Assignment 1: image selection

The assignment on the Pentecostal church is nearing completion. Tomorrow I have a meeting with the church minister to walk him through the images I’d like to use, and by Wednesday I hope to have written up the whole assignment and made a few sample prints.

Image selection process

I found the image selection process to be quite interesting this time around, so much so that I felt the need to write about it.

1. In the bag: 1203

Over five separate visits to three church sites I managed to shoot a grand total of 1203 photographs: almost exactly 100 times what I actually need! So I only need a keeper ratio of 1%…!

In the bag.jpg

I do need to curb my enthusiasm for pressing the shutter button and think more about what is going to make a good photo. The scattergun approach is easy with digital but I ended up with multiple versions of similar scenes that made the first pass selection a little more time-consuming than it needed to be. I’d love to blame burst mode but I only used that a couple of times; well over 1000 of my exposures were the result of my deciding to press the shutter button for some reason.

2. First pass: 94

My selection workflow is a fairly straightforward incremental sweep through Lightroom using the star-based Ratings function. I will quickly go through the images either skipping or rating a 3. My logic is that I will then review the 3s and upgrade some to 4 and some down to 2 (I save 5 for my real favourites and never use 1).

First pass

Of the 90% I jettisoned at this stage, most fell into three categories:

  • Mediocre – just didn’t stand out enough
  • Technical issue (exposure, framing, focus) – thankfully not too many of these
  • Duplicate scene (the main time drag at this stage is choosing between the several very slight variations of a scene that I generally like, so at this pass I often rate a few versions of the same shot until I have time to pore over the small differences at a later pass. The key to this stage is speed!)

I suppose the flip side question is: what attracted me to the ones that I rated? They all had some kind of instant appeal: the gut instinct that says “that’s a good shot“. Not always easy to define why, but I think one or more of the following would have come into my mind, albeit subconsciously:

  • Composition
  • Lighting
  • Colour
  • Expression or gesture

What I don’t believe I was thinking about at this first pass was:

  • Narrative
  • Denotation vs connotation
  • ‘Meaning’

3. Second pass: 38

A more thorough review this time round, including weeding out duplicates by selecting the best version of a chosen scene. The aim this time is to both deselect (by downgrading as many of the 3s as possible to a rating of 2) and to select (by upgrading the promising ones to a 4). A total of 38 images survived this particular cull.

Second pass

By this stage I was trying to identify where each image might fit in the overall structure. I had in mind a reasonably strong plan on what kind of images I wanted to open and close the set, and some ideas on the content of the middle portions. I was also starting to categorise the photos along the lines of the classic photo essay image types (hook, establishing, medium, gesture, interaction, detail, portrait, closing etc).

4. Shortlist: 24

By this point I was working towards a particular number: I want to have 12 images for the submission, plus a second set of 12 alternative shots in case my tutor advises any swap-outs. To further refine from 38 down to 24 I needed to think more specifically about what messages and/or narrative thread was emerging, and whether the images shortlisted supported or interrupted this message or narrative.

My initial curiosity about the church could be summarised along the lines of: “What does a church do apart from hold a weekly church service?“, and this question provided a framework for the sequence – something like:

  • First few pictures from the Sunday service
    • to establish this as the starting point for my understanding of a church
  • Add in other church events
    • that are more unusual or outside of my sphere of experience
    • such as Coffee House Church
  • Widen the scope to cover activities beyond church services
    • such as the town centre cafe / community centre
  • Widen the scope further to look at what the church does for the wider community, whether church members or not
    • such as the food banks
  • Close by recognising that part of the aim of these activities is to spread the word about the church
    • by covering one of their educational / ‘recruitment’-type events

Final 24

By focusing on the above framework I managed to get the 38 down to 24 that supported my intended message.

5. Final set: 12

Nearly there, now I just needed to divide the 24 into an A-list and a B-list…

This is the tricky part, as by now I’ve already established that all 24 could have a place in the photo essay. So for the first time on a project like this, I took an approach that was both analytical and physical: I printed out b/w draft versions the 24 images onto forms that I made up to capture brief information about the characteristics of each image. I was looking to answer the question: what makes this an interesting enough photograph?

I broke this question down into various dimensions:

  • Szarkowski’s five elements of a photograph from The Photographer’s Eye (1966)
    • The Thing Itself, the Detail, the Frame, Time, Vantage Point
  • A few of the facets of strong composition I admire in the likes of Larry Fink, from his book On Composition and Improvisation (2014):
    • Depth, layering, diagonals, edges, tension
  • Some principles of Gestalt visual design, mainly from Michael Freeman’s The Photographer’s Eye (2011)
    • Closure, equilibrium, continuity, proximity, similarity, figure-to-ground
  • Other general good practice:
    • Leading lines, focal points
  • Symbolism:
    • Signifiers/signified, denotation/connotation, gestures, expressions etc

I looked at each image under all of these headings. I scribbled notes and drew lines on the prints. As an aside, having the printouts in b/w and fairly small helped me to focus on the key compositional elements (apparently Henri Cartier-Bresson used to view images from other photographers upside-down to see if they still had the same visual appeal – Lubben 2011: 12).


This exercise was extremely useful; fairly quickly the printouts were divided into Yes, Maybe, No piles. Then I laid out the draft sequence with the Yes prints, picked out a couple of the Maybes and voila – a final set of 12.

Whilst this kind of analytical approach isn’t scientific by any means, it did help to focus my mind on the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of each image. I like to think I’ll use this technique again in future.

6. Book layout

Strictly speaking this isn’t a selection step, but it worked as a kind of a safety measure. I wanted to see whether laying the images out in a book dummy would make me swap any of them. It didn’t, but it did make me consider a couple of alternative sequences.

Book layout PDF

That’s it – I’m meeting the minister tomorrow to see if he has any issues with congregation pictures (really hoping not), then writing it all up for submission!


Fink, L. (2014) On Composition and Improvisation. New York: Aperture.

Lubben, K. (2011) Magnum Contact Sheets. New York: Thames & Hudson

Freeman, M. (2011) The Photographer’s Eye (digital edn). Lewes: Ilex Press.

Szarkowski, J. (2007). The Photographer’s Eye (4th edn). New York: MOMA.


3 thoughts on “Assignment 1: image selection

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