To Delete, or Not to Delete?

Jennifer’s recent blog post about image recovery shed some new light on a dilemma I’ve been facing since the day I became a photographer. In a bit of a technical snafu, Jennifer nearly lost a bunch of photos she’d taken – which is a pretty big fear of mine. As a result, I find it incredibly difficult to delete photo files – even long after the final shot has been posted!

The question I face is, when is it time to delete old or alternate shots?

I’m not talking about final shots, here. I back those up regularly, in multiple places. On my laptop, on an external hard drive, in the iCloud, on Google Drive… I kind of obsess over it. And if worst ever comes to worst, I could always download them from one of my social channels (Flickr is an especially good place for this, as the images always stay in high quality despite being uploaded).

But what about the other shots? Sometimes, I can take upwards of 20 or 30 takes of a single setup. A slight change of focus here, a slight change of angle there… Then I import them all into Lightroom, pick the best one, and after a bit of post-processing I export it and back it up in the aforementioned places.

I finished these Ant-Man shots in January, but still have them cluttering my hard drive

For some reason, I find it incredibly nerve-wracking to delete the photos that don’t make the cut. Unless the picture is beyond saving (the reasons vary; bad lighting, bad focus, etc.) I end up keeping it. Partly, I feel that I may want to use or post an alternate take someday. A “B-side,” if you will.

This has never happened.

If I don’t like the final shot, I retake it. And on the rare occasion that I want to revisit or reinterpret a photo I’ve posted, I don’t look through the alternate shots I took at the time. I just try again, taking the new skills I’ve learned since the original shoot and attempting improve on my initial work.

When I didn’t like my initial shot of The Flash delivering pizza, I didn’t turn to an alternate shot. I redid the whole thing and improved on the entire setup – over a year later.

I can’t tell you why I do this. Maybe this is my way of saving ideas? I guess I’m paranoid that, unlike Jennifer, I won’t be able to recover work that I lose. And while I have yet to post a B-side of a photo I’ve taken, I guess someday I could? Why not give myself the option if I can? After all, they’re just photos on a hard drive, they can’t take up that much space, can they? (I’ll tell you right now. They can. Those megabytes add up to becoming gigabytes fast, especially when you shoot RAW!)

Perhaps to help myself through this anxiety, I’ll start small. Don’t eliminate all alternate takes, but most. Leave myself some breathing room in case I ever do want to turn to a B-side, but cull the herd a bit. And then back up the remaining photos in my usual digital safety nets. You know… just in case.

I open this discussion up not only to my fellow blog mates, but to the greater Toy Photographers community. Do you keep old files and alternate takes of finished photos? If so, why? If not, are you able to sleep at night? 


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  1. I enjoyed reading this James! I think of this topic every time I delete files – my hard drive is over 3/4’s full at the moment. I often take over 100 photos per setup and now that I started shooting in RAW + JPEG, my hard drive is filling up fast (although it’s actually the PSD files that take the most space).

    I do delete alternate takes. I’ve learned that once I edit and post a photo, I rarely have the desire to go back and look at the other versions (there’s usually a reason why I rejected them). I usually wait about 30 days and then I delete them. The exceptions are some photos where the setup was much tougher than usual (like the silhouette of Finola dancing), then I might save some of the alternate takes in case I want them.

    I’ve never had a moment where I wished that I hadn’t deleted something (knock on wood) 🙂 As I keep taking photos, I hope that my skills and lighting improve over time, so I would probably just retake the photo (hopefully better) instead of using an older version anyway.

    Great post James! Good luck 🙂


  2. *sigh* I know the feeling – both of loosing work and saving to much work. I have a tendency to take all to many images as well, and that is part of the reason. But over time I have come to a solution that I go through the images several times and finally I end up with only a few compared with the amount that I started with. But I usally do to many images and I usally keep those I like the most for myself, the seem to become mine, and I prefer to let them stay mine.

    Right now I’m doing a portrait project and in that project I have limited myself to just to the images that I need. I want to avoid the dialema of having to many images, and keep saving them. Suddenly a new problem appers … I do several post production and by this time I have atleast three post production versions of the images. There seems to be a workflow in that, comparing, looking at versions and then deciding.

    But to answer your question I have learned to become better and better to delete images. And I do less frames and I try to think them trough before I press the button, and images that I kind of like but doesn’t work – them I through away. But some slip through… despite all.


  3. I have a habit of deleting alternate takes I will not use. If I take 5-10 photos for one shot I’ll keep the best 2 or 3, but then usually end up eliminating the rest. This habit started with alternate angles of custom 1:18 scale action figures. I’d end up with 30-40 photos in total in a folder and just felt the desire to keep the folders clean and uncluttered.

  4. Very interesting to hear a different perspective on what to do with alternate photos. I tend to keep about half my alt shots, that I feel might be useful, and I have on occasion used them… I do usually delete alts after about a year, just by virtue of my improving skills rendering them terrible in my eyes, though.

  5. Thanks for this post James, and for the reference to mine. I’m not great about backing up my images in multiple places and I fear I’ll lose them all at some point. I need a better method than I currently have, but haven’t settled on one yet. You’re right, those images, the final ones, let alone the alternative shots, take up a ton of space! I think your solution to cut a bit at a time seems like a good one. Of course you don’t want to regret losing any, but it’s good to free up space and force yourself to make some finite decisions with your photos.

  6. I used to keep al the alternates… but never looked at them over the years. Not anymore.
    There are a few exceptions, but overall, the alternate shots don’t even make it out of my camera. It would just take up too much disc-space to keep every alternate and I take another shot when I’m not happy with the previous one.
    Also, this way I don’t have to make hard choices on when to delete, if to delete and what to delete :).

  7. Like others, I used to keep everything. Now I take my shot, find the best one, and toss the rest away.

    I do keep the others around in case I need them for fixing issues in the best photo during post-processing, but by the time I am ready to release the image to the world, the other images are goners.

    I have kept the very odd one in an archive – one that looks like it may be useful as stock in a future shoot – but that is very rare, and only be at most one additional shot per shoot kept (tho really, one or two extra shots per month/year)

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