The process of culling images is something that every photographer needs to learn.
Selecting only the ‘best’ images you wish to keep may seem like a simple task, but there’s actually a lot of skill involved.
I’ve been a professional wedding photographer since 2014, and have honed my culling process so it’s efficient and fast.
I use the same culling techniques for both professional and personal photography applications.
Occasionally, I’ll even use A.I.-powered software to cull images more efficiently.
Whatever software you use to cull images, you’ll find these tips useful.
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What is Culling in Photography?
Culling in photography is simply the process of selecting the final images you wish to keep from a shoot.
This can involve actively rejecting photos in some way, deleting them entirely, or simply choosing the best images and ignoring everything else.
No matter the type of photography undertaken, culling is an important step.
(Even if you’re just using your smartphone, it’s a good idea to cull your images to save on internal storage space.)
What images should you cull?
- Duplicates – if you shoot in burst mode frequently, you’ll likely have several near-identical images.
- Blinkers – any photos of people, particularly in groups, are likely to include people who are blinking. Sometimes it’s hard to identify them if the people are small in the frame, so zooming in to 100% or using software like Narrative Select is a help.
- Out of focus – obviously, unless you’re deliberately trying to blur the scene, anything that’s not in focus should be removed.
- Bad shots – this is entirely subjective, but make sure to remove any image that isn’t pleasing to the eye, or doesn’t resonate with your style/preferences.
Why is culling images important?
- Reduce image editing time – by reducing the total number of final images, you’re speeding up the time required to edit your shoot.
- Presents only your best work – being selective about what you deliver to your clients is important. Delivering similar images can reduce the impact of a single ‘strong’ image. How many images you deliver is up to you, but remember: quality over quantity.
- Refines your style – the act of culling images will help both define and refine your photography style. You’ll be forced to question exactly why you’re selecting certain photos while rejecting others.
- Saves your clients time – it’s important to remove similar images from your final selection, so you don’t overwhelm your client. If they need to choose their favourite image from multiple similar photos for an album or print, they may have decision fatigue.
- Reduce storage space – having fewer images will mean you won’t need as much hard drive or online backup storage.
- Optimize your image collection – rejecting images will help to keep your overall image library efficient and organised. It may also help to make the software run faster.
- You’ll become a better photographer – It’s an important step in your betterment as a photographer to identify what went wrong in an image, or what you don’t like. Culling should teach you, subconsciously or otherwise, what to do better next time.
How Do You Cull Pictures Quickly? 8 Pro Tips
1. Remove emotional attachment
After a shoot, it’s very tempting to look at your photos straight away.
If you’re a professional photographer, you should be backing up your photos as soon as you get home, but from the perspective of culling images, it’s best not to touch your photos yet.
Unless you’re under a tight deadline, deliberately delaying the culling process can be beneficial – you’ll remove any emotional or mental attachment you may have to your images, encouraging you to make better judgements on which photos to keep vs reject.
After a few days, you’ll look at the photos with fresh eyes, and be more ruthless when selecting only the images that really resonate with you.
I’ve found this to be particularly true when editing weddings – usually right after a shoot, I’m more likely to want to include certain images that had perhaps taken me more effort to create than others.
However, after a few days, I’m usually more honest with myself about selecting only the images that I consider to be the best.
2. Cull completely before editing
It can be tempting to try and edit a couple of photos from a shoot before you even start culling images, but I recommend against it.
Usually, you’ll start editing an image, only to find that there’s actually a better one from the set that you want to choose.
Maybe there are multiple photos that require editing, or maybe just one – without looking through all the photos in a culling round, you won’t know until you’ve already wasted a lot of time.
The key to culling efficiently is to do it all at once – no stopping to share on social media, to edit, to send to clients, nothing – just focus on the task at hand until it’s finished.
3. Make use of A.I.
There’s a neat software available to photographers called Narrative Select that makes the act of culling images fast, efficient, and dare I say it… fun?!
We wrote an in-depth review of Narrative Select which I recommend you read, but in a nutshell, Select uses artificial intelligence to help you cull in record time.
You can import thousands of RAW photos in seconds, then use handy eye and focus assessment tools to quickly identify whether your subjects are in or out of focus and if their eyes are open and closed (see the image above).
Narrative Select’s close-ups panel is an especially handy feature for analysing groups of people, saving you the time and tedium of repeatedly zooming and panning to check everyone’s faces.
You still have complete control over the final selection, with the ability to select or unselect any photos you want… usually, however, the Narrative A.I. will leave you with very little else to do.
Narrative Select is a free download for Mac users – grab it for free here and have a play around yourself.
4. Cull positively
Here’s a culling tip that I don’t see shared so often – you need to be culling ‘positively’.
This means that you should be selecting images to keep, as opposed to selecting images to reject.
Read that again as it’s very important!
Some photographers will press the ‘x’ key in Lightroom to actively reject single images while they’re culling, but I think this is a waste of time and even detrimental to your culling workflow.
After all, if all you do is choose the images you wish to keep, your rejected images will automatically be the ones left over.
In Lightroom, you can use a Filter to show only your selected images or even just the rejected image files.
I usually drag all the chosen images to a new collection which I name ‘SELECT’. Then, after delivering the images to the client, I’ll delete all the rejected images from my Lightroom catalogue at the end of the year.
Believe it or not, culling positively in this way can also have an effect on your mental health as a photographer! By choosing your best photos all the time, your mood will be lifted – compare this to choosing which photos to reject, which makes you feel like a crappy photographer!
5. Make the process fun
Culling through thousands of images can quickly become tedious, so it’s important to make the process as enjoyable as possible.
Some photographers choose to use software to help them cull, while others will actually pay a service to cull the photos for them, but here are a few ways to make culling images by yourself more fun.
- Use a VR headset – I haven’t tried this, but apparently, you can use something like an Occulus to create a virtual space to see your computer monitor – definitely one to do in private!
- Use a games controller – you can remap Playstation, X-Box, 8-bit and various other game console controllers to be used as photo culling devices. You can also use a Loupedeck or similar photo editing console.
- Use a wireless device – whether it’s your wireless keyboard or a games controller, sit back on a comfy chair away from your desk and choose your images. Obviously, you’ll need a big monitor or projector.
- Use a projector – project your computer screen onto a wall for the ultimate in big-screen photo culling!
- Take regular breaks – use a Pomodoro app or your phone’s timer set at a certain interval to remind you to take a break. You’ll return to the culling task with fresh eyes and mind.
6. Use shortcut keys
All the best photo editing software tools offer shortcut keys to make culling images much quicker than using your mouse.
In Narrative Select, for example, the numerical keys assign stars or colours to the images. You can also use the space bar to zoom to a face, then the left and right arrows to cycle between faces while in zoom mode – a really useful feature for groups of people.
Did you know that you can even generate custom shortcut keys using third-party apps? I like to use Keyboard Maestro, but there are plenty of other good ones available for Mac and Windows.
7. Stick with one culling process
Like skinning a cat, there’s more than one way to cull photos! Ask 10 photographers how they cull and you’ll get 10 different responses.
However, once you’ve found a culling process that works for you, I highly recommend you stick to it.
Try and ignore other peoples’ culling workflows unless there’s a particular step that can be easily integrated into your own workflow that can drastically improve it. Otherwise, sitck to one method and master it.
The more you cull using your preferred process, the faster you’ll get.
For me, pressing the up key on the keyboard to select my image ‘keepers’ has been engrained into muscle memory, to the point where I can cull an entire wedding of 1,500 photos in well under 10 minutes.
You need to get to this point with both your professional and personal photography, so you can get to the editing process as quickly and efficiently as possible.
8. Be ruthless!
It’s hard to select keepers from multiple photos that look the same.
It’s hard to choose not to use an image that took you a lot of effort to achieve.
However, you need to be absolutely ruthless when selecting the final photos. You need to select the best of the best.
Remember – only you will ever see the full set of images you shot. Don’t be afraid to choose one image over another, or ditch a set of multiple images if it means narrowing down your selection to just the best photos.
As long as you abide by tip 1 in this list and remove any emotional attachment to your images, you shouldn’t have any trouble with skipping over rejected images.
How to Cull Pictures
Before you start editing your photos, you need to cull them… but what software should you use to do the culling?
Two favourites are Lightroom and Narrative Select – a fully-fledged culling software with A.I. integration to make everything so much easier.
Let’s take a closer look at how to use these powerful tools for quickly culling photos.
How to Cull Pictures in Narrative Select
After downloading Select for free from here, you’ll need to import your images – a folder of 1,000 RAW images should import in a couple of seconds – much faster than Lightroom, Photomechanic, or any other popular editing apps you may have used.
You can even create a new project and import more photos to work on at the same time – just click the + at the top of the screen to open a new tab.
If you want full manual control over the culling experience, you can immediately start using the various keyboard shortcut keys to cycle through the images and assign ratings or colours.
When you’ve finished, simply click the funnel icon to show your filter options. Once you’re happy with your selection, click the Ship button to send the photos over to Lightroom.
The manual process is simple enough, but you should really take advantage of Narrative Select’s AI features – the Image Assessments are a real time-saver.
You can see them in action in our YouTube review, but in a nutshell, the software will show you which photos it thinks should be ignored from your final selection based on whether subjects are blinking or out of focus.
You’re still in full control of the choices, and can indeed ‘override’ any of the suggestions, but the more you use Select, the more you’ll realise that it does an amazingly good job at making accurate suggestions.
An efficient post-production workflow is to cull everything in Select, then ‘Ship’ the photos to Lightroom for final editing.
If, however, you don’t own a Mac or prefer to do everything in Lightroom, here’s how.
How to Cull Pictures in Lightroom
There are 3 main systems of culling images in Lightroom – you can use Colours, Numbers (Stars) or Flags.
My preference is to use Numbers, by assigning a ‘1’ star to any photo I choose to keep.
(Sometimes I choose to add a ‘3’ to any photo I’ll use in a blog post, or ‘5’ for a portfolio shot, but usually, this is after I’ve edited and delivered all the photos to the client, so it doesn’t impede on my culling workflow at all.)
Whatever system you use to select images in Lightroom, you can use the Filter command to show only those final photos.
There are many ways to cull images in Lightroom, but here’s my method which I recommend you try at least once.
Important: make sure to turn the Auto-Advance feature on (Photo > Auto Advance) – this will ensure Lightroom moves to the next photo when a rating is chosen.
- Access Loupe view in the Library Module – use shortcut key ‘G’. (This is way faster than culling in the Develop module.)
- Use arrow keys to navigate – using the right arrow key, move to each new photo. If you need to check back, use the left arrow.
- Use numerical keys to select – use the ‘1’ key to denote a photo you want to keep. Since Auto-Advance is active, you’ll automatically move to the next photo.
- Filter library to show only rated images – Look for this in the menu: Filters > Rated, then choose ‘1’ star to show only the images you assigned that rating to.
- Move filtered images to a new collection – This will ensure that even if you accidentally change a rating, your initial selection will still remain in the collection.
- (Optional) Delete unrated images – wait until you’re absolutely certain about your selection, then delete the unrated images or move them to a separate folder.
If you’re finding it hard to choose between a couple of photos, you can always select them both and click ‘C’ to entire a Compare view mode.
Culling images shouldn’t be a difficult process when you’ve done it a few times. You may even find it quite therapeutic, in a Marie Kondo kinda way ;-)
With all the tips in this list, you should have no problem whizzing through an entire photo catalogue in minutes.
Let me know if you have any questions or comments about culling images, and good luck!