Twice a month we revisit some of our reader favorite posts from throughout the history of Phototuts+. This tutorial was first published in August, 2009.
When we spot a great photo waiting to happen, photographers often take many shots of the same thing to better their odds of doing it justice. But how often have you viewed your shots later and ended up with 5, 10, or 20 photos of the same scene or subject that are, well, pretty darn good! You can’t put all these duplicates in your portfolio or your ‘Favorites’ set on Twitter, so you are left with the challenge of needing to pick your best photo from the set. How do you do it?
In this tutorial, Jeffrey breaks down what we often do on ‘gut instinct’ – rank photos in order of how good they are. What, exactly, makes one composition better than another? What’s the real difference between a photo that “Just didn’t work out” and one that did?
These timeless tips will help you in your photography hobby, or career, for years to come.
1. It’s Happened to All of Us…
A friend, relative or coworker asks you to look at the pictures they took on their most recent holiday. Even worse than all the mediocre snapshots, you find yourself flipping through two or three (or sixteen) duplicates of the same scene.
“Here’s little Johnny in front of the building where the Grand Archduke of Caterwaul was imprisoned.”
“Here he is again making a really funny face.”
“Here’s one more because he blinked the first time.”
“Here is another because someone walked through the background just as I clicked the shutter on that last one.”
“That last one came out a bit blurry so here is one more.”
“The building wasn’t straight in that last one so…”
It’s enough to make you want to tear your hair out! Perhaps you’ve even done this to people you know. (I’ll admit that I have, though I refuse to admit how recently.)
Flip through any magazine and you will never see the “same” picture over and over again. Editors spend a great deal of time picking out the single best photo from a set to illustrate a story or article. This self-editing is an extremely valuable skill for any photographer, and I’m going to show you how you can do the same thing.
We can start by generalizing a bit about the some of the easier-to-spot things you should be looking for:
2. Quick Tips on What to Look For
- Any unintentional fuzziness. Even if parts of the picture are sharp, if other parts are fuzzy and it’s not clear that they were meant to be that way, it can ruin a picture.
- Things that appear to be growing out of people’s heads. Not just from a subject’s head, such things could come from the chest, a foot, or just about anywhere. This is most often caused by a clutter object behind a person.
- Distracting clutter in your pictures. This could be objects, structures, shapes, colors or textures that spoil the composition by distracting focus from the main subject.
- Multiple points of interest that compete with one another for a viewer’s attention.
- Crooked lines that can’t be easily straightened without losing important parts of the picture.
- Unflattering facial expressions. As a rule, I avoid taking pictures of people when they’re eating for just this reason.
- Things creeping in from the edges of the frame. Example: when a person steps in front of the camera just as you press the shutter and you catch a portion of them right on the edge of the frame.
Sometimes, as in the imaginary conversation above, picking the one best photo from a set may be quite easy – only a single photo may actually be good!
At other times the different images in a set may appear almost identical, to the point that you may be tempted to simply pick one randomly. Let’s look at a couple of different sets and step through the thought process of determining which is the one ‘best’ image from each set.
Remember: everyone’s tastes differ. The photo I pick here as being the ‘best’ may be different from the one you’d pick. It’s really the process that’s most important, so let’s focus primarily on that.
Let’s start by identifying how similar pictures have to be to one another for us to call them duplicates.
For purposes of illustration—and to simplify this tutorial—I’ve composited a series of images together. I’ve also superimposed numbers on each which we will use in referring to them. Take a look at the collection below.
Looking at this series, I’d argue that numbers 01 and 09 are unique enough to stand on their own. (I’d also get rid of 01 because it’s just a warm-up picture and not very interesting.) Let’s consider the others to be more or less duplicative of one another. Yes, they might show different stances, grips and positions but, unless you were writing an article specifically about these various different grips, you would not see the entire series illustrating a magazine article.
I also chose this series because they’re all really quite good pictures. We will have to nitpick them to arrive at just a single ‘best’ one. So now we set about picking the best one of the series using criteria that you can easily adapt to your own series.
As a first pass, we skim through the whole series looking for obvious reasons why a photo should be pulled from the running. Right away, we can see in number 02 that a pair of shoes is visible in the background. We talked about visual clutter above and here is an example. This really detracts from the photo, so number 02 will have to go.
Photo 07 is quite fuzzy around the climber’s face. This is important. Although the rest of the photo is sharp, small elements can make a big difference. When it comes to people, you generally want the face to be sharp and in focus; even if others parts of the picture are fuzzy.
In many series you’ll find more obvious reasons to dump pictures, but most of this series is really pretty good so that’s it for the obvious stuff. Getting a bit more picky, you may notice that numbers 03, 04 and 05 are very similar to one another.
Let’s assemble those as their own little mini series-within-the-larger-series. We’ll judge them against one another to find the single best one and then judge that against the rest of the series.
In pictures 03 and 04 you can see underneath the bottom of the rock. In number 04 you can also see over the top of the rock.
In reality, this rock was only about 15ft (4.6m) high. The thing you’ll notice though, is that in other photos of the series where you can’t see the top and bottom of the rock, it gives the illusion that this may have been a much more dramatic climb. Let’s get rid of 03 and 04 because they shatter that illusion.
In your own photography, think about each photo from the perspective of a viewer who had never seen what you had captured. By controlling the context of your photos you can tell the story that you want to tell. What you choose not to show is just as important as what you capture!
Now we’ll compare 05 against 06 and 08—the only others left in this series. These are all good pictures but our goal is to get down to just one ‘best’ one. In my view, 05 isn’t as strong as the others. The climber’s body is all squashed up with part of his leg overlapping part of his arm. It also lacks the impressive and dramatic muscle definition of the other two.
Now we’re left with just two very strong photos. I like both of these for different reasons.
In number 08, the climber is very prominent in the frame. Parts of him actually run off three edges of the frame, making for a very strong composition.
Even though the climber doesn’t fill the frame in number 06 in the same way that he does in number 08, the greater amount of space adds context and actually supports the picture. Viewers can see neither the top nor bottom of the rock, giving few clues as to the type of climb this is.
We can’t really tell how high the climber is already nor how much further he has to go. I also like that the rock itself is slightly sharper in 06 than in 08. The little bit of extra detail in the rock adds character without competing for attention. Through this process of elimination, I’d suggest that 06 the best of the series—allowing that number 09 stands on its own because it isn’t about climbing but rather about reaching the top.
The same kind of process can be used to narrow down the best of any series of similar photos. Let’s close by briefly looking at a completely different set of photos. To avoid confusion, I labeled these A, B, C, and D.
Some may say that these pictures, as a series, tell a terrific story. I wouldn’t argue against that, but this article is about how to narrow down any group of pictures to just the single ‘best’ one.
Taken in that light, the lower-right corner of A is distracting. There’s nothing really wrong with B or C but the expression on the girls’ face in D makes it a hands-down favorite.