Weddings: How to select photos for the couple?

Susan asks on the excellent Flickr Wedding Photography board:

I shot my first wedding – alone – nearly two weeks ago. I have nearly 1300 photos, which I’ve been working on in Lightroom, a few at a time, and posting in a Flickr set to look at [...] I don’t know how to proceed.

This is a common problem among photographers who start to shoot weddings. The digital technology allows you to shoot everything, and you shoot everything. And once you’re back at the computer, you suddenly realize that you shot an awful lot of photos. And then you don’t know how to proceed. There are simply too much images.

The Wedding Photographer
The Wedding Photographer
Photo: FotoDawg/Flickr – Some rights reserved

In this post, I want to prepare you to shoot a wedding. If you are serious about wedding photography, you will have to adopt this workstyle, or something quite similar to it. Otherwise you will be unable to process the amount of images in the given (very limited) time. Let’s begin with the essentials:

Tip 1 – Always shoot RAW

If your camera supports RAW format, use it.

Sure, the format takes up more space on the memory card and on the harddisk, and it can not be handled as conveniently as JPEG, but the quality is waaay better. Plus, you have serious quality reserves for editing. This can be a lifebelt should things go badly wrong. (Yep, I’ve had a few situations where RAW actually saved me, and the clients did not notice anything.)

Tip 2 – Clean your equipment prior to the shooting

The time spent on cleaning your equipment prior to the big day is time invested wisely! While you can remove dust spots later on with Photoshop or Lightroom, it is smarter to not even have the dust spots in the first place. No dust spots = time saved at post processing time.

Tip 3 – Do not shoot everything

Yes, you have a digital camera with lots of memory. You are eager to not miss a moment. And you shoot like hell. But wait! Are the photos you are taking really good? Do they really transport an emotion or a crucial moment of the day? Do you really need the 36th shot of the couple sitting in front of the altar, motionless? If you think back to the old days of film – a roll of film was 36 exposures. Would you have spent a full roll of film for this series? If the answer is no, then think twice before you release the shutter.

You need to get a feeling for the right moments, and the right amount of pictures of that moment. This will help you to reduce the overall number of shots. It requires experience to capture the important shots, i.e. those shots that end up in the clients’ final selection (and frankly, nothing else matters). You will get there, too, but it will take time.

Tip 4 – Delete photos on location

So you have shot a couple of photos with the same setting, using the same light in the same location. Good. Now, in order to reduce the number of photos that you have to deal with, I strongly recommend to review all the photos as soon as possible on location, i.e. whenever there is a pause in the action, or while you are waiting for something. And then delete all the photos that you don’t like (aka “the bad ones”). Any bad photo deleted on location reduces the time for importing and rating later. That’s why your camera has a built-in display. :-)

Tip 5 – Use a batch software like Lightroom

The shooting is over. You bring home those images that you wanted to take and that passed your quick review on location. That are probably still a lot of pictures. Now you need a batch software, like Adobe Lightroom or Apple Aperture, to handle the photos. Photoshop CS3 is fine for editing low volumes, or for fine-tuning individual photos. But when facing 1,000+ photos it is not a big help for you (despite Photoshop’s Bridge).

You import all the photos into Lightroom (or Aperture) and do all the basic editing there.

Lightroom - Lights Out for Rating
Lightrooms “Lights out” function helps during the rating of photos
Photo & Screenshot: Mark Zanzig/zettpress

Tip 6 – Rate all pictures, and quickly

Right after the import has finished, I go through the whole set of images in Lightroom. I put away all the panels to maximize the image on the screen, and I put the background to dark or black using the [L] key. I want to see just the photos. My right hand rests on the arrow keys (to flip forth and back), while my left hand rests over the rating keys [1] to [5]. Here is how I rate the photos:

[X] Rejected. Mostly used for work from second shooters that has some serious problems, e.g. focus or composition. Also for all those “closed eyes” shots. Once the picture DVD is out, these will be deleted permanently. To me, it’s pretty much as if I deleted the photo on location. It just disappears. Gone forever.

[1] Mediocre. Why did I shoot that? I seldomly assign “1″, though. Usually, I delete these shots along with the rejected ones. No need to keep that crap.

[2] Below average. Shouldn’t have done this photo, but heck, I’ll keep it. What for? I don’t know. Not even I will look at these shots again in the future.

[3] Average. An okayish photo, but the clients won’t see this photo as there are better photos in the selection.

[4] Good, but not good enough. Often assigned to pictures that really are a “5″, but with other photos from the same series that are even better, some shots simply need to get a “4″.

[5] For the customer. This shot should end up in the final selection.

To me, it’s important to do the rating quickly and rather emotional. I try to not think about or analyze each individual image in depth. At 1,000 photos or more, there is no time for that (1,080 photos x 10 seconds = 3 hours!). I simply ask myself – will the couple enjoy this shot? Are they missing something if this shot is not in the final selection? Is it really good? And I try to be honest. There is no point in lying to yourself.

As soon as all the photos are rated, I apply the filter function to only show photos with a rating of [5]. Then I go once again through the set, even faster, just to see whether the balance in the selection is right. Are there any inconsistencies to the photo story, or are there obvious gaps? Are there still too many images of a single series?

Be honest. Be ruthless. Less pictures is better for everyone.

(By the way, you can do so much more with Lightroom. Take the color filters, for example. I use them to indicate second shooters’ images, so I can assign the correct photographer credits before mastering the image disk.)

Tip 7 – Batch edit the photos

Now the hard work begins. You go to “Develop” mode and (batch) edit all the images that survived your ruthless rating process with a 5-star-rating. Despite the tools Lightroom provides, this will take considerable time. At this point you will be glad that you shot RAW and that you cleaned your equipment prior to the shooting, see tips #1 and 2.

Even during editing I often decide to “downgrade” a photo from [5] to [4], thus effectively removing it from the final client selection.

When you are finished, let it rest for a day. Do something else. Take the camera and shoot another job, relax in the garden, go shopping. But do not touch Lightroom for at least 24 hours. Then go through the selection one last time and see whether your photos really make sense for the couple. Be harsh to yourself, in the name of the client! Remember – they will still get a suitable number of photos, and they shall only get the shots that you consider to be the best of the best.

Tip 8 – Get the photos out

You are done – almost. You export the photos from Lightroom to the desired format and burn a DVD. Maybe you design a nice cover? Then ship the thing off and let the couple haggle over which shot is best. ;-) You made sure that they only get the best, but it’s ultimately their call to make prints, or send the files off to family and friends.

Tip 9 – Clean up

The next job will come, sooner or later, so you can not have the files piling up on your hard disk! You better move the photo files to a place where they can stay for a long time, e.g. your network server, an external hard disk, or a set of DVDs. Lightroom will allow you to access the files even on the external hard disk should it be required.

Now you can focus on the next job.

3 Responses to “Weddings: How to select photos for the couple?”

  1. Susan says:

    Thanks so much, Mark. Your plan sounds very do-able, and since I’m the one who asked the question originally, I’ll do it.

  2. Cornelia says:

    Hi, great advice, thank you.
    Was just wondering, out of the 1300 images, how many do you actually consider to be 5s and worthy of giving to the couple?

  3. Mark Zanzig says:

    1,300 photos means that 500 to 700 will be delivered to the client. These are not all true “5 stars” in the purest photographical sense, but definitely photos that are important for the couple and their families.
    Some of our packages include a handmade album with 150 photo prints, so I consider this to be the real “5 stars”. :-)