To Delete or Not to Delete, That is the Question

by Micah Walter

One of my most lucrative images is also one of my most boring images. In 2004 I was assigned to shoot a hearing on Capitol Hill. The assignment was to cover a hearing of the Indian Affairs Committee. Many times when I get these types of assignments I really don't know much about what is going on. When I can, I always try to read up on the news story as much as possible before going on the shoot, but many times there is simply not enough lead time. My hope is that at some point after the shoot, while I am busy editing pictures, I will find a news piece on the web that will help me find enough information to write my captions.

On this occasion, I really had no idea what to expect. Not only was I in the dark on the news at hand, but the REAL news, the news that would make this image so important, hadn't happened yet.

A man by the name of Jack Abramoff had been called to testify before the Indian Affairs Committee. My assignment was to shoot the hearing, not because of Abramoff specifically, but because the client I worked for owned a newspaper based in New Mexico, and covered the Indian Affairs Committee very closely.

So, I showed up as assigned, shot the hearing, made sure to get the money shot of each person being sworn in, and finished up by transmitting my pictures to the client. The client paid me a small assignment fee, and that was the end of my day.

As I would normally do with news images, I sent the pictures a few days later to my agency, who added them to their archive. This is when the fun began.

A few months later, Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff had found himself in a gigantic scandal, which would eventually land him in jail with a sentence of 5 years and 10 months. During this time, I found out that I was the only photographer that happened to have a shot of Abramoff, with his right hand in the air, swearing to tell the truth.

After I sent that photograph to my agency, we have licensed usage fees all over the world. The picture first popped up as a cover photo for the Weekly Standard magazine (my first cover photo). It has also been published on the cover of a couple of books, used for TV spots, and printed in countless newspapers and magazines, not to mention its use throughout the Internet.

When the scandal began to heat up and my image sales began to take off, I decided to try and improve my reach by going back into my archives and seeing if I could find more frames and perhaps provide a better quality image.

When I switched over to Aperture, I had imported my entire archive of images. So, finding the Abramoff shoot was very easy. I simply typed his last name into the Query HUD and Aperture found all of the images from that shoot. I then took a look at what I had transmitted to my agency, and compared it to my raw shoot. What I found was pretty interesting.

When I shot the Abramoff assignment I had been using one of my least favorite cameras. The camera was an original Nikon D2h. The D2h was a really fast camera at 8fps, but it had a tiny 4 mega-pixel sensor, and performed really poorly in mixed lighting and high ISOs.

At the time, I had shot the assignment in RAW+Jpeg and had transmitted just a few frames, quickly edited from the Jpeg in Photoshop. The result was acceptable to my client who would be printing the images in newspapers, but they were really pretty awful for use anywhere else. Luckily, I had the original RAW files, so I was able to use Aperture to resurrect a better image from the D2h file.

The end result was still far from perfect, but I now had a much cleaner looking image, with a much more acceptable white balance. I gave the newly edited images a 5 star-ranking and sent them off to my agency. My agency was able to swap out the old images with the newly "re-mastered" versions, and I truly believe this has helped to increase my sales. I was also able to find a few extra frames that ended up being big sellers as well.

In photography there is always going to be the argument of what to keep and what to delete. Some photographers say you should delete as you shoot, and some never delete a frame. I find myself in the latter demographic. I believe that being able to go back and see how a photographer shot an assignment can be very beneficial to their artistic development. Fortunately for me, my methods worked in my favor. I didn't delete my seconds from the Abramoff shoot, and I shot the assignment in RAW+Jpeg. This allowed me to quickly file the pictures at the time (long before Aperture was available) and later down the road, I was able to re-edit my images from the RAW originals. Every once in a while, you make a good decision, and it pays off.

So tell me, what do you delete?


Steve Simon
2007-06-05 15:51:56
Good for you Micah. Reminds me of the Dirck Halstead Monica Lewinsky shot. You never know when one of your subjects is going to get more famous or infamous, either of which can help the photographer out. Delete with caution.
2007-06-05 18:15:23
I certainly always delete unintentionally blurry shots (out-of-focus or motion-blurred). Severe exposure problems also go straight to the bin. For portraits of a single person or a small group, I delete frames with closed or semiclosed eyes (for large groups, I may keep 'em and use photoshop to combine frames). For most continuous-drive groups, I also only keep at most a few shots. Finally, if among two shots of the same subject in the same shoot one is uniformly and objectively better than the other, I get rid of the worse one.

I do relatively little deleting in-camera because I don't trust my evaluation on the small LCD screen.

2007-06-05 19:34:51
I second Daveed's comments.
Michael Ball
2007-06-05 19:44:17
same here
I (about 90% of the time) only delete the photos that are truly bad, exposure/blur/noise problems. Sometimes I'll have a stack of tons of nearly identical images and I' ll delete some so that have have 3-4 similar ones left.
I don't delete to much in camera unless its an obviously bad shot.

Though the 80gb HD on my MB (I know..., but I'm a poor 14yr old) is starting to feel pretty cramped. Which reminds me, I need a secure backup system for archives.

2007-06-06 01:51:54
Great story. I tend to import only the "better" (approx. 30% of all shots) pics within Aperture. However, I always keep the orginal RAW's (no matter how bad or boring they are) somewhere on a DVD. You never know.