Boiling down the stock

I’ve just written up my annual notes of the photos that meant most to me from my personal and professional work this year. Some people write weeknotes, can you believe?!

This is part one, and this is part two.

Anyway, someone asked me how I go about selecting them. So this is how.

It varies a bit across the year, but it’s not far off the mark to say that I produce something in the order of 50-100 photos a day, on average. And that’s only the ones I consider fit for publication or sending out to clients. Don’t even ask how many I take*.

That’s a vast stream of images. A flood, really. And if there’s one thing I fear as they wash past, it’s that I’ll lose track of the good stuff. That I’ll forget about something that would look great on my website, or be useful in a pitch, or for a competition. Or just to look back over and enjoy.

I know many photographers who have shelves covered with archive drives. “I really must get round to sorting that lot out” is a familiar cry, for professional and amateur alike.

Which means I have a process. So every Sunday evening a little notification pops up on my phone. Reminding me to trawl back over the last week’s output and grab the ones I think are half-decent, most interesting, or just might be useful in future.

Yes, I hear you ask, but how exactly is that done? Well, firstly it requires a disciplined workflow. (That’s just the word we use for the overall sequence of practices, processes and tools between taking pictures and archiving them.) As well as creating a cloud archive, and a couple of offline storage copies, I also upload everything to Flickr (though you won’t find much of it there as I set all the commissioned work to private, meaning only I can see it). This means I have a nice visual line of images, in date order, to review on the Sunday. I then tag the ones I care about most, using the Flickr tagging function with a specific tag that’s unique to me. And that’s it. To review at the end of the year, or to periodically trawl for new images for the website, or a themed set for a particular purpose, I just filter on the tag.

Or at least that’s what I did, until this summer. Because that’s when I noticed that Flickr was starting to creak a little. The tag filtering would return a slightly different image selection each time I clicked on it – and it would occasionally miss some tagged images out entirely. No platform can be guaranteed to be perfect, for ever, and I’m sad to say that Flickr seems to be developing some problems. It’s been through a big change of ownership – though with little product development to be seen – but heaven knows what data structure wrinkles may be hiding beneath its surface. Clearly I couldn’t rely on it anymore and the thought of losing my favourites was terrifying. As was the worst-case fallback – reviewing every one of a quarter of a million images to find the good stuff again.

I stuck out an appeal for anyone who knew anything about the Flickr API (the programming interface that enables big, heavy processes to be run with a few short commands). In my case, I wanted a magic code sequence that would cause Flickr to cough up the original files with that particular tag, so I could put them somewhere else that would be more sustainable.

Step forward Mr Iain Collins, long-time Twitter friend, and proper geek. He found it wasn’t exactly a trivial problem, but tried lots of things over a few weeks, and eventually cracked it. I’ve now got them back, and in a different set of cloud and offline archives. I can’t thank him enough. And going forward, I now review the pics each week and pull them straight into the new structure. If you care about your content – and especially if its your livelihood – it’s a good idea to manage out any dependencies on services that you don’t fully control.

I had a couple of months backlog to clear, which took an age over the Christmas hols, but I ended up with about 300 as my long list for “shots of the year”. To get to the 40 or so I that I usually publish in those posts (about 20 per post seems a good length) I then only have to review those 300. The first picks are the gut feel ones. “Damn, yes, that was really good. Got to have that in.” About a dozen of those. Then I select others that I really like, but taking care that they’re not all too similar. I’m an event and portrait photographer, in the main, but I do plenty of landscapes and other subjects, and I want to make sure the selection represents different types of work as fully as possible. Because as well as doing this for fun and personal practice, it’s also a useful showcase of what I’ve been up to. I don’t want it to be all London skylines or speakers-looking-dynamic-on-a-stage.

Then having got to perhaps 80 as a shortlist, I take some things out. If I had something very similar last year, out it goes. There were lots of great muddy dogs this year, but there were last year too. And I’m really fussy about the commissioned stuff. If it’s not been published by a client, or isn’t a shot that someone in it might reasonably expect to see here, it doesn’t go in. Especially so for private client work – and if I’ve asked special permission to include it, I’ll say so. This stuff matters, whatever the fine print of the law may say.

And that’ll get me to 40, for which I write a very brief line or two of introduction. Because I’ve put in the work over the year I can do the whole thing in a couple of hours, though it really makes the point that you have to do this very regularly so it’s just a habit. Go on, set your repeating notification up now!

*No, really, don’t. I think it’s the wrong question. Focusing on the input means you are either trying to pick or win some sort of argument about what ‘good’ looks like which involves tedious references to rolls of 35mm film and having grown up in a Box Brownie on the M1, or you’re not being experimental enough. I’ll take 200 near-identical frames if there’s something I really want to try and achieve. And then bin them all if they’re crap. Outputs are a useful number. Not inputs.