Should You Keep Everything You Shoot?
Drive space today is cheap, so most photographers can easily keep everything they shoot if they want to. But should you?
Two facts are inescapable. Most photographers shoot a lot, and some of their images come out better than others.
Cameras today can shoot a lot of images. You point the camera quickly and shoot with only a casual passing thought or intent. Or hold down the shutter release and fire away because your camera has that capability. Some cameras sound almost like a machine gun when you do this. Shutter mechanisms on current cameras are tested to last tens or even hundreds of thousands of activations. That's a lot of images. Back in the day when the highest quality photos were shot on large format negatives that had to be individually loaded into a camera as sheet film, it was hard to shoot more than a few hundred or perhaps a few thousand photographs in a career. Even an inexpensive camera can quickly exceed that today. Even a moderately sized hard drive can easily hold far more. Shooting a lot and keeping everything is easy today. But if you honestly evaluate your collection of images, not everything will be equally worthy of being kept.
You go out to shoot some photographs. You come home, upload everything to your computer and go through what you ended up with. If you're good or perhaps just lucky, most of your images will have come out the way you wanted. If you're new to photography or perhaps just a bit off your game you will have very few winners among the shots you made. Never mind which of these two poles you generally gravitate towards. It is unlikely that every single shot you make will be a winner every time out. It's a basic truism. At least some of your images will be duds. Or if not, you're playing it too safe and simply aren't challenging yourself enough.
Still, if you've got the space — and most of us do or easily can — why not just keep everything? After all, the capabilities of software improve with the release of each new version. What was or is unsalvageable might one day become a perfectly usable image after a bit of effort. With practice, your own skill with using that software will likely get better over time as well. An afternoon returning to images you shot in the past may well yield hidden gems previously overlooked.
But it's worth considering the true usefulness of time spent trying to mine hidden nuggets from your collection of borderline past images. In spite of what you may or may not come up with, you will likely improve as a photographer more by spending the same amount of time going out and shooting new images. Do you strive to be a good photographer able to translate your vision into compelling images in the present and in the future, or a good archeologist seeking lost photographic treasures from the past? Melodramatic, perhaps, but I think you'd agree that there is a difference between these two pursuits. Repeatedly going through the same old images looking for something you may have missed last time is at best an activity with diminishing returns.
All those old less than successful images can help you improve your photography though if you can bring yourself to delete some. By reviewing what you shoot and judging the merits of each image, you can improve your critical eye for what makes a good composition and what makes a successful image technically. If you compare two similar shots of the same subject, can you decide which is better and why? Every time you decide to delete an image, you grow as a photographer able to discern the best and whether a given image truly measures up. That same critical eye can help you see better compositions the next time you go out with your camera to shoot new images.
If you just can't bring yourself to actually delete some images, I would encourage you to at least create a separate folder area for what would otherwise be your rejects. This will let you use up lots of hard drive space like you used to, but gain the benefits from critically culling your work to improve your photographic eye.