How and why to control the quality of your photographic image library

Whether we’re taking photos for personal use or for clients, making sense of our image library and keeping things organized is a tricky task. How many of us have finished a shoot, only to drag the images folder to our desktop and randomly name it as “images003” (just me, then)?

Once you have established a good photography workflow – using your own system or the best image organization software – you then need to make sure that you keep your image collection under control by eliminating duplicates, those that are blurry, or that you will never use again. This is especially important when limiting the images to give to a paying customer.

Ensuring that the images you provide to your clients are of the highest quality is a difficult task. While investing in the best professional cameras (opens in a new tab) and honing your technical skills will provide more consistent results, shooting files is just one step in the output process. Sorting through a database of images and isolating the best photos from a particular shot is a skill in its own right. The work photographer must establish that their images are fit for purpose and match the required functions expected by the client.

man in front of laptop organizing image library

(Image credit: Anchiy via Getty Images)

First, decide what quality means to you

The first step is to determine what the term “quality” means in a given circumstance. What one consumer might want is not necessarily considered of utmost importance by another. For example, while stock agencies aiming to sell to poster and magazine publishers might be more concerned with sharpness and even lighting, a newspaper image editor may put more emphasis on the subject matter, context and time.

For breaking news reporting, successfully capturing an illustrative image in the right place at the right time is more important than technical perfection. Make sure you’re giving your client what they need for their current project by defining the parameters of what makes a successful image when sorting out which files to delete or archive.

An effective strategy is to run images through multiple stages of evaluation – allowing comparison with similar images – to make an informed decision on which is the most appropriate. At the initial stage, you can browse images in a timeline view in Adobe Lightroom (opens in a new tab) or Adobe Bridge, giving a quick star rating as you go. It is often of little use to apply a scaled rating at this stage; a two or three star tag won’t indicate a usable image anyway, so a better strategy is to eliminate these files from your library now and avoid a convoluted rating system. Simply highlight any images that stand out and remove missed shots – any other images deserve further consideration or may be useful in the future.

Always perform image assessments in a “clean room” – a space with neutral colored walls (medium gray is the best ambient color) and no direct, unscattered sunlight. This will circumvent issues related to color misrepresentation and exposure deviations induced by the examiner’s vision. Always calibrate your monitor in the same room where you intend to review and edit your work, to avoid unexpected changes in color and brightness.

It’s also a good idea to save multiple edited copies of your images, giving you multiple file choices later, and increasing the chances that you’ll have an image that matches client requests. This may be related to variations in image resolution, sharpness and composition.

Every time you start with a new camera or monitor for photo editing (opens in a new tab), try doing test prints on different media to create a benchmark for future imaging workflows. When evaluating on-screen image quality, use the printed samples to get an idea of ​​how the image will appear to the customer. This can help you make a choice between two pre-selected files.

For archival purposes, choose a lossless format such as TIFF to ensure that your quality-assessed files are not compromised by final-stage compression. Finally, use a side-by-side view to compare the produced TIFF to the original RAW, to determine if processing resulted in software-induced noise and banding artifacts.

Use 100% zoom to check images

Although “pixel-peeping” is not always a realistic way to assess image quality, it can often be a beneficial exercise. For commercial purposes, zooming in to 100% in your image archiving software, such as Lightroom, ensures that there is a quality buffer between your informed standards and end-user expectations.

Submitting an image with a higher resolution than is likely necessary, or with insignificant visible noise at 100%, can ensure that there is little reason for a photo agency to reject your work. Although images may appear harshly judged using these magnifications, using the highest standards as a benchmark covers your files for almost all potential uses – especially important if you are unsure of what the final function will be.

Refresh your portfolio

It’s a good idea to periodically re-evaluate your online galleries to give new visitors a good impression. Even shots that aren’t intended for direct sale to a client, such as those used to advertise your own work, should be reassessed regularly.

As your style changes and your skills improve, update your image portfolio to check that all compositions are on-brand. Every six months, come back to your homepage and replace the snaps you no longer want people to see – it’s your “storefront”, so only the best possible snaps belong here.

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Michael E. Marquez