Photographers, Don’t Delete Your Bad Photos, You Might Be Surprised To Learn Why!

Do you often return from a photography session or trip to upload your photos and immediately delete the bad photos from the set? While getting rid of the obvious blurry image can save you disk space, I find that deleting can sometimes do more harm than good. Had I culled my images right away I never would have created this photograph.

Earlier this month I took a trip to photograph wild horses. I usually do these trips several times a year in the warmer weather in addition to teaching workshops. Wild horses are one of my passion projects. On my last trip, I visited an island where the horses survive off the dunes and maritime forest. They often visit the sandy beach. Rarely if you know what to look for you can even catch them going into the water. Through years of experience and understanding wild horse behavior, I can tell when they are likely to go for a swim. The reason that the horses go into the water is to cool off and use the salt water's natural effects at pest removal. Being wild, they are just as bothered by the biting flies, ticks, and mosquitoes as I am while out photographing them.

On this particular occasion, several horse bands were driven together and battling over the beach which is the best territory. That is a whole different story, but important to note is that with all of the scuffles and tense standoffs the horses were overheated from the hot summer sun. Lashing their tails, kicking out, and stomping they were also beleaguered by insects. The band of horses that wins the beach also wins rights to the prized water. Knowing this, I followed them for several miles down the beach as the bands fought. Eventually, after some mock charges and squaring up, the losers wandered off. It didn’t take long for the winning band to start eyeing up the shoreline. The moment I had waited for unfolded in front of me. The entire band, foal included, all went into the ocean.

To capture this, I was ready. My camera was set to a high shutter speed to freeze the action, continuous focus on, and burst frame setting for max frames per second. Usually, when the horses go into the water they dip in ankle-deep, splash around a bit then come right out. As I watched they went deeper and deeper into the ocean, waves crashing over them, to my utter delight. I looked to my group and asked, “Who wants to get crazy photos and doesn’t mind getting wet?” We all dropped our bags and those with sneakers on left them in a frantic heap and took off. With our 500mm+ telephoto lenses to give us a safe distance, we waded out into the water for the ultimate perspective and water foreground. The horses frolicked around in the water like youngsters. Some of them stood still with the water up to their chests or withers and braced as wave after wave crashed over them. The air was electric with the sounds of waves, horses splashing, and camera shutters firing.

Photographing the horses in the water like that was an amazing experience that I will never forget. After years of studying and creating equine art of wild horses, I have never seen them go into the ocean both for so long or to swim so deep like that. Once home I had hundreds of images to look through from the set. With other projects to work on and a slightly bad habit of hoarding my photos anyway, I didn’t delete any sharp photos from that day. Then a few weeks later while sitting down to look through them with fresh eyes, I noticed something interesting. In the background of a sequence of the photos, a single horse gallops right through the frames creating a huge splash in his wake. I was photographing other horses standing together, but he ran right behind them perfectly in focus. In most of the photos he was obscured by the other horses, and then disappears to the left. Had I deleted any photos right away that I didn’t think were as strong I would have never noticed him back there.

Out of curiosity and a hunch, I opened all of the photos where the horse was running through into Photoshop. I cropped and cut out any part that wasn’t him. I was shocked to find that like a puzzle I had him perfectly galloping, ears forward, mane flying, and ocean erupting around him as he raced through the water. With patience, enough coffee, and decent editing skills I could mask and match the pieces together into one digital artwork that captured that hidden moment. I set about my quest determined to see it through.

After about 5 hours of painstaking masking, clone stamping, and fixing the mane with the background eraser tool I had a huge file that completely surprised me.

The lesson here is to hoard your photographs with wild abandon; you just might find hidden treasure in them.

That being said, I will mention that as a wildlife photographer I am careful with doing artificial edits. I prefer to keep things natural as I saw them. I am up front about when one of my photos would be considered Photoshopped, such as a blue hour blend for the milky way. I see this wild horse photo as a digital artwork or photo puzzle if you will, and no less art than a single shot photograph, just different. I am so pleased with the result and that should be what drives you rather than the criticism of others.

By keeping your extra photos, you can solve common problems as well. If you photograph people and in one image their eyes are closed or a goofy expression you can borrow that area from a photo a few frames before or after. Images that are sharp and well exposed, but just not as good can be scraps for something later on. Textures and skies can be useful for future projects.

What do you think of keeping spare photographs? Have you ever used one photo to save another image? Have you ever created a puzzle photo like I did with the wild horse? Let me know in the comments below.

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22 Comments

Charles Haacker's picture

Kate, I think that is all kinds of fabulous! Incredibly well done! Serendipitous, too, but good on ya for seeing it, and then knowing what to do with it.

When I come in from an event I am fairly ruthless about the cull, but I also don't delete anything unless it's mush. I also upload a complete backup set, just in case. I just did a couple of events for the Alzheimer's Association last weekend. My typical ratio is around 3:1. I glory in the fact that I can even do that since back in the day I couldn't afford it and anyway you could whip thru a roll of 36 in less time than it took to explain it, then reload while missing shots, or use multiple bodies, or long-roll backs. I work in Lightroom with twin 24" monitors so I can have the thumbnails up very big on one and the other showing loupe or survey view. I find that I do best if I go pretty fast. Anything I think is worth a closer look gets one star. Then I can filter for everything with a star and review. I still have all the images to draw from if I made an error on the first pass. I totally agree about having the ability to face swap a blink or bad expression. Shooting weddings years ago you'd make 5 exposures and someone different would blink in every one.

Once the edits are done and the job ready for delivery, I review again, plus look at all the unstarred stuff again. At that stage, I usually select all the unstarred and delete them, but I still have the full set on the backup drive. I keep that for a few months or until the drive gets too full, then start deleting those entire folders from oldest to newer. I always like to keep the latest backups for a good while, just in case.

kate g's picture

It sounds like you have a very thorough process for your post. I feel like I do a similar set up for my client and assignment work but when it is my own "for fun" or non assigned jobs my culling and post process methods are just whim based. Because I photograph nature, most of my big edits are just when I decide to get creative and mess around with a photo. The past few years that is mostly for milky way and night sky photography. I like to play with blue hour blends as I mentioned in the article. Those are super fun. :)

Ed C's picture

"I never would have created this photograph." It's a composite, not a photograph. Well done but still a composite.

kate g's picture

I have to disagree on semantics but I understand your thought process.

By definition from Oxford Dictionary (and Merriam Webster has a similar one too):

"pho·to·graph
/ˈfōdəˌɡraf/
noun: photograph; plural noun: photographs
a picture made using a camera, in which an image is focused onto film or other light-sensitive material and then made visible and permanent by chemical treatment, or stored digitally. "

A composite is a type of photo, and this image is a photo. As I explain in my article I feel that my piece is a digital artwork derived from photographs. None of this image was drawn or painted, all just grafted together from real photographs. You can call it a comp, but it is still a photograph as it was taken with a camera. In MW dictionary a comp is called "composite photograph." TLDR: A comp from photos is a photo.

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/composite%20photograph

Ed C's picture

By definition from Meriam Webster

Definition of composite photograph
: a photograph made by combining several distinct photographs either made one over another on the same plate or made on one print from a number of negatives

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/composite%20photograph

If you are trying to sell it or post it as a mere photo instead of a composite then it is intellectually dishonest because you are omitting the word composite, implying it is a simple photo.

This is beyond focus stacking or HDR/Luminosity masking. It is taking subjects from different positions and putting them together. That is exactly what composite artists do.

kate g's picture

Telling me that I am dishonest. Interesting. I think that you missed that last part of my article where I literally state: I am up front about when one of my photos would be considered Photoshopped, such as a blue hour blend for the milky way. I see this wild horse photo as a digital artwork or photo puzzle if you will, and no less art than a single shot photograph, just different.

Also, this is not "subjects" taken, it is the same exact horse in a split second burst sequence where I did not have all of him in each frame, blended the exact pieces together. It is not different horses, diff species, different days, etc. This is not one of those fun comps where people put a lion onto a horse body riding a rainbow.

As I said to your first argument, a comp from photos is still a photo by literal definition. In your second argument calling me dishonest, I am so honest about this that I wrote an article on it, described how I made it in all social media posts about it, and am being asked to make post processing tutorials for folks who want to know how to create things like this. I call it digital artwork and it is a photo. That being said, it is a simple photo now. One photo. Thank you, good day to you sir.

James Cowman's picture

All art, regardless of medium, is a composite of some sort. Artists that go to the canvas are creating composites. Photographers that decide to cut out elements or leave elements in a frame is still a matter of a composite. Additionally, whether you overlap two images or 500 to create one doesn’t make the final image any less of a photograph than a single shot. Ed’s ability to split hairs to engage in an argument is exhausting at best.

Matt Edwards's picture

I think you are really off on your assessment here Ed, you are trying to take a finite definition and apply it to a fluid situation / medium.

In this situation she had the shot, it just happened to be across multiple cropped frames, nothing was invented here that was not in the original frames. Yes it is technically a composite, but the final image is in no way dishonest in its content and is very much not on the spectrum of "digital art" in my opinion.

You sound like you are a purist in interpretation, and that is your choice. No reason to be rude to others and impose your opinion in a demeaning way.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Ahem, nobody would call a stitched panorama, focus stacking, Brenizer Method, etc, etc composites.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

I'm pretty brutal with my images. If they don't survive the first round of culling, they are permanently deleted. There's no going back. What's done is done. By Spartan Law! j/k :)

And, tbh, I'm not into photoshopping too much.

Really great job on that image nonetheless. Just not for me, process wise. I hate editing. I hate computers. :D

kate g's picture

I am imagining you going, "This... iisss... SPARTAAA!" *big kick into delete bin*

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

You know it! My favorite movie, evah!

Slightly off topic, about 9 years ago, I created a parody(ish) video with a clip from that movie. Nothing nsfw.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=meoAhzDRd3A

kate g's picture

:O poor lil critters. War indeed.

Matt Edwards's picture

Very nice editing, looks very natural and you really captured a lost moment there!

kate g's picture

Thank you Matt! :) That is a perfect way to put it, a lost moment.

Tom Reichner's picture

Kate, I love everything you write! What a wonderful photo you created! And also an excellent article about it.

Thank you

kate g's picture

Thank you so much Tom! <3

Matthew Lacy's picture

When I first saw your photos lined up in photoshop like this, I thought you were going to do a composite akin to Pep Ventosa's "Reconstructed Works" series. While the final result was not what I expected, it does look fantastic.

pepventosa.com/gallery.html?gallery=Reconstructed+Works&folio=The+Photographs&vimeoUserID=&vimeoAlbumID=

Charles Haacker's picture

Thanks for the link. I also liked this "under construction" mosaic as much as the finished work.

kate g's picture

Whoa very cool work. Thank you for sharing his link.

Matthew Lacy's picture

I've been a longtime fan of Ventosa's work in general, especially the "trees in the round" series, but your preliminary steps here reminded me of his other work.

I actually had to do a report on him once for a class in school and through the wonders of the internet managed to get in touch with him. He was very obliging and helped me as I needed it.

William Salopek's picture

Great work Kate. Beautiful. I'd have to say though that no matter what the dictionary says, I don't agree that the composite can be called a "photograph".

The average/reasonable person, I believe, would think a "photograph" is a single frame of a real subject that existed in a single moment.

Of course calling that composite image "art" is just fine, but calling it "photograph" is very misleading, IMHO.

We live in a world where truth and fact is quite often questioned. Where people say words that are technically correct but absolutely used in ways to mislead (advertisers and politicians especially).

I think we all have to be extra careful to understand how our words might/will be interpreted by others, so as to prevent misunderstandings, which over time and depending on the subject matter can lead to big troubles that we didn't see coming, both on small and large scales.