Time: A Photographer’s Best Friend for Successful Photo Editing

This article was previously published in the Spring/Summer 2011 issue of Outdoor Photography Canada. If you don’t want to wait nearly 2 years to see these articles then subscribe to this great magazine 😉

©Darwin Wiggett - Beaver Creek, Cypress Hills

©Darwin Wiggett – Beaver Creek, Cypress Hills

Photographers are their own worst editors. We are simply too emotionally invested in our images to be objective about them and, as a result, we keep a lot of images that really should have seen the deep end of the trash bin. A critical skill to develop is to remove our bias toward our work and look at our images with a healthy skepticism.

For me, the ultimate test of a photo’s value is the test of time. Does it still excite you and have meaning a week, month, year and even ten years after you snapped the photo? If it does, then the image is a keeper. But in a practical sense we simply can’t let our images age like wine and come back ten years later for a taste test to pick out the keepers. What we need is a system that lets us be objective in the shorter term.

©Darwin Wiggett - Aspen Trees, Cypress Hills

©Darwin Wiggett – Aspen Trees, Cypress Hills

Many of us come back from a shoot and then edit immediately looking for the ‘killer shots’. Often we use a rating system and rank our favourites as 5-star images. These 5-star images get processed right away; we quickly share them on the web and show them to friends. The 4-star and lower rated images we store on hard-drives, forgotten about until maybe (a big maybe) we revisit them many months later and cherry-pick a couple of ‘over-looked’ images. The remaining images gather pixel dust languishing in a library of forgotten hard-drives. We vow at the beginning of each new year to ‘deal’ with these languishing images but probably never will. Possibly we hope that like wine, the longer these images are ‘aged’, the better they will get. They don’t.

I find if I process images immediately after a shoot that I keep more images than I would if I returned to edit the images at a later date. As well, some of the 5-star images in my initial pick aren’t really that good after all! And surprisingly some images that I initially rank low actually end up being my favorite images. Time removes my emotional attachment and lets me edit more objectively. For instance in a recent shoot from the Cypress Hills in October of last year, I immediately went through the 500 images I shot in four days and kept nearly 100 images. If I had processed all these keepers right away I would have ended up with a whole bunch of  filler images and only a few really worth hanging onto. Recently I went back and looked at those 100 ‘keepers’ and tossed away 80 of them I initially thought were great! In the end, time proved to me that there were really only 20 images worthy of adding to my files.

©Darwin Wiggett - Mised forest, Cypress Hills

©Darwin Wiggett – Mixed forest, Cypress Hills

©Darwin Wiggett - Elkwater Lake boardwalk, Cypress Hills

©Darwin Wiggett – Elkwater Lake boardwalk, Cypress Hills

So the moral is that I try to build time into my editing workflow. Immediately after a shoot I will do a preliminary edit. In this edit, I delete obvious errors:  photos that have poor focus, bad exposure and flawed compositions are removed. All the rest of the photos I keep and back up on an external hard-drive. Then, and this is the critical key, I wait at least a month before I return to final editing of the photos. After a month all the excitement of the shoot is gone; I have moved on emotionally, and I can be objective and ruthless. I become a machine on the delete key!

In this final edit, the images I initially thought were killer have lost a lot of lustre and some overlooked gems emerge. I see the shoot with fresh eyes and I can quickly pull out images that have lasting impact and clarity of message. In the end, I keep ten percent or less of the images that I shot. The rest are permanently deleted. My system is lean and mean and my image library is filled with only my best work. Time is your best friend when it comes to objective photo editing:  use it wisely! To learn more about how Samantha and I use time and the delete key to make better editing choices be sure to come to our Enhancing Story and Mood in the Digital Darkroom talk on January 21, 2013 in Cochrane, Alberta (NOTE: this talk is only offered to Persistent Vision workshop participants, so don’t delay if you were planning on coming to that event March 15-17, 2013.)

©Darwin Wiggett - Elkwater Lake Boardwalk, Cypress Hills

©Darwin Wiggett – Elkwater Lake Boardwalk, Cypress Hills

©Darwin Wiggett - Gulls at Elkwater Lake, Cypress Hills

©Darwin Wiggett – Gulls at Elkwater Lake, Cypress Hills

©Darwin Wiggett - Highway 41 near Cypress Hills

©Darwin Wiggett – Highway 41 near Cypress Hills



About the Author

I am a Canadian landscape and outdoor photographer who loves long hikes in the woods, yummy food, hairy dogs, good company and a good guitar jam.


  1. Tom Robbins
    January 12, 2013

    Now this seems to be a reasonable approach to a dilemma we all face. The hard part is waiting greater than a month to finish processing. That will take a fair measure of discipline.

  2. diane ledoux
    January 12, 2013

    love your photos! yes i agree we are emotionally attached! i am starting to do the same, delete more and keep less!

  3. Jane Chesebrough
    January 12, 2013

    I agree, sometimes I instantly go through photos and edit them but it would be better to wait. I checked back after 6 months and found myself culling LOTS of photos because what was acceptable in the past is no longer worth keeping, plus I need more room on my hard drive…sentimental family photos excepted, of course. I did get my subscription to Outdoor Photography Canada and enjoying the photos and articles. Thanks.

  4. Ron
    January 12, 2013

    A very good article which is an accurate reflection of myself. It’s good to take a break and come back later to view the photos.

  5. Brad Mangas
    January 12, 2013

    I totally agree Darwin. Not only does time help in making informed decisions on editing I have experienced the reverse to be true as well. Many times I have rushed to get the days images edited so I can share them on social media or add to my website only to look at them later and think, crap what was I thinking when I processed this! Time is truly our friend.

  6. Michael Russell
    January 12, 2013

    Well said! I agree – a bit of time and emotional distance does wonders for the strength of my editing. I still have a large backlog I need to edit properly though!

  7. Clara
    January 12, 2013

    I loved all of the pictures.

  8. Yu Sheng
    January 12, 2013

    Couldn’t agree any more.

    In early years I only have one “Favorite” folder and kept throwing photos that I like into it – no matter if the photo was “wow! I really like this one” and “I wouldn’t get tired even looking at it time and time again”, or if the photo was “hmm… it is OK. I’ll just keep it here because it reminds me the trip to this place that I may not go for a long time…”.

    But as this folder grows over years, I find out that many of the photos in this folder are just “to keep the memory of me going to this place, a place that I may not go for a long time” and I tend to skip them when viewing the folder.

    So, last year I started creating more folders and shrinking the volume of my “liked” photos. Now I have “Alberta, BC, Sask, NWT, Yukon, Washington, Oregon, California…”. But wait! Those folders still keep growing!

    OK. Lastly, I get my “Favorite” folder back. But this time, I only choose photos from those folders which I already did the first round of filtering. And the criteria of entering my “Favorite” folder is much stricter. I find that this new “Favorite” folder is satisfying because the photos in it are the ones after several rounds of filtering and the ones I truly appreciate.

    I also tend to do the filtering for the “Favorite” folder at the end of year, before my annual end-of-year photo trip in Christmas. At that time, I can look back at my work from the past year and, like Darwin said, be less emotional. If I still like the picture as I liked it the first time I chose it, it is guaranteed that this picture is one of my favorite!

  9. Tom Nevesely
    January 15, 2013

    I too let my images “age” before I start working on them. I actually have a smart collection set up in Lightroom for this purpose.

    It works like this:
    All new images are automatically given a “red” label when they are imported in to Lightroom – I color code my images so I stay organized (Red = unprocessed images, Blue = work in progress, Green = Finished) and I have my smart collection is set to show all “red” labeled images that are at least 1 month old.

    When I sit down at my computer and open up Lightroom, I can easily find all of the images that are ready to be looked at.

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