A Few Words On Selection of Photos

An Article for Beginners, Introduction for Those Who Keep Practicing, and Step-by-Step Guide for Every Occasion

“You need ten minutes to learn to take a photo. You need to mold a personality to learn to select one.”
(c) Gueorgui Pinkhassov


Some friends/colleagues of mine criticize the above wording viewing it as incomprehensible, inaccurate, even snobbish. They argue against the idea of somebody being able to learn photography in ten minutes; as for mature personality, they say the notion is arbitrary (what about the personality of a five-year-old child?). Such an approach by all means sounds reasonable, even more so, it is interesting per se. However, give me a five-year-old child and a modern camera, and they will be taking pictures in ten minutes flat. Will they act consciously in so doing? Should one act consciously? What should the balance be between the conscious and the unconscious in the process of taking pictures and selecting photos? From a personal perspective, these issues seem to be deep and important, and the above quotation implies their philosophical interpretation.

Generally speaking, it is hard, if ever possible to be an effective judge while discussing photography. One cannot tell how to do things right, as everyone makes his or her own choice. There are no off-the-shelf solutions, since every photographer exercises an individual approach. Time and again I see utterly “wrong” actions (objectively wrong, like incorrect processing techniques in Adobe Photoshop) bringing about the “right” result, shaped by the photographer’s creative insight rather than by his or her technical skills.

Striving for algorithmization is quite useful in terms of application tasks in photography and dangerous in terms of creative tasks. Since art starts where rules end, I believe creative growth relies heavily on personal experience, both your own and of those people whose works speak to your heart.

How to Work with Files: Selecting Photos

I can’t tell how to select photos, because actually there is no specific technology thereof. Besides, this topic is too broad to be covered in an article or maybe even a book. However I can share my technique of working with files while selecting photos. I reckon the stuff might be useful for beginner photographers and could urge them to put serious questions concerning selection of photos and photography as a whole (these issues are closely related).

First of all, you should realize that selection is built around underlying tasks. It’s one thing to choose wedding pictures and quite another to select photos for a photo album, portfolio, or exhibition. If we speak about the latter, the process in endless, as we constantly conceive and reconceive our art, returning time and time again to some of the photo sessions or single photos. In photojournalism, visualizing a progression of events is critical, rather than the artistic expression of prints.

That said, any selection task includes a strong intuitive component to be further discussed. Of course, the selection process calls for analyzing the camera work and comparing the pictures. However, we often want to select a photo in all senses inferior to another option. Nevertheless, for some obscure reason we like it, period! Is the sensation familiar to you? Should we select the “wrong” but impressive picture, or it’s better to vote for the “right” and logically explainable option?

By all means, we should take into account specific requirements in commercial photography (including wedding photography and other event photography genres), requirements for photos to be published in magazines, image banks, or other applied tasks. Even so (to say nothing of creative photography) it is quite reasonable to rely on your intuition following your inner choice, whatever irrational it may be. After all, we show a picture to be liked by viewers and/or by us, personal likes and dislikes being hardly explainable.

Selection Techniques

Let’s discuss the most common situation. For example, you’ve returned from yet another trip and brought tons of photos (let’s say 1,000 pictures), of which you should select a reasonable amount (say 30) for posting in a blog and showing to your friends/parents.

By the way, beginner photographers rarely feel like doing it. There was a time when my family got tired of viewing my photo albums holding 300 prints or slide-shows holding 500 pictures. Just think of those yawning mouths and sleepy eyes! Take my word: with a few exceptions (like a granny yearning for her grandson’s success) the spectacle will be more effective if you show the best 30 photos, rather than 300.

But what are the best and how to select them? My step-by-step guidance is as follows.

1. Download Files to Your Computer

First of all, download all files from a flash memory card to your computer. Just a routine operation it may seem? Not exactly. For the ease of further working with the files the way you catalogue them (create folders, download, and save files) is critical. It is particularly so if you work with several cameras at a time: if images from cameras have been saved to different folders, it’s easier to burn in hell than reduce such pictures to order. At some point I described the task in detail. Therefore, I won’t repeat myself and just give a link to the article:

http://pavel-kosenko.livejournal.com/288470.html (still only in Russian)

The bottom line thereof is the directory arrangement I recommend (sure, you are not obliged to follow it):

In my opinion, it is much easier to work with photos if they have been sorted by shooting date (for convenience sake you can add a text prefix to the folder name, though it is not a must) and files from different cameras have been placed side by side (sorted by shooting time). Such cataloguing is easily attainable in an automatic mode: you may click the link above to read how exactly to do it.

2. Open Files in a Catalogue Organizer

Just another simple action? Again, not exactly. Many beginner photographers try to view images using the programs embedded in the operating system. Generally speaking, such an approach is not impossible (especially with Mac OS operating system :). However, a specialized program will be more useful: it allows to view images quicker (especially heavy RAW files) and, what is most important, assign various rating tags (stars, flags, etc.).

First choice is generally Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Bridge, though there are a lot of other programs. Since selection principles are not affected by the program, we will consider Adobe Bridge which I use as an example.

So, let’s take the 852 pictures I took during one shooting session in the marketplace in Samarkand. Our task is to select 30 to 40 photos for showing to friends/family or posting in a blog. Besides, maybe 2 or 3 pictures will suffice (or not) for a creative portfolio, this task being secondary: you never know in advance whether there are worthy photos taken during a shooting session.

3. Viewing All Photos the First Time Round

Switch to view mode. In Adobe Bridge you can do it by pressing the spacebar having selected a photo (the first one in our case). You can further page through files, even at a high speed (say, 3 to 4 photos per second).

Any image having caught your attention for at least a second should be marked with a star. To that end one could use keyboard shortcut CMD+1 in Adobe Bridge (or CTRL+1, if you use Windows).

The goal of the preview is to mark photos that caught your attention. At that stage, we interpret any doubt as to whether a picture could be of interest or not in favor of marking it with a star. Moving forward a little, we can admit that not all these pictures will come into “The best” list. But what we need now is making a shortlist and shaping the base for further selection (among 50 rather than 800 images).

Please note that it is worthwhile including duplicate images in the list. If you’ve taken 20 duplicate pictures, the majority of which you dislike with 3 to 4 raising you doubts, be sure to mark them with a star. You will select the best one after further review.

Upon completion of the preview you can display the pictures you’ve chosen marked with one star.

In our case, selection resulted in 43 photos left. If we drop duplicate images (having chosen the best among them), the remaining pictures will be good enough for showing to friends, family, or in a blog.

If we are striving for a higher-quality selection, let’s move on.

4. Viewing Photos the Second Time Round

Now we will be viewing only photos marked with a star (43 images in our case). The selection principle will be the same: we will choose only those images which have caught our eyes and mark them with two stars using keyboard shortcut CMD+2 in Adobe Bridge (or CTRL+2, if you use Windows).

But this time we move on slower, as now we have far less pictures to analyze. We again view doubts as a reason for placing another star, however adopting a more stringent selection principle. Every now and then it is advisable to switch back and forth between the adjacent images, to back up your intuitive feeling, and make an informed decision, should that be the requirements baseline.

If you are hundred percent positive about specific images, you may assign them three stars right away. Use keyboard shortcut CMD+3 in Adobe Bridge (or CTRL+3, if you use Windows).

Now, when the second selection stage is over, you can display only those images you have selected by attributing to them two or more stars.

In our case only 13 photos remained, which can be considered as a basis not only for a story about one’s trip but also for a visual impression of a place or event, a small set of photographs, etc.

This set of photos is even more useful for a final rigorous selection. It turns out to be rigorous as, alas and alack, the adopted approach calls for choosing the best of the best among our “masterpieces” and shutting the door on pieces falling short of being “masterpieces”, even if we like them a lot.

4. Viewing Photos the Third Time Round

While selecting the best of the best “masterpieces” (I hope you got the irony) you will have to view each of the photos, and literally ask yourself a question: is it a masterpiece or not?

At this stage, you’ll grievously brush away all pieces falling short of the level you’ve set relying on your inner self.

In my case 3 photos left.

To me they look good enough to be included in a portfolio. After relevant (even if minimal) processing they look like this:

Generally speaking, in the selection process you should not limit yourself to assigning three stars only. You can go a step further and use four and even five stars, or just one or two (you may also flag files or use color labels), but as my practice shows, three stars are enough for making the selection.


1. Of course, the article tells about one of the many approaches to selection of photos. Actually, there may be a myriad of approaches, varying by specific tasks set by a specific photographer in each specific case. But I started the article with an eye-catching Step-by-Step Guide for Every Occasion. The time has come to give thorough explanations.

What is so universal in the approach I offer regardless of the tasks you face or you have set? In fact, I mentioned it in the beginning of the article: just listen to your heart, inner senses, and intuition. Even if it is all about nuts-and-bolts, give the reins to your feelings and sensations, keeping in mind the requirements.

3. There is another widely used method of selecting photos. Unlike looking through pictures in full-screen mode, you scroll through the thumbnails, paying attention only to those that caught your eye. You enlarge such images to full-screen and make a decision whether to label them or not. Other than that the approach is similar to the one discussed above. It probably makes sense to try both methods and choose the one allowing for a better selection. As for me, I use both depending on the mood and the number of photos taken in a shooting session. The choice you made three months age most probably will not match your current choice. Thus it is worthwhile reviewing your archive and looking through the photos. But not all of them, otherwise you will get stuck for good. But with some particular sets of photos – it well might work.

4. The above paragraph triggers a question – at what point to make a selection? Should one put the photos aside or, on the contrary, proceed with selection immediately, while the impressions are still fresh? I tried both approaches more than once and let me tell you – they both work. For that matter I would again recommend to listen to your intuition and sensations. If you are bursting to make a choice right away after shooting – let yourself go! And vice versa – if you tend to sort out pictures immediately, but all in a while you are not in the mood and don’t have the heart to turn on your computer – forget it! It’s better to sort it out later, when you are up for that.

What I really advise is: restrain from making a decision on posting your photo late at night or if tired. This is also a matter of choice – whether to post it, or not. Is the picture worthwhile demonstrating to wide audience, or not? If you face the dilemma, you’d better turn in: it is exactly the right time for taking counsel with your pillow.


P.S. I don’t want the readers to fall under a false impression that selection is about assigning stars in Bridge. Of course not! In photography, this issue calls for a deeper insight into why we make photos and what for.

Introduction hereto makes it quite clear. In the body of the article I described purely technical issues inherent in working with files, just to start the ball rolling, assuming it could be useful for beginners (above all, “30 day photo” guys asked for that). In so doing, I gave a description of specific actions accompanied with reasoning disclosing their philosophical ambiguity, and the fact that I had just scratched the surface.

As the article might not have been clear enough on that, I decided to add the post scriptum. I did not in the least want to discredit one of the deepest and most complicated topics in photography (in addition, barely touched upon in literature) by reducing it to assigning stars and cataloguing. That was absolutely not in my plans. The topic is so complicated and multi-faceted that exploring at least part of it will likely call for the efforts of multiple authors, writing hundreds of articles and dozens of books, and developing more than one academic program fostering creative thinking. The key question here is WHY we make this or that choice, rather than HOW to label files. Hopefully, informative and insightful materials on the topic are on the way!

© Original post in Russian:
23 January 2013


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