A Daunting Task

February 05, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

It's something that I've been putting off for over a year, now. I've prepared for it, if on subconsciously, by organizing tens of thousands of files across multiple hard drives, with terabytes of data sitting waiting for my further attention.

The task? To go through 6 years worth of digital negatives and finally, permanently, forever delete the truly awful unusable shots.

Before I even got back into photography, my good friend Peter Clarke, told me that one should never delete one's digital negatives. You never know, he said, when you might need them. Certainly, I've returned to shots years later to see what I can do with improved skills and updated software (the shake reduction filter in recent editions of Photoshop has been a real eye opener, for example). 

But so many of those shots, especially in my first couple of years, are just bad. They are practice shots, out of focus shots, shots of me trying to get the exposure just right. So many accidental shots of pavements or my own feet, as I'm confirming that the autofocus is working.

There are fewer of those kinds of shots now, thankfully. I'm pretty sure that of my, say, 50,000 RAW and RAF files (for Canon and Fuji), most are from those first three years, and about 1/3 of them are either unusable, or I've already picked out the best shot from a series. 

Professional shoots are a bit different. I took many thousands of shots for Crain's Cleveland Business when I worked there, most of events and award ceremonies. The best of those shots have been published already. Are the rest of the shots really needed?

It's such a deeply ingrained instinct, though. I feel anxious even writing about deleting negatives. Other fellow photographers have made the valid point that if I didn't like the shot when I first looked through them, why hang on to it? Beyond the possibility of redeeming an "almost" shot with better skills and miracle photo processing options years down the road, it's valid.

Here are a couple of ways one can help make this process easier. I think.

Build the Purge into your Workflow

I typically import photographs into Lightroom and then quickly go through all the shots, scoring them 1 or 2 stars. This is a simple bubble-sort technique, with 1 star going to shots that are technically bad (exposure, blurred, out of focus, my feet) and 2 stars going to shots that are at least in focus and close to the right exposure. 

In the second pass, I uprate decent shots to 3 stars, leaving the "meh" photos at 2.

And then, yes, I go through all the 3-star shots, and I'll rate the shots I really want to work on at 4.  If I spot something that's clearly amazing at any stage, it'll get rated 4 stars right away.   Lightroom Scoring

I tend to not bother with 5 stars until all the processing of 4-star photos is complete.Any 5-star images are the kind of shots I will put in my portfolio.

Of the 4 and 5 star shots, I'll flag the keepers as well, since these are probably the shots that I feel the client should get. If the client is me, the "picks" are what will go up on Facebook or this site.

So, as you can see, I could probably just delete all the 1-star negatives right away. It's possible that even 2-star images could be deleted, but that's a tougher call. Sometimes it's worth going through the 2-star shots again, just in case there's something you missed before. Ideally, you'd re-score all the 2-star shots as 1s or 3s, but that's often a lot of extra work and by the time everything has been edited, you might not have the energy for this final pass.

I am not an expert in Lightroom workflows by any means, but I think these scoring passes represent the most basic helpful workflow that one could practice. Let me know if you have other ideas, or if I've missed something.

Wait and Purge

This other method, which is more or less what I'm planning on doing myself, is to wait a couple of years and then go back through your digital negatives. By this point, there's enough distance from the act of taking the shot to add a sense of detachment and hopefully bypass any paranoia about deleting something as important as a digital negative. 

I think this will be easier, as a quick glance will tell me all the 1-star shots without even having to look at old Lightroom catalogs. That's about as far as I'd be willing to go before needing to check old scores.

So wish me luck. This is going to be a time-consuming process, well-suited for Winter when it's harder than usual to get out and take pictures.


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