Culling Images

I remember back when I had the choice of 12, 24, or 36 exposures.  The only limitation of how many pictures I could take was how many rolls of film I wanted to take with me (or how many I could afford to develop).  When I got back from the family vacation or whatever it was that I was photographing, I would patiently wait the mandatory week or so after drop-off to see my photos for the very first time.  Opening-up the yellow envelopes and sorting through all of those photographs…was to put simply…just so much dang fun!  Even if they didn’t all “turn out”, it was fun sorting through or culling the images.   

What Does Culling Images Mean?

Nowadays, it is common for us to come back from a photo shoot with literally hundreds or even thousands of images. My gosh, just think about Wedding and Sports photographers!  Sorting through the astonishing number of photos isn’t nearly as enjoyable for most people, not to mention the time involved.  And if you are doing this professionally, we all know time is money!

So, what does culling images actually mean?  Culling images simply refers to the process of selecting and sorting through a large number of photographs.  This typically involves marking your favorites and deleting the ones that didn’t “turn out.”

There are many ways we can evaluate our photos to decide if they are stars or trash bin material. We might assess the image based on technical aspects (exposure, focus, sharpness, color, etc.) or on it’s composition or overall appeal.

Once we’ve culled our images, the usual process is to further organize them and start editing, with the understanding that additional culling may happen later on.  What we are really concentrating on in this article is the initial sorting.

Why is it Important to Cull Images?

Culling images is an important step in the photography workflow as it helps you identify and highlight the best images from a shoot or collection.  It saves time and ensures that you present your work in the best possible way.  

Culling images also eliminates unnecessary files.  It allows us to identify and delete unwanted or low-quality images.  By removing these unnecessary files, we free up storage space on our hard drives.

In addition, eliminating the unwanted photos makes for faster editing and post-processing.  When we have a smaller selection of high-quality images, it speeds up our workflow.  We can focus our time and effort on the best photographs, resulting in a more efficient workflow. 

What is the Best Way to Cull photos?

I’m not sure there is a BEST way to cull photographs, but I have included some tips on how to best utilize Adobe Lightroom for this somewhat agonizing process.  It is also important to note, there are different software solutions or applications out there that specialize in culling.  I’ll touch on that at the end of the article.

  1. Import into Lightroom sorted by Date.
  2. Rename the dated folder to still include the date, but also add a short description.
  3. Go through each folder and flag my favorites and reject the throw-aways
  4. Use Survey View and Compare View to narrow down the undecideds.

Importing and Culling Images in Lightroom

The culling images process starts after importing them into Lightroom.  Of course, there are many ways for us to organize our photos within the Lightroom catalog.  Typically, I import my photographs by date and then I rename the date folder to include a description of some sort.  

Check out the example below:

Flagging/Rejecting Photographs

My culling images process starts by doing a once through of each image.  As I go through them I “flag” the good ones, “reject” the bad ones, and do nothing to the ones I’m undecided about.  The undecideds are dealt with later when I do additional run throughs or I need to take a closer look at them using the Survey View or the Compare View, discussed further down.

What do I mean by “flag” the good ones and “reject” the bad ones?  In Adobe Lightroom we have the ability to pick our favorite images by flagging them with a white flag, or rejecting the photographs we don’t like by marking them with a black flag.  

This process can be done in either the grid view or the loupe view.  Typically, I do it in Loupe View (double clicking image in grid view) or Full Screen View (“F” on the keyboard) so I can get a good full size image to look at.

The best way I have found to do this is to start with the very first image in the folder.  Double click on it to get it in Loupe View or hit “F” on the keyboard to make it full screen.  If I like the image, I simply hit the “P” key (for “pick”).  When I do this the image will be marked with a white flag which tells me this is an image I want to keep for possible editing.  If I don’t like the image and I want to discard it, I’ll hit the “X” key marking it as rejected.  

Then I move on to the next image by hitting my right arrow key on the keyboard and go through the same exercise.  The left and right arrows on the keyboard allow us to scroll through the images in the folder.  Any image I’m not sure about I leave as is and move on to the next one.  I do this until I’ve gone through every image in the folder.  This is considered my first pass.

The photos we marked with the white flag are now easily found using the Library Filter.  The rejected photos are now easily deleted.

Deleting Photographs

After we’ve made the first pass we can easily delete all the images marked as “Rejected” by clicking “Photo” on the top menu and then selecting “Delete Rejected Photos.”  Make sure to click on “Remove from Disk” to completely delete the images from the hard drive.

Individual photos are easily deleted from Lightroom as well by right clicking on the image and selecting “Remove Photo” or go to the menu and choose Photo, then “Remove Photo.”  Just make sure to choose “Delete from Disk” if you want the image completely deleted from the hard drive.

Survey View

Sometimes, after making that first pass through our images it can still be difficult to select the “best of the bunch” or which ones we should delete.  Survey View in Adobe Lightroom can help us out with this!

Survey View in Adobe Lightroom can be used for comparing and selecting the best images from a set.  It give us the opportunity to make an informed decision about which photos to keep, edit, or toss by allowing us to see and evaluate multiple images side by side.  

Here’s how it works:

1.) Selecting Multiple Images:  In order to use Survey View, select two or more images in the Library module.  This can be done from the grid view or the film strip.  To select multiple images simply hold down the Ctrl/Cmd key and click on the desired images.  

2.) Turning on Survey View:  Once we’ve selected the images, we can activate the Survey View by hitting the “N” key on the keyboard or by selecting View/Survey from the menu bar. 

3.) Comparing Photographs:  In Survey View, the selected images are displayed together in a grid layout. This makes it easy to compare them side by side.  

4.) Zooming and Rating:  In Survey View we also have the ability to take a closer look at each photograph by using the zoom controls or the loupe view.  Additionally, it gives us the option to assign star ratings, flags, or color labels to the images to help with the selection and sorting process.  This means we can “pick” an image from the Survey View as a favorite or mark it as “rejected.”

5.) Removing Images:  If we decide we don’t like one of the images or it doesn’t meet the selection criteria, we can remove it from the Survey View by clicking on the ‘X’ in the lower right corner of the photograph.  It’s important to note that if we hit the ‘X’ key on our keyboard it will mark the image for deletion.

6.) Exiting Survey View:  To exit the Survey View and return to the normal Library grid view, hit “G” on the keyboard for grid or go to the menu bar and under “View”, select “Grid”.  A third option is to hit the “esc” key on the keyboard.

The Survey View in Adobe Lightroom is a useful tool for comparing and selecting the best images from a set, allowing us to make informed decisions about which photos to keep, edit, or trash.

Compare View

Another tool Adobe Lightroom gives us to help in the culling images process is the Compare View.  The Compare View allows us to see two images side by side so we can do a detailed comparison.  This is something I typically use when I have my set of similar images narrowed down and I’m looking for technical issues like focus or sharpness.

The real value of the Compare View is that it allows us to zoom in and pan around the two images at the same time!  This is the ultimate way of seeing which image is sharper.

There is a lot of functionality with this feature that won’t be covered here, however, this will give you a basic understanding of Compare View.

1.) Selecting Images:  To use the Compare View, we need to select at least two images from the Library Module.  As with the Survey View, we can do this by holding down the Ctrl/Cmd key and clicking on the images we want to compare.  It’s important to note that we can choose more than two images to compare; in face we can choose an entire set to compare.

2.) Activating the Compare View:  Once we have selected the images, we activate the Compare view by hitting the “C” key on our keyboard or by going to the View menu item and selecting “Compare.”

3.) Side-by-Side Comparison:  In Compare View, the selected images are displayed side by side, which synchronized zooming and panning.  We are able to see both images in detail down to the pixel level if we want.

4.) Metadata and Making Adjustments:  This view also allows us to see the metadata of each image so we can compare the camera settings.  In addition, we have access to the “Quick Develop” panel in the event we want to make some quick edits to the images.  

5.) Compare More than Two Images:  When selecting the images, I stated it was possible to select more than two images to compare.  The Compare View allows us to compare a Select to a Candidate, meaning we can compare two images and decide which one we like better.  THEN, we can compare the one we liked best to the next one in the set.  This is all done by using the film strip down below the compare window.

The Compare View in Adobe Lightroom is a powerful tool for analyzing and comparing images, allowing us to make solid decisions on which images to keep and which ones to discard.

Photo Culling Software Applications

Adobe Lightroom is not the only tool available for culling images.  For those of us that use Lightroom for organization and post-processing it’s just a very convenient way to do it from right within our catalog.  There are many software applications out there developed specifically for this task and easily found through a simple Google search.

FilterPixel is a product RMSP has some experience with and it works very well.  It is geared more towards portrait photographers.  FilterPixel uses AI algorithms to look for things like focus, eye quality, duplicates, and people blinking.  If you would like to learn more about FilterPixel check out our YouTube video!


Culling images can be a big task, but a necessary one.  It allows us to simplify our workflow and save precious hard drive space at the same time.  For some of us, deleting photographs can be difficult because it feels so final, but we have to realize that if it’s a bad photograph now, it probably will be 3 years from now.  Culling those images keeps things cleaner and easier for us.  It affords us more time to spend on editing and being creative rather than sifting through all of our photographs searching for that good one again.  


  • Rob Gappert

    I love my family, I love Montana, and I love photography. And according to my wife, they are not always necessarily in that order… I enjoy sharing my experience through my photographs. I primarily shoot nature and landscapes, but I’ll pretty much a take a picture of anything that catches my eye. You will see by looking at my work that I like bold, vibrant colors. I try to photograph, what I would consider, “untouched nature”. I struggle to incorporate people in my images, it’s a problem I’m trying to overcome. I love to travel, but I don’t believe vacations are for rest and relaxation. I’ve found that the great majority of tourists tend to sleep in, so it’s really not that difficult to find solitude in the most beautiful of places. I have always been and always will be a follower of light.