In 2011 I took the big step, ditched my little point-and-shoot for a camera with manual controls.  It was not DSLR, it was instead a little second hand Canon G11, but for me this was a big step towards the major leagues!  Around this time, trying to get my head around the difference between a snapshot and a good photograph, I read everything I could find on the subject matter.

Somewhere, someone wise wrote, "If you want to improve your photography overnight, instead of showing family, friends and any person who passes you in the street, the 800 photographs you took of your last holiday, just show them one, the best one."

With this in mind I created a personal portfolio on my PC, basically just a folder into which I save my best photographs.  You know, the ones I actually might go out and have printed.  This folder has then a number of sub folders, each neatly categorised to the type of photograph, so Landscapes, People, Animals and so on.  

The aim is to keep the total number of photographs under 120 snaps.  Thus I sat down this morning to cull the excess.  In all I needed to get rid of about 200 photographs.  

Now lets put this in perspective.  Like most enthusiast photographers I take thousands of photographs.  The oldest photograph in this portfolio was taken in 2005.  Since moving to lightroom 2 years ago, I have over 10000 raw images saved on my pc and that does not include the 1000's on 1000's of jpeg images from earlier years.  All I am trying to say, the fact these 200 photographs even got into the portfolio in the first place, suggests they are my better attempts, but rules are rules and they had to go.

At first it was easy, some are just simply bad and should go, but the last 30 or so were rather tough.  I had to start asking questions like, "What is the message of this photograph?"  "What is the subject of this photograph?"  "What is going on with the composition here?"

In this process I have realised that there are some areas I need to work on if I am to get my photography to the next level.  

There are a number of photographs I need to go back and redo, because the idea was good but the execution could be better.  Others, where I need to work on technique.  I also noticed how my best early morning photographs are not the ones of the sunrise, but rather the ones that I used the sunrise as back and side lighting and by taking all those photographs of the sunrise, I am possibly missing out on the more important subject behind my back.

In addition, going through all these photographs has helped me see how I have grown as a photographer.  The fact is my best pictures in 2005 was great, but my best photograph of 2014 is just that much better.

Below, are the four that I kept in the animal section of my portfolio.  I am not into animal photography at all but this is something I would like to try more of this coming year.  They are not perfect and in some cases they are down right poor, but each one I kept for a reason.  Hopefully in the next year I can go back and do them better :-) and ultimately improve this section of my portfolio.

Vulture - 2005

Camera - Nikon E4600

Settings - Portrait Mode

Comments - I still love this photograph.  It was taken at an animal sanctuary and I really should make the effort to go back and redo this.  Composition wise I should take a step back so I get his talons in.  The rest can be improved with the better camera I have today.  Blur the background, get the eye nice and sharp, etc...

Monkeys - 2011

Camera - Canon PowerShot G11

Settings - Aperture Priority Mode

F-stop - f4.5

Shutter speed - 1/80 sec

ISO - 80

Comments:  This was taken in Port Elizabeth.  I was chased by those monkey a few seconds later, but l like the blurred grass in the front.  With more zoom and distance I would focus in on only the single monkey, but I am a bit scarred of these creatures so probably won't attempt this again!

Lizard - 2012

Camera - Nikon D5100

Settings - Shutter Priority Mode

F-stop - f6.3

Shutter speed - 1/1600 sec

ISO - 400

Comment:  Next time work on the composition.  Less tree, more lizard!

Zebra - 2013

Camera - Nikon D7000

Settings - Aperture Priority Mode

F-stop - f8

Shutter speed - 1/100 sec

ISO - 800

Comment:  I like this.  For a sharper image, I should try dropping the F-stop and increasing shutter speed.

Flamingo Parade - 2014

Camera - Nikon D750

Settings - Aperture Priority Mode

F-stop - f8

Shutter speed - 1/400 sec

ISO - 400

Comment:  It actually took 4 hours of stalking these flamingos to get this image.  Note to self, set a higher shutter speed with these animals, even if it means increasing ISO.

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Comment by John Fox on January 22, 2015 at 12:33

Well done to you! I went through this process and it had a massive impact on my work. I got down to my top 10 portfolio shots, had a look at the collection and then COMPLETELY CHANGED MY STYLE. The exercise was invaluable and my work has significantly benefited.

I love this extract and hope many people can benefit from your insights.

"my best early morning photographs are not the ones of the sunrise, but rather the ones that I used the sunrise as back and side lighting and by taking all those photographs of the sunrise, I am possibly missing out on the more important subject behind my back."

Comment by Nadia de Lange on January 5, 2015 at 11:21
Cara, I read about this technique you're writing about a few days ago. In the article I read they called it "seeing". Basically it comes down to learning from your historic photos. Looking at your library and picking up on compositions you could've improved on, camera settings you keep getting wrong, and creative moments you maybe missed by not looking at the whole setting you're in before snapping a picture. You've touched on all of these. In the article they say (and I completely agree) that this is one of the most effective ways of really improving your photography. And I love the concept. To be the best you can be at anything always starts with competing with yourself and learning from your own mistakes.
Comment by Danie Bester on January 4, 2015 at 14:06

I agree with your system. Yo have to get rid of those excess images. a Portfolio should be fairly small. Maybe 12-36 images at the most. Wedding Photographers use more images though, but if you do something else, then you can also break up your portfolio in different categories, as long as each category are small 12-24 images maybe. Depending on what you're doing...

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