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  • Writer's pictureAbdul Qudoos

What is Culling in Photography? Complete Guide

Updated: May 6


what is culling in photography

You just finished a photo shoot and you’re eager to see your results. But then you open your folder and see hundreds of photos staring back at you.


How do you choose the best ones? That’s where culling comes in.


Culling is the process of selecting the best photos from a large batch and discarding the rest. It’s a vital skill for any photographer who wants to save time, improve quality, and showcase their best work.


But culling is not easy.


It can be tedious, time-consuming, and overwhelming. Especially if you don’t have a clear strategy or a reliable tool. That’s why we created this guide. To help you master the art of culling and make it fun and fast.


In this guide, you’ll learn:

  • What is culling and why is it important?

  • How to set up your culling workflow and criteria

  • Reveal the best tools to speed up your process of culling

  • Some common culling mistakes and pitfalls to aviod


Ready to cull like a pro? Let’s dive in.


What is Culling in Photography?

Culling simply refers to the process of sorting through photos from a shoot and selecting only the best images to keep. It involves evaluating your shots based on technical quality, composition, emotion, relevance, and other factors to identify your hero images.


In other words, culling helps you eliminate:

  • Blurry, out-of-focus shots, duplicates, and near-identical images

  • Photos with bad exposure or lighting

  • Shots with distracting backgrounds or elements

  • Technically flawed images (camera shake, noise, etc)

  • Photos that don't match your theme or purpose


Culling may sound harsh, but it's an absolutely essential step for all photographers. Without proper culling, you are left with a disorganized mess of images that will only slow down your workflow.


Taking the time to carefully evaluate and sift through your photos allows you to identify your best shots and focus your editing efforts where they matter most.



Why is Culling Important in Photography?

Culling provides a range of benefits that lead to improved efficiency, stronger photos, and happier clients. Here are some of the top reasons culling is so important:


Saves Storage Space

Raw files are huge. They can eat up your hard drive space. Culling helps you get rid of the junk files that you don’t need and frees up room for more awesome photos.


Saves Time

Culling removes the bad shots from the equation early on so you don’t waste time editing images that won’t see the light of day. By eliminating duplicates, test shots, and total fails from the start, you can invest your editing hours into images that matter.


Reduces Clutter

Editing thousands of images from a shoot can lead to a bloated and disorganized file collection. Culling minimizes clutter so you can easily find and access your best work when needed.


Allows Focus

Editing mediocre photos can be draining and distracting. By culling before editing, you can clear your mind and your screen, and channel your energy into the images with the most potential.


As you can see, taking the time to cull thoughtfully pays off tremendously in your workflow and end products.


When Should You Cull Your Photos?

Culling is not a one-time event - it should happen continuously throughout your photography workflow. Most photographers end up culling their images in multiple stages including:


During a Shoot

Don’t wait until you get home to start culling. Do it on the spot. Delete any obvious duds as soon as you take them. You know, the ones with missed focus, blinks, or bad lighting. This will save you time and space later.


Pro Tip: Enable auto-delete for any photos that are clearly unusable.


After Importing

Once you've imported your photos onto your computer or external drives, it's time for the first major cull. Get rid of any shots that are blurry, poorly exposed, or badly framed. You don’t need them.


Don’t be too harsh, though. You might find some gems among the marginal photos. Give them a second look before you toss them.


Before Editing

Now that you’ve eliminated the technical failures, it’s time to cull for creativity. Evaluate your photos based on their content, composition, and artistic merit. Keep only the ones that make you say wow.


Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does this photo tell a compelling story?

  • Does this photo match my style and vision?

  • Does this photo have a strong composition and balance?

  • Does this photo have any distracting elements that need editing?


Flag or rate only the photos that you want to edit. Move the maybes to a separate folder for later review.


Before Delivering or Sharing

This is the final and most important cull. This is where you select the photos that will showcase your work to the world. Be very picky here. Only choose the photos that are flawless, stunning, and cohesive.


Ask yourself these questions:

  • Have I edited this photo to perfection?

  • Is this photo among my best work?

  • Does this photo fit into my portfolio or set?


Always prefer quality over quantity. Clients and followers will judge your skills based on what you share. Only deliver your absolute best 10-20 images rather than hundreds from a shoot.


How to Cull Photos Effectively

culling process infographic

Culling well takes time, skill, and discipline. Follow these tips to master the culling process:


1. Establish Criteria Upfront

Before diving in, decide what traits you’ll be evaluating photos on. Technical factors, style/aesthetics, editing difficulty, client needs? Build criteria tailored to your goals for that set of images.


2. View at Full Size

Never cull based on thumbnails - zoom in on each photo to evaluate sharpness, grain, focus, and other fine details. Culling on thumbnails can cause you to keep soft, dull, or unusable photos.


3. Use Ranking Systems

Leverage flags, star ratings, colors, and other built-in tools to quickly tag favorites, maybes, and rejects as you cull. This makes it easy to filter and find selections later.


4. Compare Similar Shots

When you have multiple images from a key moment, put them side-by-side to compare. Zoom in to check focus, expressions, and composition. Pick no more than one or two of the same scene.


5. Take Regular Breaks

Culling requires intense focus and visual fatigue sets in quickly. Schedule regular breaks (every 20-30 mins) to give your eyes a rest. You’ll cull faster and more accurately this way.


6. Avoid Emotional Attachments

It’s hard to delete images you have personal connections to. But remember that clients and viewers won’t share that attachment. Cull is based on merit alone, not emotions.


7. Stick to Your Vision

Having a clear creative vision for your photography makes culling much easier - you’ll recognize what does and doesn’t align with your aesthetics. Stay focused on this vision when sorting images.


8. Work in Passes

Trying to cull perfectly in one pass leads to mental exhaustion. Focus your first pass on technical quality alone, then evaluate aesthetics in the next round once the rejects are removed.


Tips for Faster Culling

Here are some handy tips for accelerating your culling so you can get through a shoot faster:

  • Set keyboard shortcuts in your image software for rating, flagging, deleting, etc. This keeps your hands on the keys.

  • Use AI assistance like Imagen to leverage technology to perform an initial automatic cull to expedite the process.

  • Filter by lenses or cameras to deal with similar shots in batches if using multiple equipment.

  • Shrink thumbnails in grid view to quickly scan for standout images first. Then review at full size.

  • Enable auto-advance to move to the next image without needing to click 'Next' every time.

  • Cull on a large monitor if possible so you can see details clearly without zooming in on every shot.

  • Use a pen tablet for more ergonomic and faster culling compared to a mouse. Program shortcut keys to the buttons.

  • Group similar images into color-coded Collections or Stacks in Lightroom so you're not seeing duplicates.


Work smarter, not longer! Test different approaches to find your optimal culling setup and process.


How Much to Cull?

There's no fixed percentage for image rejection. But as a guideline:

  • Cull at least 50% - Be prepared to delete half or more of your total shoot images.

  • Aim for 10-20% selects - Your final delivered images should only be your top 10-20% for greatest impact.

  • More is not better - Resist the urge to deliver hundreds of images. Present only your outstanding work.


The key is to cull without compromise, to showcase your vision at its sharpest.



Culling Tools and Software

editing working setup

Culling is such a hectic task, you need the best tools for it. But which ones?


Don’t worry, I got you covered. Here are some of the top options that I recommend:


Lightroom

The king of photo editing. But also a great culling tool.


You can rate, flag, color label, and sort photos by various criteria. You can also filter images by rating to easily cull your 5-star selects.


And the best part?


Lightroom has smart adjustments that can help you sync basic edits across images with similar skin tones.


Photo Mechanic

The speed demon of culling. It’s fast and efficient.


It offers a clean UI, good metadata editing options, and quick RAW viewing functionality. You can also use shortcut keys to color-code, rank, and sort images.


No fuss, no muss.


ImagenAI

The smart cookie of culling. It uses AI to analyze image quality and suggest your best shots.

It learns what you like for more customized culling over time.


You can upload a series of already edited photos to create a profile that’s catered to you or choose from premade profiles created by other professionals.


Capture One

The rival of Lightroom. It has excellent organization and culling options based on color, rating, metadata, etc.


It also has smart adjustments that can help you sync basic edits across images with similar skin tones. Capture One 23 also has a new Cull Images feature that uses artificial intelligence to group similar photos in one click for easy review.


Sounds awesome, right?


Common Culling Mistakes to Avoid

Here are some common culling mistakes that harm both workflow and end products:

  • Rushing the process and not spending enough time evaluating each image

  • Getting distracted by emotions and retaining mediocre shots

  • Not viewing photos at 100% zoom before rejecting them

  • Deleting too many similar shots and then regretting it later

  • Poor organization leads to confusion between culled and unculled images

  • No clear goals, leaving you unsure which images fit your needs

  • Leaving culling to the last minute, when you're exhausted from editing

  • Including too many photos and diluting your strongest work


Take your time, set goals, use the right tools, and avoid these errors to get the most out of your culling.


Final Words

If you take away just one lesson about culling, it's this: every photographer, at every level, should be culling their work methodically and continuously.


There's always room for improvement when presenting your creative vision. Taking the time to look at your images with a critical eye, remove weaker shots, and curate selects purposefully pays off tremendously.


Implement these culling best practices and you'll see your photography workflow transform from scattered and chaotic to streamlined and focused almost instantly.


Culling leads directly to sharper editing, stronger portfolios, happier clients, and more motivation to get out and shoot your next masterpiece! Now that you understand the fundamentals, you can start refining your unique culling style today.


FAQs

How many images should you deliver to clients after culling?

Quality over quantity. Only your top 10-20% of images should be delivered - enough for clients to have great options without leaving them overwhelmed sifting through too many similar-looking shots.


Can culling be done by someone other than the photographer?

Yes. Many pros have trained assistants who cull first passes under guidance. But the photographer should always do final culling before delivery.


Is manual culling better or automatic AI-based culling?

For first-pass cleanup of technical issues, AI culling can help speed up workflow. However, aesthetic criteria require manual evaluation of each photo by the photographer's trained eye. Balance approaches for optimal efficiency.


Can culling be skipped if you have time constraints?

Never. Delivering clients hundreds of images with no culling is unprofessional. It's better to cull thoroughly and deliver fewer top-tier images than to provide everything shot unfiltered.


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Jan 30
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

I would like to learn more about how to edit the resulting photos. I do this in Photoshop on my PC, but my editing level is very low. Maybe you could make a couple of video lessons on this topic? Visit this site to choose a recorder for mac if you don't know what to use to create videos.

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