Posted by: kerryl29 | December 28, 2010

The Keeper Quotient and Artistic Growth

I’ve been asked, on a number of occasions, what my “keeper rate” is.  For those unfamiliar with the jargon, keeper rate refers to the percentage of images produced on a given shoot that are worth retaining.  The truth of the matter is, I don’t know what my personal ratio is and what’s more…I’m not sure that it makes much difference.

Ask ten different landscape photographers and you’ll likely receive ten different notions regarding what a good percentage of “quality” images one should expect from a different shoot.  Of course, it helps that each individual has a different definition of what constitutes a quality image.  A standout for one person may be ho hum to someone else.

Bisti Arch Moonrise, Bisti Badlands, New Mexico

But it’s also worth noting that, when photographers discuss this subject they’re often talking about different things, sometimes without acknowledging as much.  For example, the notion of “keepers” (i.e. good enough to hang onto) is often unintentionally confounded with KEEPERS (i.e. images so good they’re immediate candidates for portfolio expansion).  Obviously, the former is considerably more commonplace than the latter.

In thinking about this subject with regard to my own photography–having already conceded that I don’t know what my keeper rate is–I realized that I kind of subconsciously divide images into three categories.  The first category is junk–material that will experience a speedy interfacing with the delete button.

Roaring Fork, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

The second category is made up of images that I think are worth holding onto and working up.  The standard I’ve applied is, if I can imagine a print of the image in question hanging on my wall, it’s worth keeping.  It’s not that I necessarily ever will actually print the image, or that I have a particular desire to have a print of said image actually hanging on the wall but I wouldn’t (hypothetically) object to hanging one.  These images are post-processed and end up on my Web site.  (Perhaps that–placing these Category 2 images on my site–isn’t the best idea–a topic best revisited on another day.)

The third and final category is that group of images that I’m so enthralled with that I want to print the image, and the sooner the better.  (This group obviously will be post-processed and posted on my Web site as well.)  I think of this group of images as being of portfolio quality.  This is a much smaller collection than group #2–I’d guess, off the top of my head, something on the order of 1/10 to 1/20 the size, and very possibly even tinier than that.  It’s at least as common as not that a day’s venture into the field produces no such images and it’s extremely rare to procure more than one on a single photo shoot, at least in my experience.

Rialto Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington

It should probably go without saying but I’ll say it anyway since it’s already a well-established theme on this blog:  while the criteria that divides these categories from one another is essentially static, the substance that gives life to each tier is dynamic.  In other words, what I consider “portfolio quality” today isn’t necessarily the same as it was five or six years ago.  Yesterday’s portfolio image might be today’s category two placeholder.

Standards often change over time; it’s inevitable, I think, to have a fluid barometer, particularly as it applies to one’s own work.  In fact, it’s arguably necessary to be able to critically reassess one’s own standards–and how well output is meeting those standards–on an ongoing basis to be able to evolve artistically.  I’m not sure that this process needs to be a premeditated, planned exercise, but it should, I submit, be something that’s part of one’s environmental backdrop.  Retaining an ongoing sense of one’s own benchmark for excellence–and how well one is measuring up to that grade–can’t be a negative formula for aesthetic progression.



  1. […] this link: The Keeper Quotient and Artistic Growth « Lightscapes Nature … This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged been-asked, given-shoot, images-produced, […]

  2. Kerry,
    Jack Nicklaus said he was happy if during a round of golf he hit ONE ball that went just where he wanted it to go.

    • Craig–Jack Nicklaus was a notorious perfectionist. 🙂

  3. Kerry: Thoughtful blog, as always. I think for me, the phrase “keeper” has taken on a very different meaning with the advent of digital imaging. I remember well the days when I would set with my light table and a large wastebasket and toss most of the slides into the basket. Today, I am more “generous” (or perhaps optimistic) with myself, partly because digital storage is very cheap and small, and perhaps more importantly, because technology improves so much and so fast that what might not have been a technical “keeper” 5 years ago, may be able to be worked on today.

    The second part of the title, “and Artistic Growth” intrigued me. Perhaps you’ll develop more on that in a later post? For my part, my “keeper” ratio has increased in recent years. Ironically, this is not necessarily only because my images have improved, but because I am spending more time “seeing” and less time tripping the shutter these days.

    • Andy, I certainly agree that digital capture has altered the keeper calculus, but I don’t think I was any more sure of what mine was in the film era.

      I will definitely keep in mind the thought of further developing the artistic growth part of the equation in a future entry.

  4. OK, I’ll bite and throw my $0.02 on the table too. I don’t have a clue what my “keeper” rate is nor do I care. As for “artistic growth”, I consider photography a journey that is forever providing joy, inspiration, and motivation. IMO, as long as the creativity engendered by motivation is not ignored or delayed, then growth comes with practice, experience, learning, practice, failure, success, practice, obstacles and challenges, continued study, practice and more practice.

    I can, however, state with certainty that my work today is better than it was five years ago and that which I do five years from now will be better than what I am producing today. Keepers? Heck, I’m more than happy to create one very good photo each year. I think 2010 was an exceptional year for me with a just a few really good images. Ten years ago my keeper quotient resembled my film days as I raced to see how quickly I could fill up the studio trash can with rejected film positives.

    I think my way of working in the field during the past several years has been instrumental too. It mimics that of the large format photographer: slowly, very very slowly. In essence, I pick and choose my subject; visualize it as a finished print and study it (as well as pocket camera snapshots) during frequent trips in all seasons and weather conditions to finalize what I want that photograph to communicate and how I will effect that goal; then, the rest is easy and relatively anticlimactic unless I am seeing really good light during the exposure. I’ve got a whole lot of visualized photos in my head that await completion. Enough to occupy me for the next several years. Such a method of working in the field precludes the question of “keeper ratios”.

    The other side of the coin, at least for me as a professional photographer, is creating the kinds of images that sell to my clientele. I am much less selective and deliberate in that regard, but no less hurried: I know what my audience wants and collect them along the way as the opportunities present themselves.

    • Hi Jim. Great to see you here and thanks for thought-provoking comment. Much to chew on, as usual.

  5. THe Roaring Fork are amazing. What a equilibrium and peace.

  6. […] than a decade ago, I laid out an image typology. Using the parlance of that post, there is a lot of Category 2 material that appears on this blog. […]

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