.
So, inside my Top Tens Set, I create a “2014 Top Ten” Collection Set, and in there, I create a Collection called First Pass. When I create that Collection I turn on “Set as target collection” so as I look through my 2014 images, I can just hit the “B” key on the keyboard, and that image is then added to this First Pass Collection.
Because I save all of my best photos from the year into what I call a Finals folder, I don’t have to go looking in various locations for my images. I have a Finals folder with all of my best work included, and inside there, I have a year folder for every year, so it’s really easy to see find my 2014 greatest hits. Inside the 2014 Finals folder, my images are star rated so that I can easily filter out images that I don’t want to consider here.
For example, if I create a black and white image, or do anything to an image in Photoshop, or any plugin that causes me to create a copy of my original raw file, I give that original raw file a 2 star rating, and save that in my Finals folder along with the processed image, so that I can always easily get back to the original if necessary. I also keep these images in my original shoot folders, which are organised into Year, Month and then Day folders, but I like having these originals along side my Final images as well.
My 3 star images is anything that I feel is good enough to show people, although it is not my best work. I also submit anything 3 star or above to OFFSET for consideration to be added to my stock library. My 4 star images are better than my 3 star. This is work that I’m more likely to show people, and use in my ebooks and magazine articles etc. My 5 star images are what I consider portfolio quality. They may not necessarily be in a portfolio, but they are my best work. The cream of the crop.
I could of course just filter out only my five star images and start there for my Top Ten selection, but I actually just filter out all of the originals, so I start from 3 star and above. The reason for this is because how I view my images is constantly changing. I can look at my 5 star images one day and think that some of them are crap, and I can go through my 3 star images and wonder why I only gave it 3 stars, so I like to include everything from 3 upwards.
If you are wondering what I use 1 star for, that’s in my original photo folders, and I call it my “once great” rating. As I’m culling down images from any given shoot, I start by giving everything I like 3 stars, and then I remove images from this set by hitting the 1 key on my keyboard, giving them a 1 star rating. I could just hit the 0 (zero) key to remove the rating altogether, but I like to leave a record of what I initially thought was any good, so my 1 star images were “once great”.
To make my selection, I select the first image from the year in the Library, and hit the “F” key to view that image full screen. I then just try to feel my emotional reaction to each image as they appear on the screen. I try not to second guess myself, and think, I really like this, but I know it’s not going to make the grade, so I hit the “B” key for pretty much everything that makes me smile as I work through this first pass. From 2014 I have 318 three or higher star images, and my first pass resulted in 105 images, as we see in this screenshot (below).
If you have a handle on your image archiving to make it easy to get to your best shots for the year, getting to this point is really easy, but it starts to get more difficult from this point on. I now create another Collection inside my Set and call it Second Pass. I actually populate this second collection with all of the images from my first pass, as I find it easier to delete the one’s that I don’t want to include any more, rather than going through and selecting images again.
As you start your second pass, if you have any similar images at this point, it’s a good time to select all similar images, and narrow these down to as few as possible. I try to do this with images after every shoot. My objective is always to end up with as few images as I can get my selection down to. This is also similar to when I’m putting a portfolio together. Generally I start with a target number of images, or simply aim for as few as possible. These restrictions help us to be ruthless, and 10, is a pretty tight restriction if you had even a half decent year.
So, taking actually longer than it took to do my first pass, I’m now down to 58 photos in my Second Pass Collection. Now it starts to get really difficult. I am already finding it hard to let go on some of these, but I have to kill almost 5 out of each 6 images. As Zack Arias says, this process now starts to feel like lining up our children and deciding which ones to shoot.
Once again I made a third collection, and called it Third Pass, and included these 58 images, and started again. Here’s my third pass results. 30 Images. It’s time to take a break and go for a walk. Ideally, when you have the time to do this, leave your selection for a day or two. Throw these images up in a slideshow and watch as they pass by on the screen. If you feel even the slightest bit deflated as the next image appears, hit the delete key to get it out of the set.
I was hoping to be down to my top ten by now, but I ended up with a Fourth Pass Collection, containing these 20 images (below). I took these twenty and create one last collection called 2014 Top Ten. I committed to removing one out of each two of these images. I hate this part, and you probably will too, but this is not only an important part of exercise to help us evaluate our year of photography, but it it really does get you used to making difficult decisions.
I started to look at duplicates. For example, I have two crane shots left, so one had to go. Two black and white flower shots left, so one had to go. I had a very similar shot to the waterfall on the right of the second row in last year’s Top Ten, so I removed that. I still had four waterfall shots so I removed the one on the far left of the third row.
Down to 16, and I’m pacing the studio. I both love and hate this exercise. It makes me really think about my year’s work, but at the same time I resent having to remove images that I love from this set. The slideshow trick stops working. Every image that is displayed on the screen excites me, and makes me wish I was back at these locations. Of course, I’ll be back with in Hokkaido in just a week’s time with my Hokkaido Landscape Adventure with David duChemin and 14 crazy participants, followed by two Winter Wonderland Wildlife workshops with the Snow Monkeys then off to Hokkaido, which I’m seriously looking forward to, but right now, I have to look back, not forwards. Aargh!
OK, so, with just a ten image restriction, two snow monkeys is one too many. As much as I want to keep the leaping monkey, the thoughtful loving pose of the mother holding her baby in the harsh cold snow is the better image. It’s time to get rid of the Sulphur Mountain apocalyptic shot too and the Iceland Sea Stacks. I still have two Iceland waterfall shots. OK, say goodbye to the vertical one. I’m down to twelve shots. I still have two Steller’s sea eagle shots. One is more like a landscape than a wildlife shot, so I really want to leave both in. Decisions, decisions…
When I submitted two photos of the Jetty on Lake Towada to OFFSET, they chose the other one for my stock library. Does that mean I’ve got the wrong one in this collection? Who cares! It’s my art not theirs and it stays. Can’t I just do a Top Twelve instead? Nope, that’s a cop out…
I tried the slideshow once more, and got a micro-deflation from the vertical blue iceberg image, so hit delete before I changed my mind, and we now have just one to remove to get to my 2014 Top Ten. Jeez this is hard!! OK, so as much as I love it, the view of the frosty river with the cranes dancing is very similar to my old distant dance shot, and it’s the last image that I can possibly imagine not including, so it’s gone. We’re down to my Top Ten for 2014 (below).
This was probably the hardest selection process I’ve had so far. I wasn’t consciously trying to create a balance between landscape and wildlife images, but the result actually shows pretty much the balance between these two main genres that I work in. Four wildlife shots, and four landscape shots, with the eagle at sunrise being a bit of a mix between the two. The black and white flower shot makes up the ten, and this is an important genre for me.
Art from the Heart
I’ve heard some very vocal photography figures talk about flower shots as low hanging fruit, and slam the entire genre, but I have zero time for people like that. If something brings you pleasure in your photography, do as much of it as you can, and enjoy every moment, regardless of what other people say. I don’t think anyone has the right to tell us what we should or should not shoot, or how we should or should not process the work. It’s out art, and we have to be true to ourselves, and our hearts. Art from the heart as it were.
Looking at these images, comparing them to my previous year’s top tens, I feel as though I’ve improved some. This could just be because I’m viewing these are Martin version 2014, with my current sensibilities, but I hope that it really is because my work has improved. If you’d like to see my old selections, I’ve been posting this every year since 2007, with the exception of 2010, and if you type “top ten” in the Search field in the sidebar of the blog, you will see a pull-down containing each of these years posts.
Unfortunately moving disks etc. has meant that I gradually lost my Top Ten collections from some years in Lightroom, so I’ve started to do this exercise using an external hard drive that I use on both my iMac and my MacBook Pro, so I won’t be losing these collections in future. If I can make time, I’ll go through and rebuild my final selections from each year, as I have a record here on the blog. It would be nice to go back and actually view each set of images in Lightroom too. After all, these are the fruits of our labour of love.
Share Your Top Ten
I hope you’ve found it useful to walk through the process with me this week though. I really recommend that you set some time aside to do this yourself as well, and as I said, do post a link to your selection in the comments below. I’d love to take a look, and I know that you’ll learn from the experience, especially if you’ve never done this before.
I believe that the ability to edit your images down to a finite number or the minimum possible images, is a skill that many photographers don’t develop early enough. Quite often, at some point, you’ll be asked to provide your 10 best shots for one reason or another. It could be fifty shots, or just five, and it might be from every year you’ve been shooting, not just the current year. When that happens, you could find yourself in a panic, so you might be happy that you developed these skills earlier rather than later, and if nothing else, it helps to view your progress over the years.
Fine Art Print Giveaway
Before we finish, I’d just wanted to let you know that I’ve just drawn the winner for our previous Fine Art Print Giveaway, and will be posting a 17 x 24 inch print of my Jewel on the Shore photograph to Wayne Kowalski in the U.S. tomorrow. Because I’m traveling most of the next two months, I will be drawing the next winner on March 6, 2015, and they will win a 17 x 24″ print of my Kussharo Lake Tree photograph (below). I thought this was a fitting winter print to give away, and I’ll be visiting the location where this tree used to live over the next few months too. Unfortunately, it caught a disease and was cut down the year I made this photo, so this photo is very special to me.
For details of the giveaway and to enter for your chance to win, visit our giveaway page at https://mbp.ac/giveaway.
March 2015 Fine Art Print Giveaway: https://mbp.ac/giveaway
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