How Many Photos are Too Many Photos

Neon Days and Neon NightsNeon Days and Neon Nights Hosted on Zooomr

ComeAcross � Winnowing my photos Editor’s note: The best thing about a blog is that it’s *your* blog and you can write about erratic, crazy and obsessive things that nobody else cares about, well, maybe a few people care about, but most people don’t, but what the hey, it’s my blog.

My friend Raoul has a post up today about winnowing his photos. He writes that he recently whittled down his collection of over 18,000 photos to about 7,000. And he’s also deleted some photos in the past few weeks that he’s uploaded to Zooomr. He’s trying to be critical and writes, “If someone’s going to take the time to go through my photos, I don’t want them to see chaff, I want them to see substance.”

And so Raoul’s post makes me think about my own photography and in some ways my obsessive pursuit of quantity and why I feel the need to work as hard as I do at it.

I did a count tonight and my own stats look something like this. At present I’ve got about 177,918 images that I’ve taken stored on hard drives.

Of these 177,918 images, about 28,135 images are what I’d consider family snapshots. Private photos, not online, but of importance to me as a way of documenting my children (mostly) and other family members.

Another 12,113 are what I’d consider “fine art” (whatever that means). These are shots that I’ve processed and like enough to consider good enough to be a part of my fine art archive. Of these shots a little over 9,000 are on Zooomr and a little over 7,000 overlap on Flickr.

The remaining, roughly, 137,670 images that I have are what I refer to as scratch images. These are unprocessed images sorted by date in folders that serve as my raw material for processing. Frequently as I have time I scour these folders looking for images that I’d consider good enough for processing and then move them into my permanent fine art or family collections.

And that’s a lot of photos.

Of the 137,670 current scratch photos about 80% are just as I shot them from the camera. Like Raoul I’ve culled some. Not near enough of course though, but really obviously bad ones where there are major technical flaws or someone’s eyes or closed or whatever. I could cull even more but at present my time is worth more to me than disk drive space (I currently have over four terabytes of hard disk space).

I spent some time hanging out with my friend Dave Sifry from Technorati the other day (an excellent photographer and fellow 5D owner himself) and he said he thought that I shouldn’t delete anything, even the bad ones. Maybe Dave’s right and I should not even kill the worst of them. I mean even these can be turned into abstracts at times with the right photoshopping.

But then again maybe some just need to go.

My goal is to have 100,000 finished processed fine art shots before I die. I’m sure I’ll have well over 1 million scratch images. I shoot about 200-300 images on average each day.

Ultimately I want to turn my images into a art in a different way. I collect many things with my camera. Neon signs, portraits, self portraits, advertising, miniature toys, bridges, whatever…

One day I want to begin showing my photos in a gallery but in a unique way. I want to print all of my photos of a given subject out as 8×10 prints. Thousands of them. And then build collages of images with these 8x10s that fill large galleries. I want the gallery space to have no windows and a single door. You open the door and enter the gallery and every visible inch is covered with photographs of a subject matter. The ceiling, the walls, even the floor beneath a plastic or glass surface. Possibly the gallery would be set up with a living room (couch, table, chairs, etc.) and a television. The television would be rotating slide show of the images in the show (changing at one image per second). Perhaps the furniture itself could be completely covered in photographs. I’m not sure on that yet.

Along the way though I hope to share the work as I go while trying to get the best possible images that I can. I think a lot about what will happen to all these images when I die and especially the last moments of my life which hopefully will include a camera. But I could write thousands of more words about that and those words are best saved for another time.

Anyways, that’s what I’m up to with all this photography nonesense.

And thanks Raoul for your post.

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  1. LeggNet says:

    Like you, I keep every shot I take. With the relatively inexpensive cost of hard drive space, this makes sense to me. I archive all my RAW files in a folder hierarchy based upon year/month/date shot. I would rather look back years from now and have several drives of “originals” than wish I had some of them back.

    While I’m not in your league with the amount of shots, I did shoot just under 12,000 photos in 2006. Of these, I put roughly 12% on my Flickr account. I feel that if 1 in 10 is a fairly decent shot, I’m doing okay.

    On a side note, how many shots do you have on your 5D? Any problems??

  2. Ed Cotton says:


    How many photos do you think the great pre-digital photographers took in their lifetimes- Capa, Diane Arbus, Edwward Weston, Ansel Adams, Cartier-Besson?

    I agree the world has changed, we now have the power to take more good photos, but the definition of photographic art shouldn’t have changed much.

    In your collection, there will always be good photos, but how many would you really consider to be”art”?

    I would far rather see 20-30 of your best shots in a gallery, than the sensory overload you are suggesting.

    I don’t think my eyes or brain could cope and the value of each image would be devalued.

    But, perhaps I am just an old-fashioned traditionalist.


  3. John Walker says:

    This is something I’ve struggled with too. Currently I keep everything, but not sure if I’ll keep doing that.

    QUESTION: What do you do for backups? You’ve got those drives whirring around and they’ll fail at some point. Very interested to know what you do.

  4. Thomas Hawk says:

    John, it’s all backed up, well, mostly. Certainly all of the fine art finished shots and family shots are backed up. In multiple locations (parents, brother, work, etc.) as well.

    Most of the raw archive images are also backed up on multiple drive here locally. I need to do a better job figuring out a way to get these photos offsite though.

    Rich, I can get about 450 shots on a 8 gig card on my 5D shooting in RAW. No problems there. Typically I shoot with my backpack which includes my mac. As soon as I fill up a card I offload it to the mac and free up the space. I’ve got two 8gig cards and a 4 gig.

    Keep shooting brother.

    Ed, interesting. In some ways though Flickr/Zooomr are my workbooks. Not sure which are my best shots. Are your popular shots really your best? I need someone with more of an eye than mine to sift through my shots and make those kinds of determinations. Sensory overload is part of the message though. What part of modern life isn’t sensory overload?

  5. Thomas Hawk says:

    Ed, the other thing I struggle with in trying to cull my collection of finished shots is that I still love so many of them. I honestly do not have one single favorite or even a group of favorites.

    Joni Mitchell said songs are like children. Photos are very much the same way. When you create something how can you kill any of them or play favorites. Perhaps this task is best left to others while I just concentrate on making more.

  6. Dave2 says:

    I just want to say “thanks” for continuing to share your wonderful photos with us. I love the bright spot in my day when your web feed reveals a beautiful new image to look at. 🙂

  7. Raoul says:

    Hey Tom, really appreciate the link and the comments you left on my post. Just replied to them. A small note of correction. I probably didn’t make it clear enough in my post. I still have about 18,000 photos on my hard drive. I simply set aside about 7,000 of them that I’d like to upload to Zooomr. I’ve already uploaded over 5,000 of that 7,000. I originally had over 25,000 photos on my drive, of which only 18,000 remain because of some recent winnowing. And of course, I winnow every time I download photos to my drive. Hope this doesn’t make it more confusing… 🙂

  8. John Keyes says:

    Thanks for the post Thomas. I enjoy reading about how you manage your workflow and the quantity of photos that you take. As I ramp up the quantities of photos that I take, I struggle with this.

    For now, Carbonite automatically handles backup for me, but soon I’ll have to move my photos to external USB drives, and that won’t work anymore.

  9. David says:

    Thomas, thanks for the kind mention in your post.

    To be clear, I still advocate aggressive editing of the shots I take – I probably put up only about 1/20th or so of the photos that I shoot on public sites like flickr. The photos that go in my shows are an even smaller subset – probably 1 in 500 or so.

    However, I don’t believe in deleting photos from my archives – even the failures – often I learn the most from my failures, and they help me to learn from my mistakes. I’ve found that I take so few photos that are of such low quality (lens cap on, totally out of focus, etc) that with my workflow, I just leave those in the archive and rate them with a bottom rating.

    The funny thing is that you don’t even know what you’ve got in your shot sometimes until years later, remember that snap of Bill Clinton kissig Monica Lewinsky on some reception line somewhere? I guarantee that that picture wasn’t one oht epicks of that photographer of that moment – he had to look back through his archives for it.

    And with the cost of hard disks and DVD-Rs coming down to such a reasonable level, I find that the costs are small to archive all my shots. I even make a trick to do “distributed backups” – I burn DVDs of all the shots I took that year, and make 5-6 copies, and send them out to my parents and siblings as holiday gifts – that way, they get family pictures, and I get relatively disaster-proof backup and storage 🙂


  10. Andy Frazer says:


    Thanks for sharing your personal goals and your insight into how you’re progressing towards those goals. Not many people are generous enough to share that (of course, not many people even have personal goals these days).

    When you get your wall-to-ceiling gallery show, please let me know. I will be there.

    Andy Frazer

  11. Thomas Hawk says:

    Dave, your point about keeping everything in the archive is well taken. I try to do this and really only kill the shots that I just thing are horrid technically. I suppose if I’ve got 177k photos and I’ve processed and consider 12k of high enough quality caliber to save then I’m at about 8% or so which is pretty good I think. Still, I’m sure I could do a better job at culling out the 9k or so that I’ve got online at Zooomr. I doubt I’ll do it though. There’s something that I enjoy about a photo that even gets one view and I think that over time as search technology evolves that each of these photos (even the ones that are processed but not the best) might have value from an image search perspective.

    Eventually I hope to get the 100,000 images that I consider “processed” all online.

    Great comments on the backup idea as well. I do a similar thing with my family and that is I bring a hard drive full of processed photos (especially family photos) and dump them on their computers at Holiday’s etc. They like to see them and it provides a unique offsite backup.

    Right now I’ve got multiple backups of my processed photos both onsite and offsite and onsite hard drive backups of most of my RAW working files.

    With hard drives it’s not a matter of if it will fail but when and I’m trying to be very careful about how I store all of these images.

  12. Carl says:


    How do you organize your photos? I’ve been using Photoshop Elements 5 on Windows, and I like it, but I’m not sure it will scale to the kind of numbers you have.


  13. Ian Robins says:


    It’s great to hear your plans and to see your inspiring photos. I’d love to know how you manage your workflow. I have a few thousand photo’s but haven’t yet get a proper system in place – I know I need to as I’ve started to shoot in RAW now. Also, what’s the best way of doing back-ups for collections? External hard drive(s)?

    I don’t think any photos should be deleted. They all document something, whether the quality is good or bad.

    Reading this post and the comments sparked a thought. Bridge etc all use the star rating system so you can grade your photos or highlight the ones you want to go back to and edit. How about Zooomer using a similar feature? You could have a rating system that is only visible to you. You can then quickly find the photos you love/want to keep and those you don’t (using a set). Taking Raoul’s blog entry further about asking Zooomer users to give feedback on photos he should consider deleting, why not have a star grading system that visitors can use. This way you get an added dimension – comments plus rating. It would certainly help in a constructive way to get an idea of what people think of your photos. You could then have your popular photos by view and by rating. As you say, when they are your photos it’s hard to be objective and this might help. Just a thought.

    By the way, I’m enjoying Zooomer. I’m getting to grips with it and want to use the account to showcase my better photos.


  14. LeggNet says:

    Thanks for the reply, Thomas. As for the 5D, I was actually wondering what the total number of shots is on your camera so far. I’m curious as to the lifespan of the shutter and how it the body is holding up to your near constant shooting.

  15. Ray Booysen says:

    Hi Thomas. I certainly know where you’re coming from. But keep them! 🙂

    I shot over 4000 images in 2006 and I only started taking photos more seriously in September. A few more years of this and we’re getting close to your level.

    All we need now is a 10TB seagate drive and all the problems go. (except backup that is) 🙂

  16. Eric says:


    I read your post with great inspiration after discovering your work on Flickr.

    Anyways, the comment I’m most drawn to in you your post is how you average up to 300 shots per day. How do you find your subject matter and then proceed in taking this many images?

    I try to get 1 quality shot per day, and only average around 10 shots. But if I could increase the amounts of shots taken, I’d certainly increase the amounts of quality pics.

    I am very impressed with your determination to create a mega-huge body of work. I’m sure it is quite a challenge to meet these sorts of personal goals, as we all find ourselves in periodic slumps.

    Nonetheless, you take a lot of pics and you take a lot of quality pics at that. Thanks for doing what you do, and this is going to provide me a source fuel for the creative mind.

  17. autumnleaf says:

    Thomas, you got quite a large collection of photos, and many of them will make good stock photos. Why not just sell them ? 🙂

  18. Shazz says:

    @eric: watch thomas on scoble’s photowalking videos here to see him shoot hundreds of photos a day (I do on some days too!):

    @autumnleaf: thomas has taught me (thru his blog) about the power and fun of giving away many (most) of your images – try it! PS – He does some ‘pix for hire’ too.

    @thomas: IMO don’t edit any, they’re history … some of the most amazing images in our world today arose many years later from the negatives (never printed) of photographers who had died. What you don’t like, others may love … or it may prove to have a historical significance. Archiving is a noble gesture to our future generations.