Many people buy a roll of film for the holidays. They shoot a couple of the family at Thanksgiving, then some more in December. Maybe they get dressed up for Valentine's day and snap another one. Come summer, they pack for vacation, realize there's only a few shots left in the camera, and they pick up another roll for the trip. In August, they finally get the film developed and see the pictures they took last Thanksgiving. At the family barbeque on Labor Day, they pass the entire roll around nobody is particularly impressed.

Does this sound like your style? Do you actually want to impress your friends and family with the quality of your photographs? If not, start surfing.

Here's a secret. Writers do a lot of rewriting. Artists make a whole lot of sketches that never see the light of day. And professional photographers throw away thousands of photographs. This is called culling or editing, and it's simple in theory but hard in practice. If you get good at it, you can impress your friends.

Even if you've mastered the craft, not every photograph is going to come out. There will always be the light meter that got fooled by the backlighting, or the composition problem you missed at the time, or the action photo that you didn't snap at precisely the right moment. If you show people the bad ones along with the good ones, it dilutes the power of your presentation.

So you must cull your pictures. The barriers to this are psychological. Most of us have been raised not to waste money and to treasure family photographs. These are admirable goals. Film and processing cost money, and it just seems wrong to throw out the only vacation photo that included Grandma, even if it is a little fuzzy. But wouldn't it be better if you had a couple more photos of Grandma and you put the best one in the album? Isn't it more of a waste not to have one good one than to throw away two? You have to get over your fear of taking risks with the camera and over the fear of throwing away the ones that didn't turn out. Trust me.

Exercise: Get the envelope of the last roll of pictures you took that you still haven't put into the album. Don't lie, I know you have one. Hand the entire packet to a friend or family member and ask them for their general opinion of the pictures. Now, in private, spread all of those pictures out. Pull out every one that's too dark, too light, fuzzy, or has any other kind of serious flaw. Now examine the rest. If you had to choose just one of them, which would it be? Does one jump out at you as being particular good? Select that one. If there's one or maybe two more that seem equally good, you can select those as well. Now show your best picture(s) to another family member. What's their reaction? This isn't a thought experiment. Stop surfing and try it!

Repeat after me: Film is cheap! No, really, it is. Think about your last vacation. How much were the plane tickets? The hotel? The rental car? The restaurants? The horseback riding? If you get home with wonderful memories and crummy pictures, what would it cost you to fix it? Another trip? Do you still have the vacation time? I didn't think so.

Film is cheap. Suppose you splurge for an extra couple of rolls of film, and you got into the habit of taking more pictures (more on that later). Even if you average number of good shots per roll didn't improve, you'd still have more good pictures to remember that fantastic vacation.

Exercise: If you normally buy one roll of film, go to the store right now and buy two. (Buy spare batteries, too.) If you normally buy a roll of 24 exposures, make the new ones 36. If it seems expensive to you, consider one of these big club stores. Make it a goal to shoot and process both rolls in a week. Repeat as necessary.

It almost sounds like I'm encouraging you to cheat, doesn't it? I'm telling you to take a lot more pictures and only show the best ones to others. It's true. And it works. Getting used to taking more pictures gets pretty easy. Culling is still hard, despite the tremendous payback. Now, if we could just increase the number of good shots you get per roll...

Get Closer
Snapshot Tips © 2000 Adrian McCarthy.