Why I have trouble editing my own photographs

A school of thought says to edit (in other words, delete) your photographs ruthlessly. Keep only the ones that represent your best work.

I’ve kept every film image I’ve ever made, including the abject failures. I never know when I’ll change my mind about an image, or thanks to better tools be able to improve one. But even more importantly, I never know when revisiting a bad photograph will reconnect me to a good memory.

Building a bridge

I didn’t like this photograph after I made it in 2012. The bright sun washed out some of the roadway behind these machines, and I thought then that it ruined the shot. According to that school of thought, I should have deleted it.

I looked at this photograph again only because I was updating my review of the Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80, which I used to make this photograph. Looking at it anew, I saw much to like. The tones are good. The machines create pleasing intersecting planes, the big arm of that Caterpillar machine adds strength, and each machine offers much detail to study.

I brought it into Photoshop — a tool I didn’t have in 2012 — and toned down the highlights to help that little patch of pavement not shine so hard. It helped a little. You might not even notice it now if I hadn’t pointed it out.

Looking around in that folder I found several forgotten photographs from that roll. By “forgotten,” I mean that I never uploaded them to Flickr. That means I thought then that they were failures. But looking at them again, I’ve changed my mind.

This is one of those photographs. It isn’t going to win any contests, but it’s evenly exposed and, after a judicious crop, balanced in its framing. This is a little tree in the landscaping at Juan Solomon Park in Indianapolis, a place I used to visit often for photography.


I was out on my bicycle that day. (That’s the beauty of a camera the size of a bar of soap. Into a side pocket, onto the bike, off for fun.) I hadn’t yet learned to notice when my shadow was in the frame. Also, bright light from the low sun behind me reflected strongly off my bike’s fenders. I can’t do anything about my shadow but Photoshop toned down those reflections enough.


I enjoyed remembering that early-evening photo ride, especially this portion along that closed street, exploring a nearly finished new bridge. (That’s why I was able to photograph all that heavy equipment in the first photograph above.) It makes me want to do more photo rides when spring comes. I might have lost that memory without this photograph.

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36 responses to “Why I have trouble editing my own photographs”

  1. richardhunter001 Avatar

    I think it is sometimes easier to edit someone else’s photos. I develop film in batches every six months or so, that way I can mix fresh chemistry and use it all before it spoils. It also means I have forgotten about some of the films I have shot and therefore I can take a more objective look at them, however there is always an attachment to the photos which makes it hard separate the emotions associated with the event from the image itself.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Oh man, I’d go nuts to wait six months before seeing my photos! But you put your finger on it: there’s attachment to the photos, the associated emotions, the memories.

  2. Rhianne (@forthedistractd) Avatar

    I have an unfinished blog post about loving all your photos after I read someone saying ‘don’t love your own photos’ ages ago. And honestly, I disagree with so many photography schools of thought haha – especially ones where you label them as good or bad against other peoples conventions or ones where they say to be detached when editing – how can you do that?! What drew you to take it – a feeling I imagine.

    Anyway, I meant to sat that I love that tree photo personally, the texture of the wall and the tree against the path really draws me in. The lines in the first photo are really interesting too – I think the brighter road actually pushes the machines further into the forefront to the point where I didn’t even notice it until you mentioned it.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      When I assembled the photos for my first book I had a trusted friend edit them. She took out a couple photographs I really liked, but when she explained I could see where she was coming from. It was for the best.

      Sometimes I wish I had an editor for my blog, to keep me from single-framing something that really isn’t any good.

      Yeah, the tree photo is all right. I wonder why I didn’t like it in the first place.

      1. Rhianne Avatar

        I guess for me – I’ve always taken photos for myself – and blogged for myself too. I have only a little education in what makes a good photo and so the only persons opinion I’ve wanted to think something is good is my own. Thats the best thing about the internet though – you can share what you love and there will be others who like it. That tree photo might not be considered that interesting by some – but maybe they don’t like textures that much (I love them). Or maybe someone else looking at that photo sees the tiny plant behind the tree and imagines a spider creeping up on an unsuspecting tree lol.

  3. Mike Connealy Avatar

    Part of the problem is that one’s skills and appreciation of photographs evolves over time. When I look back on my old work – particularly in color – I see that I often over-sharpened and over-saturated the images. I’ve made a few corrections to those images, but in general I decided my time is better spent applying new knowledge to new work.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Excellent point, and I’m experiencing that. I spent a little time over the weekend looking at my “Portfolio” album on Flickr, where I add what I think are my best photographs — and removed from it dozens of photos from eight to ten years ago that I no longer think represent my best work.

  4. Wayne Avatar

    Nice piece,Jim!
    It is from our supposed “worst work”that always brings the best out of us all-from the standpoint of learning what can make us better! And the age old saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is never more true! Whos really to say what is good and not good? I try to appreciate the work of all people -I have always tried to find some value in photos and in life-this makes for a much better day! Thanks for neat story and images!
    Wayne S.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you Wayne! I have to admit, I’ve let a little photo snobbery creep in as I look at others’ work, and you’re reminding me that we’re all learners on the journey. I’ll do a better job of appreciating everyone’s work.

  5. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    I’ve been a pro photographer for most of my life, it’s always interesting to see what the art director picks out of my shoots. I think we have additional information and bias from actually being on the photo shoot that influences our selection! I worked with a darkroom guy one time who was quite the art photographer. He’d always be showing me stuff and asking me what I thought, and then when he didn’t like what I said, he show me a little section of the photo and say: “…but don’t you see what’s going on back here?” Always interesting….

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I get that guy, in a way. When others have critiqued my work I often have felt like they weren’t seeing what I see! But then, other times they’ve had spot on things to say about why the photo wasn’t as good as I initially thought.

  6. Doug Anderson Avatar

    It seems to me that editing, selecting, culling, etc. is fundamentally different for film and digital.

    In the ancient pre-digital days a fairly common workflow was to shoot film, develop it, make a contact print of the entire roll, select some of the images looking at the contact print and print them. Editing/selection was additive.

    In the new digital era a fairly common workflow seems to be to take a lot of pictures, look at them on one or more electronic devices, delete some of them, and share the remainder online. Editing/selection is subtractive.

    Hybrid photographers who shoot film and scan the negatives can choose the best ideas for them from both approaches. I shoot film, develop it, print an inkjet contact page of the entire roll, select some of the images looking at the contact page and make inkjet prints of some of them. So my film photo editing/selection is additive.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      What an astute observation. Before digital workflows who wanted to print everything? You selected what looked best and printed just those. But now you HAVE to deal with all the files you either created with your digicam or scanned off the negs.

  7. Olli Thomson Avatar

    As someone who has blogged advocating more generous use of the ‘delete’ button I take your point, though I concur with Doug that there is a difference between film and digital. ‘Deleting’ film would literally mean cutting a negative out of a film strip which seems a lot more bother than it’s worth. And since most people I would imagine shoot far fewer film than digital images there isn’t the same need to keep the film images under control.

    While acknowledging that sometimes you can come back to an old image and see something in it you did not see first time round I still think the occasional cull is a good idea for digital. I delete all technically deficient images on first import as well as any multiple shots of a subject I may have taken from different angles or perspectives or with different settings keeping only the ones I like best. Three months or six months later I’ll go back through the remaining images and rank them on a star system. At some future point I’ll go through all the lowest ranked ones and delete some of them. I think this offers a nice balance between allowing images long enough to stand on their own right without an immediate judgement and allowing me to ultimately focus on the better ones or the one that I see as having some potential.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I should go back through my digital images and do a cull. When I transfer them from SD card to my hard drive I do a quick cull then of abject failures and also reduce multiple exposures of the same subject to the best one or two. But on second look I might find that some subjects were best not captured and delete those images, too.

  8. SilverFox Avatar

    Hmmm.. I like Doug’s point about the difference between film and digital but I still tend to keep everything.. well everything accept those that are out of focus or technically deficient (as Ollie calls it). Editing in my mind is (and was) about deciding what to Publish (and what not) and usually that means what to publish for a certain project/post or article. I edit mine and only publish what suits my needs (be it film or digital) then. I keep my negatives (and raw files) as an archive and maybe I will be doing something new later that means images that didn’t suit the previous purpose, now do for this one.
    It is worth pointing out that these images are just data and subsequent versions of things like Light Room may interpret that data differently and images that just didn’t spark may get a new lease of life. But again I take Mike’s point about spending time
    Also, if all those old images our parents and grandparents took many years ago were just thrown in the trash when they didn’t make the cut for the family slide show night, we would have missed out on seeing things that were thought not interesting then. Who are we to say what may and may not be useful or interesting in the future as a historical artifact? I see this especially with the sorts of thing you do Jim where you are documenting historical roads – it may not be a great image but in a few years it may be the only image surviving of that thing :)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Good point that editing is about what to publish. I see other writers use edit to mean it as I did here, to cull your own herd of stored photos, and that’s how I went with it.

      My mom admitted not long ago that while she still has most of the family prints, she pitched most of the negs a few years ago. Made me sad — I could have scanned those negs.

      And yes, good point about historic artifacts.

  9. Stuart Templeton Avatar

    Good or bad, every photo we take (ok so not the one I took of my feet yesterday by mistake) is a little window into our memories, and therefore priceless. It’s fine to sort through the ones we’d be happy to display or share, but I never thrown or delete any.
    Personally I really like the image with the heavy plant – it looks great.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I guess that’s what makes us hobbyists vs. pros then: sentimentality!

      1. Stuart Templeton Avatar

        lol! That’s probably it! It’s funny though, sometimes the mistakes are the ones we remember the most. I have several family photos taken with the timer – with my back to the camera running and everyone else laughing their heads off. Rubbish photo’s, but priceless memories.

  10. susan hosken Avatar
    susan hosken

    Jim, as I don’t take lots of photos and rarely share them, I keep all of them too. I am like you and enjoy the memories and seeing things differently as time passes. My favourite is the one with the little tree, so strong.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Susan! I was surprised as I looked back through old photos to find I’d never published the one of the tree.

  11. Sandy Miguel | Blueforestonwetboots.com Avatar

    I am by no means an expert at photography and image editing, but I can relate. As a “chronic” photo editor, I always see to it that I only publish cleaned-up photos on my blog. During the past year, however, I had learned how to appreciate the flaws present in the photos I took.

    I recently went to a photography conference where the speaker, a famous fashion photographer here, said anything goes in photography nowadays, unlike in his time, and that much is true. What is ugly to a few or to the untrained eye, maybe someone’s best work and vice versa.

    P.S. I rarely delete photos, even duplicates I get when I use the burst mode. Lol.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m still struggling to appreciate some of the common flaws in my work. I generally do light tweaking to color and contrast, and also straighten images when the camera wasn’t level, in Photoshop before uploading to Flickr.

      It’s nice to know that so many of us keep the photos we want, to heck with what the conventional wisdom says.

  12. Olli Thomson Avatar

    The other issue that this raises for both film and digital shooters is how well we manage our cataloging and managing of image files, in both physical and digital form. The more images you have the more necessary it is to have a way to order and track those images. If you can’t actually find a photograph because it’s lost in a box full of negatives or a hard drive full of jpegs then it might as well have been deleted.

    1. SilverFox Avatar

      Oh yes, now that is a whole nuther can of worms :D Struggling with that myself at the moment shooting both and wanting to keep things in order

    2. Jim Grey Avatar

      I have a history of discarding hobbies after a few years. I never figured I’d still be making photographs this long. So I never started cataloging anything. Fortunately I’m a basically organized fellow so my work is at least in folders by year and then by date/camera/film so with some searching I can find things. But I never tagged a single photo in software like Lightroom. It’s easier for me to find my work on Flickr!

      1. Olli Thomson Avatar

        That sounds like a reasonably organised system to me. I usually tag my pictures in Lightroom because those tags carry over into Flickr so I don’t have to add tags in Flickr’s slightly clunky interface.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          I’ve tried tagging in Lightroom, but when I’m looking at 40,000 photos the project quickly overwhelms. I so wish I’d tagged from the start. I’ve got to address this one day, as even my reasonably organized system is starting to fail me when I can’t remember what camera took the photo I’m thinking of, and when I took it.

        2. Olli Thomson Avatar

          40,000 is a lot of pictures. I see your problem. In the last ten years in which I’ve been taking photography more seriously I’ve run up just over 5,000.

  13. Dan James Avatar

    As you know Jim, I’m more of the ruthless editing school…

    The major reason I think is that I can’t comprehend the volumes otherwise. If I shoot, these days, perhaps 40 or 50 photos on a couple of hours photowalk, I might keep 10, perhaps 15 at most. If I go out on average say once a week, and didn’t edit, that’d be 50 photos times 52 weeks, around 2500 in one year. I’ve been taking photos with intention perhaps 12 years now. So that would be 30,000 photos.

    Except there have been sustained periods where I know I’ve taken 1000+ a month. So my overall output over 12 years is more likely 75,000, perhaps even 100k or more, if you include all the family shots.

    How does anyone go back through 100,000 photos to see if any might benefit from processing again? I just cannot get my head around those volumes, it feels utterly overwhelming! So much so that I’m quite comfortable with losing all of my images and starting again.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      When I take 10 or 20 digital images of the same subject trying to find the right composition I tend to delete all but the 1-3 best too. That’s the great thing about digital. I’d never do that with film because of the cost.

  14. Sam Avatar

    Great post Jim! I never throw out any pics either even if they’re as you said failures!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      You and I can start the club! ;-)

  15. Ready..Set..Enjoy Avatar

    A long time ago I was told the difference between the amateur and pro was simply that the pro only showed his good shots. Doesn’t mean either hasn’t kept every one.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Good point!!

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