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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

To Delete or Not, That Is the Question...

by Carl Weese

To me it seems prudent to avoid deletion in camera, as mentioned in my latest post (below). I also reformat the memory card in-camera, after downloading and making two copies of all the files on either hard drives or optical media. Call it belt'n'suspenders.

Here are two more reasons not to delete on the street. The first is Murphy's Law. Anyone who habitually makes generous use of the delete key out in the field is eventually going to make a mistake and delete the wrong file. Mr. Murphy assures me that when this happens it's going to be a file that you really, really, really didn't want to lose.

Another reason goes back to something David Vestal said to me many years ago. We were discussing a project I was shooting with 35mm Kodachrome. David said he thought people working with color slides missed out on one of photography's most important tools: the contact sheet. Few photographers cut up their rolls of negative film to save only the shots they like best, but almost everyone shooting chromes edits the takes immediately after getting the slides back from the lab. Jay Maisel used to keep giant NYC wire trash baskets filled with rejected slides as decor in his lower Manhattan studio, to show how tightly he edited his work.

Vestal's point was that when you edit pictures immediately, you are bound to make some mistakes. I've seen this more than once while going back to look at work years after shooting. I dig out the contact sheets and start going over them. I see pictures that I selected to make exhibition prints and remember them as old friends. Then I watch a sequence of shots evolving on the contact sheet and suddenly think, "why in the world did I print frame #13 when #17 is clearly the peak? What was I thinking?" This was the experience Vestal was saying slide shooters will miss.

I've already gone back to my archived CDs or DVDs of digital captures made a couple years ago and found that I disagree with my earlier edit in some cases. So while I narrow down the folders on my working hard drive to a fairly tight edit, I do keep "everything" on optical disc archives. Of course even so we don't yet have digital storage solutions as permanent as real film and proof sheets, but maybe these discs will last until a better answer comes along.

Posted by: CARL WEESE


Blogger Jack said...

Carl, I agree with you about not deleting shots and that they may look different years later. I've got a question though. What do you use to keep track of them? Every software I've used seems to bog down when the number of photos gets into the thousands. What software and strategies do you use?

11:16 PM  
Blogger Chris Johnson said...

I do keep "everything" on optical disc archives.

You must go through tons of discs.

I've been in a lot of situations where I haven't had enough memory and have had to delete stuff just to keep shooting. This will happen to me on long days during vacations. Luckily I've never had a card fail on me.

However, these discussions have definitely scared me into buying some more and bigger compact flash cards. But I still dont think I'll save "everything" on discs :-)

11:27 PM  
Blogger Player said...

On PBS, "American Masters," Annie Liebovitz talked about her editor at "Vanity Fair" and how she is able to look at Annie's contact sheets and find the best shots within ten minutes, yet Annie would study them for five hours and still not be able to pick the best ones. It makes one think that if a great photographer can't find her best photographs, what hope is there for everyone else, which seems to be a strong argument for not being so quick to make deletions.

I know in my own case, I've looked at contact sheets years later and found shots that were better than the ones I had originally selected. It seems you need to be in a certain frame-of-mind to find the best pictures, a sort of open-mindedness with the imagination functioning, which is transitory at best.

2:05 AM  
Blogger Carl said...

Jack, I don't try to keep track of everything in software. I just keep the archive discs in chronological order, pretty much the same as I do with negatives. If a print has the reference number 04.810.245 I know it is the 245th 8x10 inch negative I made in 2004 and I can pull it out of the file boxes in no time. For captures, my working (edited down) folders are also arranged by date, so if I want to see the rest of the shots around a capture made on 11/18/06, it takes only a moment to find the right disc. I don't have to do this often enough to need instant results via software.

9:01 AM  
Blogger John Lehet said...

I find iVue Media Pro doesn't bog down in the least with about 27,000 images in my catalog. Not only is it fast enough on the dual G5 Mac, but my old powerbook G4 is quite usable too.

I don't delete anything in camera, unless I decide I badly screwed up something and I have a chance to do it right in the next moment.

On disk I don't delete either, unless something is obviously badly out of focus. I used to lose a lot of infrared shots, but not so much anymore.

In iView while I'm tagging images I might tag them in the category of "cull?"

These images I don't even think about culling again until some time has passed. After I while I'll look at them again with a critical eye. Eventually I might move them out of my main catalog, into a separate catalog. If I need to free disk space these will be the first to go, but so far they've gotten to stay on disk.

9:57 AM  
Blogger Jose Guilis said...

I've been scanning for a couple of years now my old b&w negatives and I am very often amazed at my odd selections for enlarging/showing back then. I keep finding overlooked pictures.
I have decided not to delete a single of my digital pictures, altough I must confess my computer has decided on its own to do it several times now. Yes, I use a PC and I archive everihting on cd's.
A classic Spanish photographer, Catala, reviewed and showed his pictures -this is, his most personal work- only ten years (at least) after taking them. Wise man, and quite patient!

10:07 AM  
Blogger Gordon said...

I certainly find new things when I go back and look at edits I did in the past.

I think that's because I'm a different person now. My tastes have changed, my viewpoint has evolved. In a very literal sense, I'm a different person making different selections.

10:46 AM  
Blogger PJ Saine, Photographer said...

Three more reasons for not deleting in the field:

1. Do you really think you can judge best exposure, appropriate tonality relationships, & favorite facial expressions on that dinky little screen?

2. CF failure increases with more in/out & write/delete activities. My recipe for long CF life:

a. Fill CF with great images
b. Download full cards & Archive (x2)
c. Reformat card in camera
d. Repeat as needed

3. Be in the moment. You should be thinking about what you are photographing - not what you have photographed!

Pat Saine

11:05 AM  
Blogger Curtis Clegg said...

Player: One reason Annie Liebowitz's editor/art director could spot the best photo so quickly is that she knew exactly what the end product was going to be; if it was a cover shot, for instance, the art director will immediately know which image will best accomodate text, the masthead, barcode, etc. I'm sure there are a lot of other factors to consider too.

Famed Time magazine photographer Dirck Halstead shares an important lesson about saving all images in The Monica Lesson. He writes:

"I have a theory that every time the shutter captures a frame, that image is recorded, at a very low threshold in the brain of the photographer. I have heard this over and over from photographers around the world. It doesn't matter if the photographer saw the processed image or not. These split seconds, as the mirror returns, are recorded as 'photographic lint' on the mind of the photographer."

11:08 AM  
Blogger Tony Field said...

I completely agree that deleting any shot results in the possibly of deleting an excellent image. Virtually never should images be deleted in the field. Any deletion should be done only after it has been transfered to the computer and some thought is given to justify the deletion. Heck, even blurry images can be very good photographs when printed properly.

Digital shooting generally results in significantly more images for a given shoot than the old days of film. For example, I shoot theater - typically 8 rolls of 36 exposure on my trusty Leica or about 280 images including totally useless underexposures, blank frames, blurry, etc. A similar shoot today for a play yields about 550 images on digital after all "truly useless" frames have been removed (maybe 50 or more duds).

Of course, in the same way that I used to create contact proofs for film, all digital images are recorded on DVD for backup and also on on-line Fire-Wire disks (about 1.8 terabytes, 475,000 images). The on-line storage allows me to quickly review images using Adobe Bridge to create the thumbnails in each working directory which winds up on the hard drive and DVD. For convenience, old paper contact proofs are scanned so old film shoots can revisited at any time.

I wrote an indexing programme that allows me quick access to all of the "contact sheets" of each shoot. This was an adaptation of my old proof sheet and negative filing system I wrote first for CPM, then for MSDOS and now for Windows. Without problem, a complete shoot (dating back to 1965) can be found and viewed instantly - even "important images" are identified. Of course it helps that the entire history is online

On cold winter nights, between sips of brandy, the ancient images are reviewed and new gems are discovered that I never new existed. Some of them are even the best images from a shoot that were missed in the original rush.

In my opinion, there is no question - (almost) never delete.

6:53 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

I have to admit I can hardly believe that these days anyone who is remotely serious about photography (whether amateur or professional) would even THINK about deleting files in the field based on what they can see in the 2" monitor on the back of their cameras. Memory cards are now extremely cheap. I recently bought a high spec 1Gb Sandisk Extreme III CF card from Amazon for only a little more than £20 (presumably these things are even cheaper in the US!). So these days there really isn't much of an excuse for running out of memory cards.

I also virually never delete files on my computer either. Again storage is cheap. I recently bought a stack of 50 (good quality Sony) DVD-Rs for about £17. I can store over 700 RAW files from my 6mp DSLR on each one. The works out at less than 0.05p per image (again even less in cents).

Like some others who've commented here, all these off-line images are catalogued using iView Media pro. Which even with several thousand images in one catalogue runs fine on my ancient G4 Mac.

Maybe this has something to do with my personality. I tend to have a "well, it might come in handy sometime" attitude to everything (as anyone daft enought to open one of my over stuffed cupboards will find out to their cost!). But I think there are more serious issues artistic issues at stake.

Several have already mentioned how often they have re-evaluated long forgotten images which were passed over when initial selections were made. And that has certain happened to me.

But I also think that the contact sheet (whether the old fashioed sort or the on-screen variety provided by iView or any other cataloguing software) tells a story about a photoshoot that you can't see just from looking at the final selection of prints. And that story has both artistic and historical mertic in it's own right.

In the UK 'Black and White' magazine runs a regular feature in which they take an iconic photograph and then show the contact sheet from which it came. I find this sort of thing endlessly fascinating, and the insight is provides into the creative process is an invaluable learning tool.

Now I'm certainly not saying that anyone is going to learn very much from my contact sheets! But even so, I think we can all learn a lot from reviewing our own creative processes from time to time. Chuck away the duds (whether they really are duds or just seemed like duds at the time) and you loose that opportunity.

I also have another reason why I don't throw away the duds, even the truely terrible ones: in my day job am a web designer and developer. I find my shaky, out-of-focus, badly exposed, generally crappy shots are a really valuable design resource and inspiration. As an example here's my design website (somewhat out of date these days as I don't freelance anymore!):

All the images on the index page were shots taken by accident or ones where the focusing falied, or the exposure went wrong. OK, I admit it, I sometime take shaky, out-of-focus shots deliberately for this purpose! But the point is that you never know how any image might inspire you to some creative endevour.

8:54 AM  
Blogger mike2006 said...

Although I personally prefer to delete obviously problematic files -- I don't zap images nearly as fast or much as I used to.

Sometimes outtakes (or "deletable images") are good for ID purposes >> i.e. sports shooters looking for a jersey number can use a photo from before or after "the ONE" to ID players.

Also, lighting tests can also be of some future intellectual use, especially if you are likely to be in a similar situation or the same place again in the future.

The cost of media cards / hard drives / DVDs is very low, so much so, that deleting images has little practical value.

of course, our cameras are higher resolution, and many now shoot RAW... so we are eating up this cheap memory very fast with larger file sizes.

4:44 PM  
Blogger redwoodtwig said...

I also never delete in the field, and mostly, as in 99%, don't delete after I've transferred them to hard disk and DVD.

But I'm curious about reformating in the camera. I've never reformatted. I plug the camera into the computer, drag and drop the images to their home , e.g. \2006\03Mar\20060305 snowstorm\
then, after making a copy to DVD (that includes the previous shoots until the DVD is full so I have a kind of rolling multiple backup -- uses a lot of discs, but I'd rather have the image on multiple discs than discover a disc has gone bad).

Once I've got at least two image files stored, I use the explorer window that lists the camera's files and delete that way. I've never had a problem. I assume deletion this way actually just modifies the File Allocation Table and leaves the images in place until they are overwritten, but then formatting usually does that also.

I have one CF card that I've done this to at least 100 times with no problem, but then mileage may vary depending on camera software.

I find the hardest part is selecting the best ones. It's fairly easy to decide which ones are not good, but I keep them anyway. So far that has paid off once, when I needed a background and I recalled an out of focus overexposed shot that worked just great. What I really need, though, is a program that will let me project a mental image of what I'm looking for and it will go find it for me, :-)

Brandon Smith

11:50 AM  
Blogger LoKaDah said...

With the mention of backing up to DVD I figured it would be worth mentioning this article regarding the choice of media and type. It's way overkill on the technical end, but poignant nonetheless.

5:44 PM  

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