As has been my tradition since 2007, I have taken some time over the past week to reflect on the images I have made during 2015, and worked through the process of editing down my favorites to just 10 images. Today I’m going to share my thoughts on the process, as I believe this is a valuable exercise for photographers to do each year.
Developing the ability to whittle down a collection of images to a finite number is a skill that photographers all need to develop or maintain. If you haven’t tried this yourself, you might think it’s pretty easy, but it really isn’t. I often ask people to provide me with say 5 images, and the majority of the time, I get 1o or 20 back. In an informal situation this is fine. I sometimes provide more images than I’m ask for to give the other party options, but I only do this when I know that the other person will be OK with that.
In a professional situation, if you are asked for 5 images, and you provide ten, it shows a lack of discipline in your work. It also sends a message that you think your time is more important than the person requesting the images. After all, if you don’t spend the time required to get your selection to the required number, you are pushing this task onto the other person, and that’s disrespectful. Generally, in a professional environment, if the person requesting the images wants options, they’ll include that in the number that they request. They might ask for say ten images, but only intend to use five. Either way, develop the skill to provide the number requested.
If you are going to do this “top ten” style exercise for yourself, I recommend you set your number before you start. I like ten. Top ten lists are popular, and it just feels good. You could do more or less, but the most I would go to is twelve, as that’s one per month. A dozen. It’s another good number. If you go for a larger number than twelve, you’re being too easy on yourself and won’t learn as much from the process.
Another thing that I’ve done in the past is done multiple top tens, one for nature and wildlife, and another for people photography, but if I’m totally honest, that was just a cop-out on my part. It was probably too difficult to get my selection down, so I gave in to the temptation to increase my numbers. I won’t be doing that this year, although if you do work in a number of totally different fields of photography, it could be an option. I just recommend that you set your goal before you start, and stick to it.
My Lightroom Selection Process
To start my selection process, I created a Collection Set simply numbered 2015 in Lightroom under my Top Tens Collection Set. Under that Collection Set, I created my first Collection called First Pass, and made it my Target Selection, which adds a + symbol to the right of the Collection name. With that set up, I navigated to the folder that contains all of my best work from 2015, and filtered out all of my two star images, because they are the originals of any photos that I have made a copy of, to work on them in Silver Efex Pro or Color Efex Pro, or in Photoshop etc.
Anything that causes me to create a copy means that I also copy my original raw file to my 2015 Finals folder and mark it with two stars. So, showing three stars or above, I went through this folder hitting the “B” key on my keyboard for any image that I like enough to consider it for my 2015 top ten. The B key adds the selected image to the Target Collection, which we just created and specified. Once I’ve gone through the entire folder, I’ll create a second collection called second pass, and repeat this process until I reach my final ten.
My Thought Process
As I went through the images for my first pass, I had a few feelings that I’d like to share with you, as I think this is an important part of the learning process.
I started making my decision based on the thumbnail view, which I found really easy to do for images that I’ve continuously gone back to through the year, but this didn’t work so well for my wildlife work. I felt that to make a decision for my wildlife work, I had to go in and view the images at full size to feel the connection needed to add them to my First Pass. There were a few favorites that would have made it to the first pass just from the thumbnail, but I felt compelled to add more when viewing the wildlife images larger.
What I noticed though, was that even as I was adding some of these wildlife images, I knew that they wouldn’t make the final cut. My thought process was, OK, so I really like this shot, and I’m going to add it for now, to see a collection of all of my favorite work from 2015, as an initial starting point. If I was sitting down without a lot of time to select my 10 images, I would have been far less likely to add these images at this point. Which way you do this is totally up to you of course. I feel as though at least adding them once is like giving them an honorable mention.
I have 870 images in my 2015 Finals folder, of which 693 are the actual Final images. The others are original raw files for images that I’ve done something to. After my first pass, I ended up with 124 images in my Collection. That’s about 20 more than I can even show in a single screenshot from Lightroom, so I’ll move on to my second pass. To start that process, I created a new Collection called 2nd Pass, and left all 124 images in there, then started the process of removing the lesser images. This is where it starts to get difficult.
I have a few sets of images from the same location, so at this point, I start to select similar images and hit N to display just these images in Survey view and flicking back and forth between them, then press the delete key on my keyboard to start and remove the lesser of these subsets from my Collection. I also removed a few of the honorable mention images, to get my set down to 97, and these can be seen in this screenshot (below).
OK, so I’m under a hundred, but still have 87 images to remove from my selection. Time to start getting ruthless. The next thing I did was to select images of the same subject. For example, I have five snow monkey shots, and at most I’m going to have only two in my final selection, so I try to take the knife to at least three of these. The first two weren’t so difficult, but with these three little monkeys on my screen, I had to differ the decision until later.
I started to remove red-crowned cranes, white-tailed eagle and whooper swan shots. I think the reason that I had to look at my wildlife work full size is because of the eyes of the animals, but it was these same eyes that made it really difficult to remove the wildlife shots once in the selection. Even when the eyes are closed, the feeling that I get from looking at animals makes this really tough.
Of course, even more difficult was removing some of the photographs of the Himba people from Namibia. I had a real cultural exchange with these people, making it incredibly difficult to remove any of these. I removed a few but still ended up looking at this set, and was stuck again.
At the end of my third pass, I was down to 64 images, and by this time, I need a break. This is hard! Here’s a screenshot of where I stood at the end of this third pass (below).
Starting from the beginning of the Collection again, I still have eight photos from my January Hokkaido Landscape Adventure, so I went to work on them. The first three minimalist tree shots are all strong favorites, but I removed two of them, going for the lone tree on the hill, which has been a favorite since I shot these. The Boat Graveyard shot was definitely going to stay too, so I removed the other boat shot with the clouds radiating out. That left me with three tetra-pod shots, which I really like, but I left only the one with the suns rays, as that’s also remained a favorite. I then removed a few more eagle shots, and removed three of the four sky full of swans shots.
Of the two fox photos, although I think the one of him just sitting there is a prettier photo, the one of him yawning is more unique, so I removed the first of the two. I removed a white-tailed eagle shot and the black-eared kite shot, and then selected all of my crane shots, with a mind to leave only one, which I managed to do.
Back in Namibia, I removed the milky way shot, which I like, but it’s not brilliant, and then removed the single point perspective shot of the room at Kolmanskop, leaving the sausage boilers and slats for now. I knew that I would only leave one of the two camel-thorn tree silhouette photos from Namibia, and because the first of the two was a retake of a 2013 image, I went with the new composition, which I actually prefer anyway, so that was easy enough. Of the two dune shots, I went for the less cluttered of the two, but I’m still not sure I’ll leave the other one in. There’s still a long way to go.
I really like the pink pelicans shot, but it’s not my best work, so that’s gone now too, and I have to say goodbye to the Himba lady dancing, because I prefer the other two low key images of these three. I can’t remove the goat herding shot. That’s still a firm favorite. I removed two of the three desert elephant shots, because they aren’t that good either, but I left the one of the elephants walking into the distance as I love the feel of that image. At this point I still have 13 Namibia shots left in the selection, which is not good, but I go back to Iceland.
I remove the shot of Gullfoss from the end of the gorge, because it’s a 5Ds R reshoot, and as much as it hurts, I remove a few more of the Iceland landscapes, because I have better images from previous years. The Icelandic horse shot also has to go. It’s not that special. That’s the end of the fourth pass though, and I’m still at 36 photos. Aargh, this is hard!
I actually found the fifth pass a little easier, because I now know that I still have to delete almost three out of four images. I have a specific number to work with now, and that was kind of liberating. It meant that I had start to really sacrifice images that had made it this far in my process.
I quickly cut a bunch of stuff. Swans in flight, sausage boilers, slatted room, the cave shot from Iceland. I kept the Landmannalaugar cotton grass reflection in as long as I could, but it just isn’t as good as many of the other shots, so that went too.
It’s a toss-up between the Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfall shots, but in the end, I leave the Skógafoss image in, because it’s landscape as opposed to portrait orientation, and therefore will look better on the blog. That’s my final thinking on that one, and this is a valid consideration. If I was selecting something for the cover of a magazine, I’d have gone with the portrait orientation image.
I’ve still only removed one in three images though by the end of my fifth pass, so I take another quick swing at it and get my Namibia images down to five, four Iceland images left, and still ten Japan shots left. By this time, I’m at 19 images, and it’s the end of my business day. I will go down stairs for dinner now, and try to pick this up again later. At this point I’m actually happy to walk away from the process for a while, to reset.
So, after writing the last paragraph, at 19 photos, I actually left this selection for four full days, as I visited in-laws over the New Year, and came back to this on the evening of Sunday the 3rd of January. One of the best ways to finalize a selection like this in my mind is to take at least a day, or a few when possible, to let the shortlist sit.
I was able to within a few minutes pick 11 of the 19 images remaining that I absolutely felt I had to include, and the last two were a toss-up, so I basically had to decide between my shot of the elephants walking into the distance and the blue glacial water flowing around the iceberg. My other nine were set.
I’d decided to go with just the little Himba girl, and leave out the photo of the Himba man, as although I love both of those photos, I don’t have room for two of these, and I feel that the little girl photos is the stronger of the two, with a richer sense of culture. I also decided that I could live without another red-crowned crane and eagle shot, as these have dominated my top tens over the years. I still totally enjoy making these photographs, but for now, I need something a little more special to make what is to me, a pretty important selection of images.
I also decided to drop the tetra-pod image and keep the boat graveyard image, because again I think the latter is the stronger image, although I do really like both. I’ve had a shot of Skógafoss in my top ten a few years ago, and the 2015 version doesn’t do any more for me, so I dropped that too. Also, although I like the church shot, there is a definite aspect of been there done that, so I dropped that too.
I’ve also had monkey face close-ups, so I dropped the adult monkey in favor of the six week old baby, because it’s fresh work for me, as I visited the snow monkeys in the summer for the first time in 2015. This was a tough choice though, as I find the strong human like expression on the thoughtful adult snow monkeys face hard to resist.
Finally, the bright and vibrant green shot of the pond from Fukushima has been a favorite throughout the year, but I feel that the misty tree and pond shot is a better image and closer to my overall style than the first pond shot, so I went with the atmospheric misty shot.
I was back to my decision as to whether or not to leave the elephants shot in, or go with the glacial flow and ice shot. I love the story behind the elephant shot, but I think the glacial flow shot is closer to my style, and perhaps a prettier photo, so I’m going to go with that.
For my final selection of 10 from my 19 image short list, I used the P button to add the Pick flag to my images, and then hit the U key to Unflag the elephant shot after making my decision, leaving me with my 10. If it’s important to keep a record of the selection after each pass, you can just right click and select Duplicate Collection, or create a new Collection and drag your images into it, and just repeat this with each new pass you make.
I honestly find it really sad to remove any photo from these selections, but as difficult as this process can be, I really do think it’s an important process for a photographer to undertake at least once a year, to help us to become better editors of our work. By editing, I don’t meaning modifying the individual image, I mean the act of editing down a selection to a finite number.
As I mentioned earlier, photographers seem to find this difficult to do, but in some situations it is a necessary skill, that we should practice, as often as we can, so that when we are asked for selections of images for any reason, we can go through the process relatively quickly when necessary. When time allows as well, it’s pretty much always going to help you to be more objective about your final selection if you can step away from the process for a day or more as you reach your last few passes.
If you don’t use Lightroom, you will of course have to figure out a way to actually select the images and whittle them down. I haven’t used any other tools for so long now that I can’t offer any advice, other than make it simple. If the process gets in the way, or becomes a pain to manage, you need to look for a better process.
Next week, I’ll share the actual Top Ten images that I was left with one by one, along with a little bit of information about each image. I’ll also talk about how beneficial it is to keep these Collections, to enable us to view our progress over the years.
If you’ve stuck with me this far, I hope it has been on some use to go through this process with me, and if you do this too, remember that it is important to stick to your number, be it five, ten or twelve, once you’ve decided a number to shoot for, don’t allow your emotional attachment to the images force you to increase that number. If you do that, you’ve failed to learn from the process. It’s supposed to be hard. That’s why it makes us better photographers.
Share Your Top Ten
And of course, as usual, if you do post your selection of images anywhere, drop a link into the comments for this post. I know that many of you go through this process, and I love seeing how you are progressing as photographers, and even if it’s your first time, let me know, and include a note on what you learned from the process too if anything.
Subscribe in iTunes for Enhanced Podcasts delivered automatically to your computer.
Download this Podcast in MP3 format (Audio Only).
Download this Podcast in Enhanced Podcast M4A format. This requires Apple iTunes or Quicktime to view/listen.