When to Reject a Photo

With the age of digital photography now becoming a mainstream part of society, how do you decide which photos are good enough to keep and which should be thrown in the trash? While photographers need to know when to reject a photo, we don’t necessarily want to form a hypothesis of rules. If you have ever taken a workshop with me, you will quickly realize that I choose to disregard rules in almost every aspect of my life and photography. I believe that creativity cannot be contained within a set of rules.

Rules force us to follow a standard of practice, and while rules may work for successful scientific discovery, they completely ruin the concept of creativity. My way of teaching others how to create a compelling photo may differ from the norm due to my educational background as an architect. As creative photographers we still need to make decisions. So in a world of creative decision making that has many drinking the Kool-Aid of free expression, how do I decide what photos to keep and when to reject a photo? Here are some tips regarding when to reject a photo that I have discovered work best in most photography scenarios. Just like rules, plan on disregarding any of these reasons for, well, any reason.

Reject a Photo post Florida sunset by Jay Goodrich
Silhouetted Cypress Trees at sunset in Destin, Florida.

No. 1 – REject a photo – Blurry without Intended Motion.

There are certainly times when I intentionally blur part or all of my image. However, mistakes happen and there are also many times when I do the same unintentionally. Too slow of a shutter speed to be hand holding, wind vibration, and even accidentally kicking my tripod have all ruined potential keeper photographs. How do we identify this type of blur? There is typically a ghost or halo of the subject just pixels away from the more defined area of the subject.

These cypress trees were taken handheld in Florida just after I purchased a new Canon 1D Mark III. I made three very simple mistakes that could have kept this photo tack sharp. One, I used a shutter speed of 1/13th of a second. A shutter speed like this is way too slow for handholding even when using a 16-35mm wide-angle lens. Unless you have Canon’s relatively new 16-35mm f/4 IS lens which can produce hand-held photos at 1 Second!

A great suggestion to keep with you when out photographing is to at least match your focal length with your shutter speed. The above photo was taken at 26mm, so if I used 1/25th of a second or higher I could have had a better chance of a sharp photo. Next, I used an aperture of f/22. This aperture opening is way too small of a lens opening for this shot, f/11 probably would have sufficed. And finally, I used an ISO of only 100. Very easily I could have fixed any one of my camera settings to get more speed and the photo would have been sharp. I could have also put the camera on a tripod and succeeded with the chosen settings.

Reject a Photo post - Big Sur trees by Jay Goodrich
The abstract and twisted lines of cypress branches in Point Lobos State Reseverve near Monterey, California.

No. 1 – The Solution.

Many years later with a very similar situation in Big Sur, California, I chose almost the same exact camera settings. The main difference this time around was that I put the camera on a tripod. Notice how much detail there is in the bark and lichen of the branches.

Reject a Photo post - Sidewalk by Jay Goodrich
Concrete stained by mold and lichen in Astoria, Oregon.

No. 2 – REject a photo – Distracting Elements.

When I stumbled upon this patterning on a sidewalk in Astoria, Oregon I also discovered someone else’s trash – a rotten banana peel. I could have cloned the peel out using Capture One Pro after the fact, but it was just as easy to pick up the peel and throw it in the trash where it should have been discarded in the first place. This photograph is fairly abstract. Without the banana peel in the photo, you have a harder time figuring out what the literal translation of the subject is in your mind. Thus, I keep you lingering on the photo a bit longer.

Sidewalk patterns photo by Jay Goodrich
Concrete stained by mold and lichen in Astoria, Oregon.

No. 2 – The Solution.

Much cleaner and makes you think about what you are looking at because the context of the peel is missing.

Reject a Photo post - sunset trees by Jay Goodrich
Clouds at sunset in White River National Forest near Vail, Colorado.

 No. 3 – REject a photo – Lack of a Specific Subject.

This dramatic cloud and silhouetted trees at sunset have a few good qualities, but you struggle to figure out what the subject is. Is it the trees or is it the clouds? In addition, the crop through the trees seams less decisive and more of a guess. Is my subject the brighter clouds? Or a study of blue? Nothing hits me over the head here, and thus my lack of subject has you disregarding the photo and moving on.

Teton sunrise by Jay Goodrich
The sun rises over the Teton Range in Grand Teton National Park with the vivid yellow Arrowleaf Balasmroot flowers dominatiing the scene.

No. 3 – The Solution.

A well composed photo that has a strong foreground subject (Flowers and Lichen Covered Boulder) and a strong background subject (Sunrise on the Tetons). Notice how your eye flows from front to back of the photograph. You search for all of the little details in between as well.

Reject a Photo post - underexposed China by Jay Goodrich
In the early evening the lights of Shanghai China come alive on the Bund overlooking the Huangpu River

No. 4 – REject a photo – Underexposure.

Today, we can fix a poor exposure (within reason) in our post production software as long as we are shooting RAW in the field. However, exposing too dark will push way too much noise into our original capture when we try to lighten it and in turn degrade our final photograph. This photo is perfect example of when not to try to lighten after the fact.

There are many photographers who say you should never “chimp” your LCD/histogram. In my opinion that is a load of crap. Why not use the tools available to succeed on as many levels as possible? This is how I obtained the proper exposure in the field and walked away with a successful photograph of the skyline of Shanghai. Imagine if I did not look at my camera to realize I never updated my exposure setting for the dropping night time lighting conditions?

Properly exposed China by Jay Goodrich
In the early evening the lights of Shanghai China come alive on the Bund overlooking the Huangpu River

No. 4 – The Solution.

A proper exposure. Simple enough. Processed with zero noise.

Reject a Photo post - out of focus osprey by Jay Goodrich
Osprey or Sea Hawk (Pandion haliaetus) in an aerie with chicks, Sweetwater, Colorado.

No. 5 – REject a photo – Inaccurate Focus.

Notice how my focus is on the nest instead of the nesting ospreys. That doesn’t help my cause when the adult osprey is looking right at the camera now does it? So this photo would succeed if the eyes of the adult bird were tack sharp. The motion blur of the chicks is okay in my opinion because it highlights how excited they get when mom or dad flies in with a meal.

Rabbit portrait Texas by Jay Goodrich
A Blacktailed Jack Rabbit stares gazingly at photographer Jay Goodrich.

No. 5 – The Solution.

Get the eyes tack sharp and let the rest of the photo fall where it may in regards to depth of field. That is exactly what happened when I encountered this Black-tailed Jackrabbit in Texas. Everyone who sees this photo has an immediate reaction to the look on the rabbit’s face. Would you have that same reaction if the rabbit’s eyes were soft?

When to Reject a Photo Conclusion

Photography is a very complex medium. There are not only creative variables involved in a successful photograph, but there are the scientific factors of camera control too. All totaled, I would safely say there are a million ways to succeed and to fail at creating a compelling photograph. It is a lifelong pursuit, one that may never hold a finality for my soul. I truly believe the only way to succeed at it is to take every given situation with an open mind and open heart. You should never stop experimenting and practicing your craft.

Hopefully these five reasons to reject a photo will help you make more concise decisions in the very near future.

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