To Delete or Not To Delete – “THAT” is the The Question

One of the most common questions that have been posed by people on this blog is:  Do you delete your images in camera and do you delete images on your server or in your Aperture Library?

I think it’s a very important question, and my answer for the most part is: No – I don’t.

Why?  Well here it is:  I’ll point to the following events in specific:  My coverage of Hurricane Katrina, and my coverage of (actually pretty much any) Olympics.  In all of these events – I was often rushing to make a deadline and under severe pressure.  I had a clear idea of what the “news of the day” was and what images I needed to get out first, and I was all too often sleep deprived – in that state, I become pretty close to being my own worst editor.  

And here’s a big lesson: once you make that initial edit – you almost NEVER MAKE a second edit of that work – EVER.   All too often you move on to the next event or day – and never get the luxury of looking back.

And why is that dangerous?  Because editing on deadline, or frankly editing your own stuff is like playing Russian Roulette for most photographers…

Simply put: Photographers are all too often their own worst editors – add to that a little stress, exhaustion or deadline pressure, and you’re playing with fire.

I can tell you that I borrowed someone else’s eyes – even complete strangers’ eyes – throughout the Olympics almost every day, to help cut down my 15 images down to the top 5.  That is the hardest thing to do when you’re editing your own stuff.  

Why?  Because a photographer is always attempting to achieve a certain result with their photographs, they have their mind dead set on a specific goal or result – and they do not always achieve it.  It takes someone else to tell them either: A. hey – I don’t really see the picture at all – I think you didn’t quite make it…it’s “not quite there mate” as one of my favorite Allsport editors Darrell Ingham used to say or B. hey – what about that picture (you haven’t even tagged) that I see over here?

In fact, my mark of a good photo editor, is not one who can pick between pictures A or B – but the one that sees photo Z – one that you never even knew was there yourself.  I’ve met only a few editors who can do this throughout my career- but when you do, know that you’ve found a gold mine.  These editors can literally help shape both your vision and career.  They are the ones that see things in your work that you may not yet see – and they can help you shape the way you see and capture images.   

I kind of skipped on this – but having a photo editor by your side is always (well almost) always,  a good thing.  

As with any profession – some are good and some you need to steer clear of.   What you need to do is to form a relationship with an editor – let them know what you are trying to accomplish with your photography – and hopefully the two of you can go from there (and perhaps they can help you get there.)  Some editors I actually go to to find out which photograph NOT to pick – I’m serious.  I’ve worked with some that I can go to on a consistent basis – and when I offer them up photo A or B – if they pick B – I’ll go with A every time.  While this might lead to a chuckle or two out there – it’s not necessarily because they’re bad editors – it’s because you know your style is just the polar opposite of theirs.

 Something to always be aware of as both a photographer and editor: over the years, people become conditioned to edit in a certain style – often their publication’s style.  You edit because you know what type of images your publication will likely run – and don’t give them ones you know will never make it in (even though you, and perhaps even your editor knows – that image is a significantly better image.)  

This is one of the most dangerous aspects of working at the same publication or for the same client for too long – or for your entire career- it truly limits your growth, and the development of your vision.  It can stunt your growth as a photographer.  I can say that because it’s happened to me a number of times already in my career.  I equate it to shooting with “your blinders on.”  You stop seeing images – and are just on the lookout for the ones you know your publication will run.  And that’s the death of you photographically in my opinion.

So back to deleting – sorry – I’ve gotten off target a little here.   Without exception, every time I’ve gone back to do an edit – whether it’s after a 15 minute break, a 15 hour brake, a 15 day break or a 15 month break – my view of what images matter has dramatically changed.  So much so – that I just can’t justify deleting images (unless they’re completely out of focus, or over exposed or under exposed beyond recovery (but hey – who knows what software they’ll write in 20 years that could potentially fix those images – you see where I’m going…???)  

Think about a lot of the classic images we look at that were shot 20, 50 or 100 years ago – while some are true classics, let’s be honest: some of them really weren’t that spectacular at all when they were shot.  But with time – even the most banal image – is fascinating to look at.   I love to look at what people were wearing in the 1920s or what the streets looked like in New York City, how the signs in front of stores were hand painted etc.  And the same will be true of what you’re photographing today – that’s a lesson my father taught me very early on – and one that I’ve never forgotten – and a big part of why I don’t delete anything if I can help it. 

Sure you may think an image of an umpire walking in the background that your AF jumped to by mistake (instead of the star player in the foreground) is something you should delete immediately.  But what if we don’t have umpires anymore 20 years from now (due to instant replay)… what if, that umpire happens to become one of the most famed umpire in history over time… or worse – gets into a car crash and dies that evening.  You NEVER know – and keeping the frame is often the best thing to do in my book.  The fact that we never really know what images will become valuable or relevant over time – is one of the magical parts of photography for me.

When I look back at the Beijing Olympics I can already see images now that I missed in my initial edit (and I might do an edit of “images that didn’t make it” at some point soon and post it on this blog) – or images that I did not chose to edit and transmit because of news value.  Even more so – when I look back at my images from Katrina, I can see an entirely different edit of that event – mostly because my shooting style has changed quite a bit since then.  Given that I have kept every frame – I will have the option of going back through these and every event, 10-30 years from now and / or having a great editor do the same for me.  

Don’t forget: your shooting style will change with time- and the images you like now are not necessarily the ones you’ll like 20 years from now… in fact some of your current “rejects” may become your selects as your style changes…

What is the downside?  Obviously, you have to buy more CF cards so that you can keep more images as you shoot, it takes longer to copy them off of the cards and import into your editing software, and you need more hard drives to store these things.  But given the cost of hard drive space – it’s pretty much a non-issue for me.  Look at these stats for example:

The cost of hard drive data storage seems to drop by a factor of 10 every three or four years. This means that in two years, a terabyte hard drive should cost about $20.

Here’s the cost of 1GB of Storage over the past 22 years:

1986: $100,000

1990: $10,000

1994: $1,000

1997: $100

2000: $10

2004: $1

2007: $0.20

Kinda makes you think doesn’t it?  So is it worth deleting that 1 Terabyte of images?  Isn’t there a chance that a single one of those might sell for over $20 in 3 years???  Remember I shot about half a terabyte of images in Beijing – if these price predictions above are true – isn’t it worth $10 for me to hold onto every single frame given the historic nature of these Olympics?

When we used to shoot film – we used to say that the cost of film was the cheapest part of the overall production – and it’s true.  Think of all of the travel time and expenses, production and post-production costs you put into a shoot – the film cost pales in comparison… so shoot that extra roll (or take the role w/ 4 exposures left on it out of your film body – and put a new one in case something big happens) – don’t hesitate… hard drive space is likely your least expensive cost.  (At least we’re not wasting film anymore…)

Look at Dirck Halstead – a former Time Magazine photographer.  His illustrious career of fantastic images has come down to one image – that was buried in a slide sheet deep in some abyss.  Remember the Monica Lewinsky photograph – her embracing Bill Clinton? 

“When the Lewinsky story broke, all these organizations started to go through their files, and found nothing. 

I hired a researcher, and she started to go through the piles of slides in the light room. After four days, and more than 5,000 slides, she found ONE image, from a fund-raising event in 1996. “

 

Well – needless to say, Dirck never would have known that his career would come to be in many ways defined by that one image – one that many of us would have likely “thrown in the bin” had we wanted to save slide sheets, or in our days hard drive space…   I’d be surprised if not every single one of you hasn’t already regretted deleting an image at some point already in your careers.  

Lastly – I can’t tell you how dangerous it is to delete images on the fly on the back of your camera.  First – you miss hundreds of images – subtle  (sometimes not so subtle at all!)  images – that are happening right in front of your as you are  “chimping” on the back of your LCD screen   And then – you’ll also delete good images because you’re rushing, and because you just won’t see them on that small LCD screen – remember, the mirror was up when the action was happening,  and there’s a strong likelihood your eye never saw THE moment as you shot that last series of frames…   so why rush to deleting those images instants after you shot them – don’t they deserve a second look?

I can tell you that using software such as Aperture has also been a game changer for me – I have over 400,000 images in my main library – and the app still zips through for the most part.  So keeping all of my images is not a big consideration for me.  I also chose to render large previews for each image/project in my libary- this allows me to travel with my large library and make edits on my laptop – even though the raw files are back on my server and offline.

I also won’t tell you the number of “famous photographs” that have come to define certain photographer friend’s careers – that I know for a fact they completely missed during their initial edit – and someone else saw on the light table or monitor and said: “Hey – did you see this one?”   I won’t mention names out of respect, but that alone should make you think twice.  I’m talking “classic” single images that you associate with this one photographer or another… World Press Winners in fact…

So the next time you’re about to delete images – ask yourself: out of the thousands of sub-“1 Star” images that I’m about to delete – am I absolutely sure that there’s not a single image on there that will ever sell or become more relevant throughout the rest of my career (or after I’ve passed on.)   Wouldn’t it be wise to keep them for now – just to be safe?   Given how cheap the cost of hard drives is – and how it will continue to drop – shouldn’t I just be conservative and store them?

At some point soon – I will be putting up some more information on my workflow – and long term strategies for backing up all of my images – and how you can keep the “best ones” stored in your library on your expensive redundant RAIDS – and how to put the “outs” on cheaper long-term media stored externally.  While keeping every single image is something that I’m preaching – there IS a smarter and more practical way to do this with the software out there today.  More to come…