What is Culling in Photography? Speed Up Your Editing

As a professional portrait photographer, I remember the early days of my photography journey when I was still learning the ropes.

After photographing a client session, one of the biggest challenges I faced was dealing with the overwhelming number of photos I would capture during a single session. I would often find myself spending hours sifting through hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of images to select the best ones for editing and final delivery to my clients.

After researching online to find ways to speed up this process, I discovered a game-changing technique that revolutionized my workflow: culling.

Culling is the process of carefully curating and selecting the best images from a photoshoot, and it has become an essential skill in my photography arsenal. In this article, I’ll share with you everything you need to know about culling in photography, from my own experiences and insights gained over years of professional practice.

If you’re a fellow photographer looking to streamline your workflow, save time, and deliver only the best images to your clients, then keep reading. I’ll walk you through the ins and outs of culling, including the benefits, techniques, and common mistakes to avoid. Get ready to take your photography game to the next level with this essential skill!

What is Culling in Photography?

Culling is the process of carefully curating and selecting the best images from a larger set of photos.

Imagine this, you’ve just finished an amazing client session and you eagerly transfer hundreds of images from your camera to your computer. You are brimming with anticipation to see the results, but as you start scrolling, you realize not all of them are keepers and you have like 5-10 duplicates of the same pose.

Where do you even begin?! This is where culling enters the chat.

Think of it like panning for gold. In order to find the “gold nuggets,” the photos that you love from the session, you have to sift through some of the ones that aren’t the best. Then once you find the photos you like, you polish them up and present them to your client(s).

Over the years I’ve learned that culling is a crucial step in the post-processing workflow.

Not only does it help me identify the best images to edit and deliver, but it allows me to also save time, maintain a consistent style, and ensure that my final collection tells a compelling visual story.

Why is it Called Culling?

The word “culling,” has its roots in agriculture and animal husbandry where it refers to the process of selectively removing weaker or unwanted members from the animal group in order to improve the overall quality or health of the population.

A bit harsh, but yes, that’s the origin of the word.

So similar to animal culling, in photography, culling involves carefully selecting and discarding images that don’t meet the desired standards or don’t contribute to the overall story or message you’re trying to tell. It’s like pruning a tree to encourage healthy growth or weeding a garden to let the flowers bloom.

In summary, it’s called culling because just like in agriculture, it’s about selectively choosing the best one out of the group.

It’s a deliberate and purposeful act that needs to be done in order to elevate the overall quality.

Why Do Photographers Cull Photos?

In the beginning, I used to dread culling because, in my opinion, it was the most boring part.

But over the years, I’ve come to realize that culling is not just a mundane task. It’s a critical step that I need to appreciate more because it serves several important purposes in my photography workflow.

Let’s take a look at why photographers cull photos:

1. Helps Save Time and Streamlines Process

First and foremost, culling saves time and streamlines the editing process.

After a photoshoot, you will often be left with hundreds if not thousands of images to sort through depending on your shooting style.

Culling will allow you to quickly identify the best images and discard the ones that don’t make the cut. This way, you can focus your time and effort on editing only top-quality images.

2. Maintain a Consistent Style

Second, culling will allow you to maintain a consistent style and narrative in your images.

For example, when running through your images, you need to remember the overall mood and aesthetic you were shooting for during the photo session.

By keeping this in the back of your mind, then when you start culling your images, you can align that creative vision and desired outcome with the photos you choose to keep and the ones you choose to remove.

By eliminating images that don’t fit your intended story or message, you can create a cohesive and impactful final collection of images that will convey your artistic vision while simultaneously resonating with your audience and client.

3. Assess Technical and Artistic Quality

Third, culling will allow you to objectively assess the technical and artistic quality of your images.

When running through the images, you can identify technical flaws such as blurred images, overexposed or underexposed images, and unflattering poses.

You will also be able to identify the artistic merits of your images such as the composition used, lighting, the expression of the subject, and emotional impact.

By participating in the culling process after each photo session, after a while, you will be able to notice patterns of both technical flaws and artistic merits that you recognize in your images. From there, you can assess your own skillset and figure out what needs to improve.

For example, let’s say you had three photoshoots and after culling the photos after all three you notice that you tend to only have the eyes in focus on a few of the image sets. This will let you know that you need to improve and focus on that area so their eyes can be in sharp focus in all the images.

You can either slow down and take your time when photographing to ensure the eyes are in focus, make sure your focus point is on their eyes, or use a more stabilized photo stance or tripod to ensure there is no motion blur.

4. Manage Photos Effectively

Lastly, culling will allow you to manage your photos more effectively.

If you are photographing a lot, then storage space can quickly become a concern.

While photo management and storage itself as a topic is meant for another day — culling will allow you to trim down the number of images you need to store which will reduce the overall storage cost and make it easier to organize and manage your image library.

How Long Does it Take to Cull Photos?

Speaking from personal experience, the time it takes to cull photos can vary depending on several factors including the number of images you took, the complexity of the shoot, your level of attention to detail, and experience.

1. Number of Images

On average, culling can take anywhere from a few minutes to several hours, or even days, depending on the scale of your photo shoot.

For smaller shoots with a relatively small number of images such as under 50 images, culling can be done relatively quickly in about 1-2 hours.

For larger shoots, however, with hundreds or even thousands of images, the process can be more time-consumer and can take 3-6 hours and should be split up into different days so you don’t get fatigued.

2. The Complexity of the Shoot

The complexity of the shoot in terms of locations, lighting setups, or various poses will also affect the time required for culling.

Similarly, if you photographed multiple subjects or groups of people then it will take more time to cull and make a decision.

3. Level of Attention to Detail

The level of attention to detail you have to your images will also impact the time it takes.

I remember in the early days just staring at a set of 3-4 similar images and taking a couple of hours to decide which ones I wanted to remove and which to keep. I was very indecisive and couldn’t choose which final image I wanted.

I myself, similar to you, take pride in my work and strive for excellence. But this means I had to give up the idea of “perfection” a while back or else I wouldn’t be able to cull my photos.

You need to carefully review each image, assessing its technical and artistic quality, but you also need to be ruthless in your process and be sure and confident with your decision. The moment you start to second-guess yourself is the moment your culling process will start to take forever.

4. Experience

Lastly, the experience of the photographer and how many times they’ve engaged in the culling process will affect the overall time it takes.

Photographers will develop their own culling techniques and process to personally speed up their own workflow and they will become more efficient in their own process — allowing for quicker culling times.

This leads us to our next section.

Different Photo Culling Techniques

There are a few common methods and techniques that you can use to cull your photos. Let’s take a look at them now:

1. Initial Pass

The initial pass is a technique that involves you doing a quick initial pass through all the images from the session using software or tool such as Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Bridge.

I personally like using Adobe Lightroom.

During this initial pass, you will want to make a quick decision based on your initial impressions and eliminate the obviously unusable images such as those that are blurry, overexposed, or have big technical flaws.

This initial pass will allow you to quickly narrow down the selection and eliminate the images that don’t meet the minimum quality standards.

2. Rating System

The rating system is another technique that you can use during the culling process.

The rating system involves using a star rating system (ex. 1-5), to indicate the quality and potential of each image.

You can combine this rating system with the initial pass. So for example, after your initial pass, run through all the images again and quickly assign a star rating to each image based on its overall quality, composition, lighting, and other factors.

Personally, although there are five stars, I only use the 1-star for images I just don’t like, the 3-star for images I’m on the fence about, and 5-star for images I like.

From there, I do another pass around all the images and get rid of all the 1-star images. For the 3-star images, I examine them and they either turn into a 5-star image or a 1-star image that I get rid of.

After that, you should be left with only 5-star images of images that you like. Being left with a bunch of 5-star images, some possibly from the same pose and setting, you can use the next technique to further review them.

3. Compare and Contrast

The compare and contrast method involves comparing similar images side by side to identify the best choice.

For example, after you are left with only 5-star images from the Rating System discussed in the previous step, then you will want to compare and contrast the images that are in the same set.

What I mean by set is images that have the same pose or general composition. For example, if you have three 5-star images where the subject is in the same pose and facial expression, you’ll want to compare and contrast those three against each other so you can only pick one photo out of that “set” to send to the client.

4. Storytelling Approach

Since I often aim to create a visual story or convey a specific message with my photography, I also use a storytelling approach to culling.

I carefully review each image in the context of the story I’m trying to tell, considering how it contributes to the narrative and emotional impact. I eliminate images that don’t align with the intended story or message, and prioritize those that best convey my artistic vision.

This is usually done while I’m doing the Rating System and is factored into what rating I give an image.

5. Time-Lapse Technique

The time-lapse technique is usually only used when you have a series of images over time such as during time-lapse.

If you have a set of these types of photos, then during the Rating System or Initial Pass, you’ll be looking for any outliers or inconsistencies and select only the best images that represent the desired effect.

In summary, these are just a few of the techniques I use for culling photos, and I often combine them depending on the specific shoot and my creative goals.

The key is to find a method that works best for your workflow and helps you efficiently identify and select the best images for your final collection.

Usually, when I cull my photos, I follow steps 1-3 in order and either use step 4 while I’m doing step 2. If I have a time-lapse (which I rarely do), I’ll use step 5 while I’m doing step 2.

Experimenting with different techniques and refining your process over time can greatly enhance your culling skills and help you create a compelling visual story through your photography.

How to Cull Photos Quickly?

Being efficient and effective in the culling process is very important for a photographer.

Here are some additional tips I use in order to cull photos quickly and better streamline my editing workflow:

1. Use Keyboard Shortcuts

Many photo editing software and tools offer keyboard shortcuts so you can speed up the editing process.

I recommend taking the time to familiarize yourself with the basic shortcuts to quickly navigate through images, flag or rate them, and move on to the next image without having to switch between different tools or menus.

2. Trust Your Initial Instincts

The second tip to cull your photos quickly is to trust your initial instincts and make quick decisions based on your initial impressions.

For example, during the Initial Pass phase, you’ll want to avoid overthinking or spending too much time on individual images at this stage.

If an image doesn’t immediately catch your attention or meet your criteria, be quick to move on to the next one.

3. Use Filter and Sort Tools

The third tip to cull your photos quickly is to take advantage of the filter and sort tools that many software tools offer.

For example, after assigning every photo a star, you can filter and sort by star ratings, keywords, or other metadata.

You’ll want to utilize these tools to quickly filter out images that don’t meet your requirements and focus on the ones that have higher potential.

4. Be Ruthless

The fourth tip to cull photos quickly is to be ruthless in your selection process.

Don’t be afraid to delete or flag images that don’t contribute to your final vision and remember to trust your initial instinct as mentioned earlier.

You’ll want to remember that quality over quantity is key in photography and having a smaller, better-curated collection of images will have a stronger impact than a large number of mediocre images.

5. Batch Processing

If you have similar images that require similar adjustments, then you’ll want to consider batch processing.

For example, using my Pro Lightroom Presets on your images will allow you to easily add edits and adjustments to a large number of images at once.

Batch processing will save you time and effort during the culling process.

6. Take Breaks

Photo culling can be mentally exhausting, especially when you’re dealing with a large number of images while staring at a screen for hours.

Remember to take regular breaks to avoid fatigue and maintain a fresh perspective.

Sometimes stepping away from the images and coming back with a fresh pair of eyes is just as important as making efficient and accurate decisions.

Best Photo Culling Software

As a professional photographer, I’ve tried and tested several photo culling software options to find the best tools that suit my workflow and help me efficiently sort through my images. Here are some of my top recommendations:

Adobe Lightroom

Adobe Lightroom is a popular and powerful photo editing software that also includes robust culling features.

With its intuitive interface and customizable metadata and keyword options, Lightroom allows me to quickly flag, rate, and sort my images for easy culling. I can also create collections, apply filters, and utilize its batch-processing capabilities to streamline my workflow.

Capture One Pro

Capture One Pro is another popular photo editing software that includes powerful culling features.

Its robust cataloging and rating system, along with its advanced sorting and filtering options, make it a great choice for managing and culling large image libraries.

Capture One Pro also offers excellent image quality and tethered shooting capabilities, which can be a valuable addition for professional photographers.

Photo Mechanic

Photo Mechanic is a dedicated photo culling software that is widely used by professional photographers for its speed and efficiency.

It offers features like fast image browsing, metadata editing, and customizable keyboard shortcuts, making it a top choice for quick and precise photo culling.

Its “Ingest” feature also allows me to quickly import and cull images from multiple memory cards simultaneously.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, mastering the art of culling is an essential skill for any serious photographer.

It not only helps in curating a portfolio of outstanding images but also allows photographers to develop a critical eye and discerning taste in their work.

So, whether you are a seasoned professional or an aspiring photographer looking to incorporate culling into your photography toolbelt, then I hope you took away something valuable from this guide.

Now go out there and start culling some photos!

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take to cull photos?

The time it takes to cull photos can vary depending on factors such as the number of images, the complexity of the shoot, and the photographer’s familiarity with the subject matter. On average, it can take anywhere from a few minutes to several hours, or even longer for larger projects, to thoroughly review and select the best images for further processing and editing.

Should culling be done after every photo session?

Yes, it is generally recommended to perform culling after every photo session. This allows photographers to efficiently review and select the best images while the shoot is still fresh in their mind, and it helps prevent a backlog of unsorted images from accumulating, which can be overwhelming to tackle later.