Posted by Justin Benson
Updated: June 25, 2024

What Is Culling In Photography?

The whys and hows of photo culling

We all know this —--Culling is the unsung art of the photography world. It's the critical task of sifting through countless images to select the few that truly stand out. Picture a sculptor chipping away at a block of marble to reveal a hidden masterpiece. Similarly, a photographer must patiently and skillfully sort through their work, eliminating the mediocre and the repetitive photos to uncover the true gems.

In this article, we'll uncover all the whys and hows of photo culling to give you a holistic overview of the culling process and its immense importance in the photography workflow.

We'll also explore how you can speed up the culling process – and your entire post-shoot workflow – with the right software.

Let's dive right into answering our question!

What is culling in photography?

Culling is an important part of the post-processing workflow for photographers.

Post-processing is the process of editing an image captured by a camera to enhance the photograph. It is basically the process of enhancing your images further, either through editing or culling them out.

As photographers ranging from amateurs to experts prepare to deliver exceptional photos to clients, the process of culling plays a larger-than-realized role in making that happen.

The definition of culling is "to select from a group" and to "reduce or control the size."

So what is culling in photography?

It is the process where photographers select the best images from their photo session. Those images will then be edited and delivered to the client. No matter the type of photography, culling will always be a part of the process. 

Culling images manually can take a very long time, especially if you capture thousands of images on a shoot. Selecting the best photo culling software is among the necessary requirements for a faster workflow. We'll get to that later on in this article.

Why is photo culling important?

A professional wedding session can consist of 2,000 – 3,000 photos. As you are ready to start editing and upload those images into a file, you begin the never-ending process of scrolling through photos.

Culling helps streamline your process by:

  • Getting rid of poor images at the start of your workflow 
  • Choosing only the best images which help you optimize your editing time 
  • Producing faster results for your clients 

How long does photo culling take?

Research suggests that wedding photographers only take 4% of their work time taking photos. While 11% of their time is spent on culling, 55% of their time spent on editing and the remaining on business/admin work.

Additionally, it highlights that its takes around 2 hours to complete culling. Given the time spent on post shoot workflow, it is crucial for photographers to plan and optimize their culling process.

Before we dive deeper into the culling process, let's briefly talk about the importance of clarity in images.

total hours spent on wedding photography shoot

What is the purpose of clarity in photos?

Image clarity is important in the culling and editing workflow. You want your photos to be as sharp as possible.

Of course, there is no substitute for good technique in the capture phase, but you would like to add something in the post-processing to make the pictures clearer and sharper.

You may already be adding sharpening, but how to add that extra crispness to make your pictures pop? The answer is clarity.

Clarity Slider is also an excellent spot tool and can be the perfect way to enhance your images in Lightroom. In addition, it can be used to adjust specific parts of the image accordingly, which is very significant in the photography business.

Pro Tip: If you have noise in the photograph, you can do the post-image processing using Lightroom's Denoise AI.

Every photographer has their own workflow and their own method of handling each step. As you gain experience in your business, you will start developing a workflow that suits your style and the industry standard.

However, this will give you an idea of what to do after the shoot to deliver the final product to your clients using an efficient workflow.

What is the culling process for photographers?

First cull, then edit

You might need to cull a large group of images between 2 to 3 times, which is completely fine – just be sure to finish culling before you start editing. You don't need to edit photos that might be tossed away later. Here's how you can get started:

Input Metadata

Embedding metadata or brief information such as name, place, and time to the set of images will help save you time when you might need to revisit the photos later whilst editing or delivering the final set of photos.

Establish your process 

It might take a few culling sessions, but with each session comes more skills learned. You’ll pick up new tips and tricks to make your culling process quicker, and ultimately, you’ll establish your optimal workflow. 

Why is automated AI culling better than manual culling?

Think about it this way: You have just returned from a shoot with 900 photos. By looking at so many photos, your mind is split in two, culling and editing.

So, as you start to cull your photos manually, you find a photo you like and spend a few minutes editing, and then the process of culling starts again until you find another photo to edit, and so on.

And let's face it, human beings have limited attention spans and can easily get sidetracked. The constant interruption to edit photos not only slows down the overall culling process but can also lead to inconsistencies in the editing style.

Moreover, it's easy to lose track of time and end up spending hours on just a few photos, leaving the bulk of the work unfinished. 

You can see how your train of thought gets broken; this way, frustration starts slowly to kick in!

Hence, you must manage your post-production effectively and efficiently, even though it requires you to invest in software that’ll help you save time and get more business.

Also, the sooner you deliver results, the happier your clients will be. Happy clients mean more referrals, which means more business, and you know what that means. 😉

What is the best way to cull photos?

Let's look at how software can speed up your post-processing workflow by easily eliminating duplicates, removing unclear photos, arranging photos in desired folders, and ultimately saving you time.

Suppose you are thinking of starting your wedding photography business.

In that case, you have to come to peace with the fact that post-processing is an industry standard of the entire process, and you would surely need a way out for processing those 200-300 images daily!

Aftershoot is the solution for easing your post-processing workflow by culling out all the undesirable and duplicate photos, which would take you countless hours to do manually.

Aftershoot has two culling types: AI-Assisted Culling or Automated AI Culling.

AI-Assited Culling lets you cull manually but with a little AI assistance to speed up the process. It sorts duplicates and gives you key faces to help make your selection process faster.

But if you want to save more time, then you can stick to Automated AI Culling which analyzes all your images for you and gives you suggestions on what it deems the best shots.

Watch this video to see how easy it is to cull with Aftershoot.

Ingesting and culling images

A person holding a memory card

The best way to ingest your images into the computer is to copy the RAW files from the memory card to your computer.

You could use your operating system to copy the RAW files of similar images from your memory card to a particular folder on your machine, or you could use software like Adobe Bridge, Lightroom, or Capture One to handle this process.

Remember that your time is money when you’re working on your projects.

Apart from your feature images, you might not want to spend too much time working on each and every image that you have selected.

Working on 500 images individually in Photo Mechanic can take an eternity and is an eye-bleeding job! Have a look at some alternatives to Photo Mechanic.

The more selective you are with the photos you take, the faster your post-wedding workflow will be. 

The primary reason why investing in software like Aftershoot is way better than just using any other photo editing software is that it runs locally on the user’s system and lets the user retain full control of the selections. It makes it extremely easy to review and edit the selections made by Aftershoot.

With the help of Aftershoot, you can save hours and take back control of your time to focus on things that matter the most to you!

Culling with Aftershoot

How do you organize thousands of images before culling?

Once you have your RAW files on your computer, you must decide how you want to organize and sort them so that they do not end up scattered across your hard drive.

Wedding photographers organize their photos in a variety of ways, including assigning stars to favorite images, categorizing images with color combinations, creating personalized image groups, and much more.

If you’re dealing with years of images, you might want to start with the main folder for each year, then create subfolders for events, clients, specific locations, and so on.

Getting organized can be difficult, but once you have a system in place, the task of downloading and editing images becomes far less stressful.

While you are choosing your best images to send to your client to let them select their favorites, make sure to include your feature images. Feature images are the best of the best of your images.

Images where you have captured the reaction of the bride’s mom when she sees her daughter in the wedding dress for the first time are those kinds of images that will make your clients go “Aw…” and maybe shed a tear of joy. These images are your money-makers!

Editing your images

This is where the magic happens! You have your final number of culled images and can now begin your basic Lightroom edits.

Or, you could speed up your editing process tenfold by using AI software like Aftershoot EDITS.

Now the cropping, straightening, and adjustments for exposure, contrast, shadow, highlights, etc., come into play. Again, this part is very personal to each photographer, and this is where your style begins to emerge.

Two of the most popular manual photo editing software are Adobe Lightroom and Capture One. Capture One is a standalone piece of software, while Lightroom is included as part of the Adobe Creative Suite.

Now you might be wondering, what about Photoshop?

Most professional photographers post-process 95% of the images within Lightroom and only use Photoshop when they cannot fix something in Lightroom. Therefore, their workflow depends on whether an image needs further work in Photoshop or not.

Fast-track Tip: If you have a series of photos in the same lighting situation taken with the same camera, edit the first photo in the set, select the rest of the photos that match, then hit the “Sync” button to apply your edit to all of the photos in that set at once.

Why backups are important

Creating backups with an external hard drive

As photographers, we have many images and other digital content that we need to protect. Therefore, you must back-up your client’s images in several places as soon as possible.

No matter what solution you choose to store and back up your files, the most important thing is that you fully understand the system you have in place.

When you finally get your photos backed up in a few different places, it gives you peace of mind. You no longer have to worry if your client’s photos will get accidentally deleted. In addition, you have multiple copies, so if one fails you, there is always a backup.

If you have a small number of RAW images to store, cloud services like Google Drive & Dropbox will be feasible for you.

However, suppose you have many photographs and are looking for a good backup storage solution. In that case, there are many great photography software options that are created specifically for professional photographers and videographers.

How the experts take on the culling process

What is culling in photography article image showing Aftershoot as the solution for fast AI culling

While following a guide for photo culling might be helpful, getting insights into the workflow of an actual photographer is often more practical.

In that spirit, we have the workflow of some Aftershoot power users featured below to help you optimize and streamline your workflow!

Justin Benson, Aftershoot Co-Founder & Wedding Photographer

🌐 J.Benson Photography | Follow on Instagram

After completing a shoot, my first step is always backing up my images!

Download those memory cards to multiple hard drives and keep them safe. There are no shortcuts here.
Get those photos downloaded, saved, backed up, and protected. From there, we can work on ways to keep our workflow fast.

The first step for me is culling the images to select the ones I’ll be editing and delivering to my clients.

To do so, one of the greatest tools I utilize is Aftershoot. It does the heavy lifting for me with the AI Automated culling process. It will select the best images, categorize duplicates left, pick the images without blur and closed eyes, and reduce the number of images you have to look at in your editing software.

Coming from Photomechanic, this is a huge speed boost for my workflow!

Once culling is completed in Aftershoot, I take a few minutes to review my results.

This is not required, but it can be helpful in verifying what you have and get rid of some images that are inherently selected due to their uniqueness.

While they may be unique to your image set, they may be photos that you just didn’t mean to take or don’t need (think testing light, etc.) Once my final images are selected in Aftershoot, I import the images into Lightroom.

Upon importing to Lightroom, I view all of my 5-star images (selected images from aftershoot) in the library mode.

From here, I break the images up into sections using Collections. I like to have my weddings broken up into Prep images, First Look, Ceremony, Formals, and Reception. Breaking up the images makes it easier to take on small chunks of editing at a time.

I run Aftershoot typically in the morning while I answer emails so that by the time I am ready to get to editing, I have a completed cull ready to edit – using Aftershoot EDITS, too, of course! 

Michael Fayehun, Wedding Photographer

🌐 F10 Studio | Follow on Instagram

As a Wedding Photographer, I normally come back home with thousands of photos after each wedding shoot, and this usually takes me a couple of hours to cull down to the number of photos that I will deliver to my client.

Earlier, my approach was to go through 2-4 culling rounds – the first to eliminate bad exposures and out-of-focus shots, the second to eliminate duplicate images, and the 3rd and 4th usually to get my final number of photos to be edited down to the ideal number that I then deliver to my clients.

How Aftershoot has changed my workflow

I’ll be honest with you, I outsource some parts of my business, and this has been something that I’ve always thought would be impossible to outsource because I did not want to exclude creative shots where I knew why I took them. No one else would understand and maybe not select them.

But over time, I’ve run so many of my shoots through Aftershoot with the AI Automated Culling function, and its ability to select the best shots that I need to see and edit gets better every time.

The team at Aftershoot has worked incredibly hard, getting constant feedback from the early users to improve the algorithm and selections, and I am now fully convinced that this is the software for me!

My culling process has been cut down from multiple hours to under an hour to select final edits from thousands of images. This game-changer will be a key part of my workflow moving forward!

Martin Cheung, Wedding Photographer

🌐 Martin Cheung Photography | Follow on Instagram

I suspect my original workflow for culling was like most other wedding photographers! I would put all the RAWs into a single folder and then open up Photomechanic.

Then it was simply a case of powering through the thousands of images I had taken at each wedding. Using T to tag and untag photos. 

I saw the culling process as a necessary evil. The worst part was simply the monotony of it since I can easily take around 5,000 images at a single wedding

Including my second shooters, it was not unusual to be over 7,000 images in a single day. With 50 weddings each year, you can quickly see how much time I spent just culling!

I admit to being very skeptical about Aftershoot initially. I was dubious if AI could replace such a fundamental part of my workflow when selections are a judgment call oftentimes. I’m pleased to say that so far, the results have been great!

My workflow now is as follows: Once the RAWs are all copied onto my computer, I opened up Aftershoot and create a new album.  Next, I drop the folder into Aftershoot, choose my settings (I tend to leave everything on the strictest settings for the AI Automated Culling mode), and simply hit Start Culling.

As the computer processes the images, I can spend this time doing something else more productive! Answering emails, watching Netflix, or spending time with the family! Anything but wading through thousands of images. 

Aftershoot is also faster than I am. Way faster!

Once the culling is complete, I have a quick scroll through to exclude any images that have been selected, but I don’t think it quite makes the cut. 

The grid view makes it easy for me to remove any images where I still have many duplicates and want to cut down on the final selection further. I’ll then import the lot into Lightroom, where I have pre-created Smart Collections to match the ratings Aftershoot uses. E.g. 5 stars for selected, 1 star blurred. 

I am surprised and very pleased that Aftershoot has become an integral part of my workflow.

It has already saved me hours and hours of culling hell. It has made this mundane but necessary part of my workflow fun again. And it has quickly become one of those must-have tools I never knew I needed!

Streamline your culling process

We've answered, "What is culling?" but now an even more important question arises: What will you do to streamline and speed up this very necessary but tedious process?

Here's the solution: Use Aftershoot to cull faster!

You can use one of two culling modes in Aftershoot:
1. AI-Assisted Culling – Where you retain full control and Aftershoot simply helps you sort images before you manually cull them.
2. AI Automated Culling – Where Aftershoot culls for you and lets you decide whether you want to keep the selections it made or choose different shots to edit. It won't discard anything, don't worry.

Its AI software is safe, reliable, fast, user-friendly, and, best of all... it works without an internet connection!

Ready to give it a try? Start your free 30 - day trial now!

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