Complete guide to what is culling in photography

Culling in photography is the process of selecting the best photos to keep and edit from a photoshoot, and deleting rejected photos. It’s the first step in post production. Before you begin editing photos, you need to select your best images so that you don’t waste time processing photos you don’t want.

So after importing your photos into whatever software you use (I use Adobe Lightroom Classic) and before you do anything else, you need to cull your photos.

Why is culling important in photography?

As a professional photographer, depending on the type of photography you do the number of images taken during a photo session can vary hugely. For example, a wedding photographer covering the entire wedding day will take significantly more photos than a portrait photographer during a family photoshoot.

The more photos you have to process, the longer the editing process will be.

The culling process can seem like a daunting task, especially if you’ve taken hundreds, or even thousands, of photos. Here are three really good reasons why you need to cull photos…

Series of photos for culling from a themed photos

1. Culling photos saves space

If you’re going to keep all the photos from every photoshoot, you’re going to run out of hard drive space a lot faster.

Plus with a large number of bad images taking up space on your computer your filing system is going to become very big and finding your best shots will take longer. Speaking of which…

2. Culling photos saves time

Many photographers are tempted to procrastinate and start processing images without culling to see if they can “make them better” before rejecting photos. This wastes a lot of time on sub par images and takes the fun out of photography.

Rather take the time at the beginning of the post production process to select only your best photos so that you can concentrate on them. Then get out with your camera and take more photos.

3. Culling improves photos your photography

If you learn to assess your images with a critical eye, and don’t give into the temptation of hanging onto “nearly good enough” photos, you’ll soon see what you need to improve in your photography. When you know what needs work, you’ll be more intentional when you take photos and you’ll start taking better photos.

Plus, when you look at your final selection of photos you’ll feel better about your work.

I’m never happy with a photoshoot until I’ve imported photos to the computer and culled them. Up until that point, all I think about is what I could have done better. However, when I take a moment to look at my “keepers” I feel a lot better about my work.

4. Culling images improves professionalism

If you’re a professional photographer presenting a final set of images to a client, part of your job is to remove the stress of too much choice.

I know that sounds weird, but if you’ve ever had a photoshoot and had to select your favorite photos only, you’ll know how stressful it can be. It’s like being presented with a massively varied menu at a restaurant – for me that’s a nightmare and makes it really difficult to choose what I want.

A confused mind says no. So if you want to make more out of every photo session, rather select a handful of images that you know they’ll love than a large collection of images that they have to work through.

When should you cull photos?

I’ve already answered this, but I’ll say it again, because it’s important. Cull photos once you’ve imported them to the computer and before you do any type of post processing.

Also, if you have not so great photos lurking in forgotten folders on your computer, now is a good time to be brave and get rid of them.

Factors to consider when culling images

Before you begin photo culling you need to decide on what matters to you, because it’ll help you to cull faster. For example, I’m picky about focus. So picky that I actually annoy myself. If the subject’s eyes aren’t pin sharp at 100% zoomed in I reject the photo without a second thought in post production.

There’s more to it than just focus though. Here’s what you should consider in your image selection process:

  • Sharpness
  • Exposure
  • Technical issues
  • Duplicates
  • Unflattering images

Out of focus underexposed portrait to cull in post production

Well this one was an easy photo to reject – out of focus and underexposed!

Blurry or out of focus photos

Sometimes a photo is in focus, but the subject moved. Or the main subject is sharp and another subject moved.

Another possibility is that the subject or subjects are in focus, but somebody in the background is blurry, but is looking to camera. This is more of a composition thing, but as we’re talking about blurry photos I thought I’d add it here. Unless it’s a vital image, like the bride and groom’s first kiss, I’d reject the image.

Humans seek out eyes in photos and when a blurry person in the background is looking to camera our eyes are pulled away from the subject and try to make sense of the blurred out person. It’s distracting.

overexposed photo to cull in post production

I accidentally left my exposure compensation on, so this was really overexposed and an obvious reject.

Underexposed or overexposed photos

I don’t mean slightly out, I mean really underexposed or overexposed. I know that with all the post processing software wizardry we can “save” photos and recover lost shadow detail or lost highlight detail in RAW files.

However, why do that if you have better photos that are well exposed?

Images with technical issues

This includes poor lighting, bad cropping and other compositional errors.

There’s nothing you can do to make an image with bad lighting look as good as an image with good lighting. You might improve it with editing software, but a well lit image is always a better option.

One of the most common errors I see in photos is badly cropped images or skew images and sometimes in an attempt to straighten an image, part of person is cropped. Of course, you don’t have to include the full person, but there’s a wrong way and a right way to crop images in portrait photography.

Another common error is not paying attention to the background of an image. If you have distracting elements in the background that can’t be fixed easily with cropping, you shouldn’t keep it.

two duplicate images from a photoshoot to cull

It’s better to avoid capturing duplicate images, because then you have to decide on which one to keep and if you’re anything like me you’ll go back and forth too many times trying to decide which photo to reject and which to keep.

Duplicate images

You don’t need a whole bunch of photos of a particular pose. Unless your subject has a different expression, or you’ve taken the image from a different angle, keep only the best photo.

Too many similar images dilutes the impact of a set of images from a photoshoot.

Unflattering photos

Nobody wants to see an unflattering photo of themselves. So be ruthless and look at the images with a critical eye. Did you do your subject justice, or not? If there’s a chance they’re not going to like it, nobody needs to see it.

How to cull your photos

While you can get AI software, like Narrative Select, that’ll automatically cull certain images, like if someone is blinking, I’d recommend manually culling for portrait photography.

For wedding photographers, using Photo Mechanic, or similar software programs, for an initial cull will help to speed up your workflow before importing images to Lightroom as you’ll import fewer images.

Examples of photography culling systems

Here you can see the Lightroom options for culling photos: star rating, flagging and color labels

Create a culling system

Culling can become challenging when you’re emotionally attached to images, making it difficult to assess their quality objectively. I find it helps to load photos to the computer, have a quick look and then come back later or the next day to start the culling process. This gives me time to detach from the images and can make decisions more easily.

For an efficient manual culling system you need to figure out a way that works for you so that you have a consistent process that you don’t spend time reinventing each time. This’ll also help you to detach emotionally and assess images based on merit only.

The top photo editing software programs have similar culling tools that include:

  • Star rating
  • Flagging
  • Color labels
  • Filtering

We all have different ways of selecting final images, which we develop over time. I’ll give you a quick overview of my digital photography workflow that’s the most efficient way for me.

Further reading: How to delete photos from Lightroom SAFELY (step-by-step guide)

My Lightroom culling workflow

This is how, for the last 10 or 11 years, I’ve been reducing a large number of photos (150 – 200) from a portrait session down to a maximum of 80 photos that I present to the client.

  1. Import photos from memory card to a new folder in my Lightroom catalog
  2. In Lightroom Library module I create new collection with the client’s name in loupe view
  3. Select all images in the folder and add to the new collection
  4. First pass – use the arrow keys on my keyboard to go through the photos one and a time and delete rejected images from the folder as I go
  5. Push caps lock key on the keyboard to activate the auto advance function to automatically move to the next photo
  6. Second pass –  go through the photos again and 1 star photos with acceptable sharpness
  7. Third pass –  go through the photos again and assign 2 stars to images with good composition, lighting, pose and expression
  8. Change to grid view to select similar photos to review in survey mode, and assign 3 stars to best photo of selected images
  9. Automatically sort all photos in the collection from highest to lowest star rating
  10. Delete unwanted images (those with 2 stars and below) from the collection
  11. Edit final selection and rename photos
  12. Delete 1 and 2 star images from the folder and the computer

Next step, I zero star all photos in the collection before presenting the photos to the client to select their favorite photos for their album and/or wall art. I also use a star ratings system to help them select photos.

Further reading: How to cull photos in Lightroom Classic quickly

Wrapping up what is culling in photography

Tips for effective culling

Use keyboard shortcuts. Lightroom has so many shortcut keys to speed up your workflow and they really do make a difference to your editing workflow, especially if you have a lot of photos to work through.

Using auto advance to automatically move to the next image after a button push cuts down on the number of times you need to push a button. So if you’re processing 1000 images, that’s at least 999 fewer button pushes.

Delete rejected images at the end of the whole process. If you don’t do it then you might forget to do it and they’ll just sit there taking up space.

Be ruthless. Accept only the best from yourself and your photography will improve in leaps and bounds. It might even make you slow down and photograph more intentionally so that you don’t have to spend much time culling photos.

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about what is culling in photography, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my image culling tips have helped you to speed up your editing workflow, share that too.

1 thought on “Complete guide to what is culling in photography”

  1. Great advice Jane!
    Be ruthless only saving the best. Auto Advance is a great tip – thanks for that. I like the 3 pass process – a systematic process is so much more efficient. Using a Hasselblad camera, I use a similar process starting with Hasselblad’s native software “Phocus” – culling in similar passes (now I will use your workflow) – then exporting only the good as Tiff files to Lightroom for editing. Stars assigned in Phocus transfer to Lightroom within the Tiff files. Images recorded on the Canon R5 go straight to Lightroom.

    Thanks so much!


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