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Choosing Pictures: How to Pick Your Best Photos, Fast

strategies to pick your best photos: choosing pictures

This article was updated in December 2023 with contributions from Melinda Smith, Lara White, Kevin Landwer-Johan, and Annie Tao.

Are you tired of taking forever to pick your best pictures? Do you want to know how to choose photos, fast?

When I first started as a photographer, I’d get hung up on the picture-choosing process after every photoshoot. I’d spend way too much time agonizing over every photo (and I worried deeply about accidentally discarding a good one…).

But over time, I developed several strategies. Strategies that:

  • sped up my workflow
  • made the culling process far less painful
  • helped me focus on actual photo editing

Below, I share nine of these strategies, all of which are guaranteed to make choosing pictures a piece of cake, and I also explain why putting in the effort to select your best shots is so important.

Let’s get started!

1. Don’t take so many photos in the first place

Yeah, yeah, I know; it’s not exactly a way to sort through hundreds of photos in a few minutes. But for many photographers, deliberately taking fewer photos is a game-changer, so you should at least consider it.

And I get it: Digital storage is inexpensive and cameras offer insanely deep buffers, so it feels good to fire off a thousand shots, knowing that you’ll eventually get some decent ones. But how many of those thousand photos are actually good? And how many of them do you really need to take in order to get some good shots?

In my experience, not only is it unnecessary to take so many shots, it’s actually harmful. As a photographer, you’ll get lazy if your finger is always pressing the shutter button. You won’t spend time carefully composing your images. Instead, you’ll shoot a lot, but you’ll miss a lot, too, and your photos will suffer.

Plus, constant shooting comes with another major drawback:

You have to sort through mountains of images to find the best ones.

Bottom line:

You don’t need to take hundreds of images. And if you can restrain yourself, you’ll have a much easier time during the post-processing and organization stages.

Make sense?

2. Start by seeing your best

Creative people often excel at being negative when it comes to their own creations. How many times have you heard musicians tell you they are not practiced enough to perform? Or friends who paint tell you they don’t have the confidence to complete a canvas they are working on?

It is quite typical of creatives to be too hard on themselves, which can slow down the culling process – or, even worse, cause you to discard images that deserve to be seen.

So when you first load your images from a new photo session, be purposefully positive. Don’t let yourself get sucked into negative thoughts. Start looking for the best photos in a series you have made, not the worst.

Take some time to scan through and get an overview of your new pictures. Look for the ones that excite you and mark them. You can use a flag, a color label, or a star rating. While this will take some time, it’ll make the rest of the choosing process a lot easier!

Buddhist monk making art - Tips for Culling Your Photos
Image by Kevin Landwer-Johan

3. Choose images that reflect your style

If you want to create a solid narrative of an event, or you want to produce a cohesive portfolio, then don’t just think in terms of “good images” and “bad images.”

Instead, ask yourself:

Does this image fit with my style? And if not, reject it. You don’t have to throw the shot away – after all, your style might change, and you might need images like that down the line – but put it aside for now, so you can focus on the style you’re developing.

picking your best pictures: girl jumping

For instance, if your style involves dark, moody, dramatic images, then a bright, upbeat, airy shot probably doesn’t belong in your portfolio, no matter how great it is. Does it deserve to be trashed? Probably not, but quickly add it to a rejects folder and move on. Later, if you decide to create a portfolio of happier images, you’ll know where to find it. But in the meantime, get it out of the way and spend time on what matters.

4. Look for distractions

As you’re choosing pictures you like, make sure you’re hyper-focused, not just on the main subject, but on the background, the foreground, and any distractions that they might contain.

Distractions are easy to miss when out shooting, but they can seriously detract from an image, so it’s up to you, in the editing room, to identify them and send them packing.

I’m talking about things like:

  • Telephone poles
  • Streetlights
  • Wires
  • Passersby
  • Cars
  • Fences
  • Trees

Really, it all depends on the image – certain items can be distracting in one shot but work well in another – so take the above list with a grain of salt. But make sure you keep an eagle eye out for any and all distractions; that way, you can quickly reject photos that ultimately won’t work.

One thing to note, though:

Certain distractions can be fixed in post-processing. For instance, telephone wires can be removed from a portrait, cars can be removed from a street scene, etc. And you must decide whether the distraction is fixable and whether it’s actually worth fixing (especially if you took another, similar shot that doesn’t suffer from the same issues).

Check out this set of images:

two family photos, one with and one without a garden hose

The top image features a garden hose in the grass, but I removed it in post-processing, and the photo looks much better. The image was too good to send it packing, and I knew the hose would be easy to edit out, so I held on to the shot. In the end, it’s your call, but don’t keep too many images that require major fixes; it’s just not worth it.

5. If a shot is out of focus or blurry, reject it

If any photos have softness or blurriness, they’re automatically out. That’s my rule and I stick to it, no matter what else the photo offers.

After all, if you’re shooting for a client and you include a blurry image in their package, what if they want to print it on a huge canvas? An image that appears blurry at low resolutions will look horrible when blown up big, so just don’t go there. Instead, get rid of blurriness as soon as you identify it.

It’s often possible to instantly tell whether an image is blurry, but if you’re not sure, you can zoom in to one hundred percent in your favorite post-processing program, check for focus/blur, and then make your final decision.

(This rule also applies to any photos that are way off with exposure. Just let them go!)

I’ll be the first to admit: This can be really tough. Sometimes, the best poses are ruined by blur and I hate to get rid of them, but I know it’s necessary. Here’s an example where the top photo has the better head turns and expressions, yet one of the faces is blurry:

two girls dancing

So I had to go with the bottom image.

6. Eliminate similar shots on your first photo-picking pass

two similar images of a toddler standing

When you’re choosing pictures, every time you come to a series of similar shots, be ruthless. Get rid of all but one photo, because no portfolio should include a handful of near-identical images, and no client wants to wade through a bunch of twin images, either.

Even if both photos are amazing, just pick one. You can do this any way you like: flip a coin, always go with the one on the left, or (and this is ideal) pick the one that makes you feel the most, because one of the shots is bound to be better than the other. You might also consider checking sharpness, exposure, and thinking about which shot speaks to your style and your client’s interests.

When comparing the two shots above, I knew I needed to get rid of one. But which would it be? I went with the image on the right because the expression was slightly more enthusiastic, and that little girl was full of enthusiasm. I wanted to show her personality!

7. Don’t miss the hidden gems

Thus far, I’ve offered strategies for getting down to your best shots as quickly as possible. But I’d like to throw this piece of advice out there:

Sometimes, the best photos aren’t immediately visible. Sometimes, it’s the hidden gems that include the best expressions, the best moments, the most worthwhile scenes.

So while you should go through your photos fast, if an image speaks to you, don’t immediately reject it, even if it has issues. Perhaps the shot could be great with just a little bit of magical editing.

For instance, check out the images below. The top left shot has two great expressions and one bad one. So I took the bad expression, and I replaced it with the expression from another photo:

two blended images for a nice final shot of two girls looking up at the mother

Just watch for that kind of thing: Photos that could be your favorites after a wave of the magic editing wand.

8. Be ruthless, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes

The whole point of this article is to help you pick photos fast, and you can’t do that unless you’re willing to make mistakes.

Yes, you’ll occasionally reject great photos. Yes, you’ll occasionally fail to identify shots that could be massively improved with editing. But is that such a bad thing? Why is rejecting a good photo so problematic? It’s not like you’re truly trashing it. Assuming you have plenty of storage, you can keep it on your hard drive, then come back to it later if the urge arises.

And you’ve got to be ruthless, too. You can’t edit every photo, and sometimes you just have to make quick judgment calls and move on. (On the other hand, as emphasized above, don’t be too negative! Accidentally rejecting a good shot or two is okay, but you don’t want to fall prey to negative thinking and struggle to find anything that you like!)

picking from two couple photos

With the photos above, the one on the left is cute, but I decided that I liked the connection displayed in the middle shot, so that’s the one I kept. Did I make the right decision? I don’t know for sure, but I can always return to the other image if I decide it’s superior.

Quick tip: If I’m having a really hard time giving photos up, I will give them star ratings as I go through: five stars for definite keepers and four stars for the “maybes.” I usually end up with more five star shots than I need, so the four stars automatically get cut. Sometimes, it’s easier to let images go after you’ve given them a fair trial.

9. Think about the clients

The business of photography is a complicated matter. I spend hours after each photo shoot culling, processing, and sorting the photos to tell the story of the day.

Now, many photographers are not shooting for clients – and if that’s you, you can ignore this section completely! However, if you do photograph for clients, it’s important to not just think about what you like, but also what the client likes.

After a recent photo session with one of my children, I realized that choosing the final photos can be described as a Venn diagram! One circle represents images photographers love and the other circle represents images clients love. Some images overlap and some don’t.

To be successful, you want the largest area to be the one that overlaps: images both photographers and clients love.

Professional Photographers Venn Diagram by Annie Ta bg

Sometimes, you’ll like an image but you know a client won’t like it – perhaps it’s a little too artistic or abstract. In such cases, remember the client, and avoid including it in the final portfolio (unless you’re confident they’ll enjoy a more creative image or two!).

Other times, you know that a client will appreciate an image, even though it’s technically imperfect. In such cases, include it in the file selection. At the end of the day, your goal is to please the client, after all!

Why is it important to pick your best images?

Everyone looks at their work and thinks about what they like and don’t like. But until you make an actual decision about each image – is it the very best image, is it good (but not great), or is it just a practice shot? – you won’t open yourself up to the learning that comes when you actively force yourself to separate the best from the throwaways.

By making decisions about what works and what doesn’t, you begin to train your eye. Let’s say you are looking at a dozen good images of a landscape, each one slightly different. By comparing and contrasting several good photos, you’ll start to realize that some are better, some are worse, and one image is going to be the best.

Which one is the best, and how do you know? With this question in mind, you’ll be forced to look at the little details in a new way. Maybe one has better exposure or slightly better composition. The value might be in the details, and you’ll have to look carefully, but that’s where you’ll often find the greatness, and it’s often what separates the good photographers from the best photographers!

If you spend time carefully choosing your best shots, you’ll begin to see when you nailed the frame and what led to that moment. You’ll see what worked in that image, and you’ll see what didn’t work in the surrounding photos – was there too much sky? Not enough sky? Next time, you’ll compose a little bit better. You’ll remember what you liked. You’ll spend a little less time creating images that you know won’t work, and you’ll start spending more time creating better images.

Choosing your best photos: final words

I hope this article has given you some photo-picking strategies you can use the next time you need to go through lots of photos in a short amount of time.

Just remember: It’s okay to make mistakes. And don’t be afraid to get ruthless! It’ll make things far easier.

Now over to you:

Which of these strategies is your favorite? Do you have any strategies of your own for choosing pictures? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Melinda Smith
Melinda Smith

was born to be a teacher. She teaches violin lessons and fitness classes, as well as photography classes and mentoring. She lives on a mini farm in Eastern Utah with her camera, husband, kids, chickens, horses, bunnies, dogs, and cats. Visit her at Melinda Smith Photography.

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