Whether we're taking photographs for personal use, or for clients, making sense of our image library and keeping things organized is a tricky task. How many of us have finished a shoot, only to drag the folder of images onto our desktop and name it something random like "images003" (just me, then)?
Once you've established a good photographic workflow – either using your own system or the best image organizing software – you then need to make sure that you're keeping your collection of images in check by culling duplicates, those that are out of focus, or that you'll simply never use again. This is especially important when you're narrowing down images to give to a paying client.
Ensuring that the images you supply to your customers are of the highest quality is a challenging task. While investing in the best professional cameras and perfecting your technical skills will provide more consistent results, shooting files is only one stage of the output process. Sorting an image database and isolating the best photos from a particular shoot is a skill in its own right. The working photographer has to establish that their images are fit for purpose and are aligned with the required functions expected by the client.
First, decide what quality means to you
The first stage is to determine what the term ‘quality’ means in any given circumstance. What one consumer might want is not necessarily considered of utmost importance by another. As an example, while stock agencies aiming for sales to poster and magazine publishers might be more concerned with sharpness and even lighting, a newspaper picture editor may place more emphasis on the subject, context, and timing.
For a breaking news story, successfully capturing an illustrative image in the right place at the right time is more important than technical perfection. Be sure that you offer your client what they need for their current project by defining the parameters of what makes a successful image while sorting files for deletion or archiving.
An effective strategy is to pass images through multiple stages of assessment – which allows comparison to similar frames – to make an informed decision about which is the most appropriate. At the initial stage, you could run through the images in a timeline view in Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Bridge, assigning a quick star rating as you go. There is often limited use in applying a scaled rating at this point; a two or three-star label won’t indicate a usable image anyway, so a better strategy is to eliminate these files from your library now and avoid a convoluted rating system. Simply star any stand-out images and delete failed shots – all other images are worth further scrutiny or may be useful in the future.
Always make image assessments in a ‘clean room’ – a space with neutral-colored walls (mid-tone grey is the best ambient color) and no direct, undiffused sunlight. This will work around issues relating to color misrepresentation and exposure discrepancies induced by the vision of the examiner. Always calibrate your monitor in the same room as you intend to analyze and edit your work, to circumvent unexpected color and brightness shifts.
It is also a sensible idea to save multiple edited copies of your images, to give you several file choices later, and to increase the chance of you having an image that matches client requests. This may relate to variances in image resolution, sharpness, and composition.
Whenever starting out with a new camera or monitor for photo editing, try making test prints on different media to create a reference for future image workflows. When gauging image quality on-screen, use the printed samples to form an idea of how the image will appear to the client. This may help you make a choice between two shortlisted files.
For archiving purposes, choose a lossless format such as TIFF to be certain that your quality-assessed files are not altered by compression at the final step. Finally, use a side-by-side view to compare the outputted TIFF to the original RAW, to ascertain if processing has resulted in software-induced noise and banding artifacts.
Use 100% zoom to check images
While ‘pixel-peeping’ is not always a realistic way of assessing image quality, it can often be a beneficial exercise. For commercial purposes, zooming in to 100% magnification in your image archiving software, such as Lightroom, ensures there is a quality buffer between your informed standards and the expectations of the end user.
Submitting an image with more resolution than is likely required, or with insignificant visible noise at 100%, can guarantee there is little cause for a picture agency to reject your work. While images may seem harshly judged using these magnifications, employing the highest standards as a reference covers your files for almost any potential usage – especially important if you don’t know what the final function will be.
Refresh your portfolio
It's a good idea to periodically reassess your online galleries to give first-time viewers a good impression. Even shots that are not destined for direct sale to a customer, such as those used to advertise your own work, should be reassessed regularly.
As your style changes and your skills improve, refresh your image portfolio to check all compositions are on-brand. Every six months, revisit your homepage and replace shots you no longer want people to see – this is your ‘shop window’, so only the best possible shots belong here.