How to tell good photos from bad ones

When sorting through my recent photos from great barrier reef diving Australia, I had to discard lots of shots.

This happens every time coming back from a long trip, I end up with hundreds of photos, often several of the same subject with different exposures or simply shot in rapid succession. From all those shots I need to nominate the good ones, which I will later edit.

I probably have to disappoint most of you here, but my typical ratio of good/bad photos is about 1/10, so it is important for me to be able to sort out lots of bad shots early. My approach is basically looking at every single photo for about a second and quickly decide if there’s something wrong with it, then discard it. In case of doubt, I will try some simple adjustments. Only the photos that “survive” this process become candidates for further editing.

So how to tell a good photo, or one with potential, from a bad one? In no particular order, I try to do the following:

  • Does the photo clearly suck and it can’t be fixed? Out of focus, too much backscatter, washed out colors, too far away? These photos are sorted out early.
  • Have I broken any golden rules? i.e shoot downwards, parts of subject cut off? Never have to look at these again.
    For fish, can I immediately tell the subject from the background? If the subject is not obvious, see you later.
  • Is the subject’s nearest eye totally sharp? A sharp eye can make the entire photo look good, but if it isn’t in focus the shot most likely can’t be saved.
  • To see if I have good composition, I scale the image down to a small size or look at it from further away to see if it “makes sense”?
  • To see if an image has good exposure I consult the histogram. Are there blown out highlights on the right end of the histogram? These photos go out the window.
  • If not sure turn about the light in a photo, I turn it into black and white then see if I like it? This test is infallible to tell subject background separation too.
  • If it’s not perfect, does a part of the image jump at me that wants to be cropped out, or blown up? If there is nothing interesting in the shot, discard it.
  • After several shots of the same subject, I always try to choose the one where the subject is closest to the camera.
  • If a photo “survives” this routine, I am more likely to invest further time and eventually publish. I do get about 10% of my shots over the line like this, maybe less. Here and there I will go all the way with a photo and end up not liking it anyway, mostly from too much editing. I generally think less is more and in such cases err on the side of caution, without publishing.

Hope the above helps you about choosing your best shots – let me know if you have other tricks down your sleeves!

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