November 12, 2021

Learn how to choose which photos to edit in post-processing

By Lars Gesing
Learn how to choose which photos to edit in post-processing

One of the questions that I get from students most often is this one: “How do I choose which photos to edit in post processing?” They usually just came back from the field during one of my workshops, memory cards filled to the brim, and they are looking at hundreds of images in Lightroom or any other editing software they are using. 

A feeling of overwhelm sets in. Which one is THE shot to spend time to work on?

Sound familiar?

Yeah… I’ve been there, too, more times than I can count. But over the years, I have developed a three-step workflow that I’d like to share with you today in hopes that I can help you learn how to make the process of editing your work less stressful and less time consuming. By breaking down the selection part into these three steps, it becomes less overwhelming and more strategic.

How to spend less time choosing which photos to edit

So, I’m assuming that at this point you imported all your photos from a shoot into one folder in Lightroom. I use Lightroom, so for the purpose of this lesson, I will talk about Lightroom, but this workflow is universal and can be applied in any software — all that may differ are the keyboard shortcuts.

Step 1 — Speed Dating

Once all images are imported, I pull up the first image in full-screen mode to get a good look at it. Now, I go through all the files by hitting next. I only spend about a second or two looking at each file. If I generally like the shot, I hit the key P in Lightroom, which flags the image, and then I move on. Think of this process as the “Swipe left or Swipe right” of photo editing, for all you online daters out there.

This is important: This is not the step where I overanalyze a photograph. This is all a first impression. Like the photo? Cool. Flag it and move on to the next. This step alone usually helps me narrow down my amount of files by 70-80% (those numbers might differ for you, and that is okay!).

This is even more important: There is no processing the files happening in this step. The only keys you are pressing in this step are Right, Left and P.

Step 2: Kicking the Tires

Once I made it through all the files once, which should only take a few minutes, I will go into my Lightroom settings and only display the flagged files. Quick sidenote for all you asking: No, I will not delete the unflagged ones. I very rarely flat-out delete files, I just usually ignore and never touch most of them again. External hard drives like this one have become so affordable these days that I’d rather not get in a position where I go back months later looking for a specific scene and realize that I deleted it in the moment.

Okay… So now you are only displaying all the flagged files, the ones you generally liked. Now, you’ll go through them a second time. This time, you are looking under the hood and kicking the tires. Zoom in, and ask yourself: Does the file meet your (hopefully high) technical standards? Is it sharp? Is the exposure dialed in enough that you know you can comfortably do the fine tuning in post processing? Any file that doesn’t meet those standards will be eliminated/unflagged by pressing the U key.

There is still no actual processing happening in this step. But usually this still shrinks the pile of photos to choose from before we get into the meat and potatoes of editing/choosing.

Which happens in…

Step 3 — The First Date 

So now you generally like the photos that have made it this far, and they all meet your technical standards. For the third run-through, you’ll spend more time with each image. This time, your job is to analyze the composition based on what you’ve learned about what makes a good composition (if you need a refresher, click to start here).

This is where you ask yourself questions like: Is the composition balanced? Are there any distractions, like branches sticking out? Did you check for your highlights and make sure they don’t distract? In general, is this a composition where the attraction is maximized and the distraction is minimized?

And, this is the time where you ask which file most closely matches your style of photography and best shows why you photographed the scene in the first place. (Yes, even editing is all about the WHY.)

Learn how to choose which photo to edit in Lightroom.

Most likely, you are still going to have multiple files of the same scene from slightly different angles, slightly different focal lengths, with slightly different light. This step is where you compare those files, by asking yourself which of those images is the best composition based on what you’ve learned. I’m not going to lie: This process can take some time, and this step is the hardest part. But it is necessary, and it is important that you become your own toughest critic. Again, press the U key for each image that you don’t deem the best composition of any given scene.

And once again: There is STILL no processing, no moving of any sliders, happening here. Until this third run-through is completed, this entire selection process is all based on visual impressions of the RAW file.

What happens once you made it through these three rounds?

Only after my photos have gone through these three rounds of visual editing do I actually start processing files. Which ones do I start with? This is where it gets very unscientific. I always start with the file I am most excited about. 

And I will be honest with you… Usually, after I processed one or two images from a shoot, the ones I liked the best, the other files start to pale in comparison, and often I don’t bother editing them anymore. This is a fourth step of elimination that happens naturally but heavily depends on your emotional attachment to the files you came home with.

How many photos should you edit, then?

It’s impossible for me to answer this question. It obviously depends on factors like how many files you shot overall. But more importantly, it depends on the quality of the photographs and your attachment to them. I certainly edit more photos from a shoot if I know that it was a super rare location that I got to visit, as compared to one that I have easy access to and know that I will go back time and again.

Generally, over the years, I have trained myself to be hyper-critical of my own work, though. I have developed and know my style of photography (here is a good exercise if you are still struggling with that). I know what kinds of images I like best and want to share with others. And I know what kinds of images sell well as fine art wall installations. 

For me, this shooting and editing process leads to a ratio of shooting 100,000s of frames every year, but I usually only add about 50 images a year to my portfolio, if that.

Next week, I will go into much more detail about this last part and tell you why I am still a firm believer that you should not be too selective about what to photograph when out in the field.