A contributing National Geographic photographer for over 20 years, Steve Winter has shot thousands of wildlife photos. In a video by Wired, Winter shares his thought process for how he selects one single best image from a session of over 100 shots.
The photographer’s job doesn’t stop when they put their camera down: that is just half of the process. Culling images down to a select few is a skill in its own right and can take years to perfect.
In the 13-minute walkthrough video above (first spotted by Fstoppers), Winter — who has had to fine-tune his image-selection technique over the years, sifting through numerous wildlife images — was tasked by Wired to show how he selects one final image that makes the cut.
For the sake of demonstration, Wired asked Winter to photograph the smaller, domesticated cousin of his usual wild cat subjects. To start the selection process, Winter first removed photos that failed due to technical issues; for example, he removed photos that were incorrectly exposed, leaving him with 91 remaining photos.
Next, he removes photos that have framing mistakes — these include images where parts of the body cut are off due to the cat moving around, distracting elements, uncomfortable-looking positions, or if the cat’s eyes aren’t visible. The latter is particularly important because seeing the animal’s eyes helps the viewer connect with the subject on an emotional level. Winter notes that out on a field, it’s not always easy to keep the animal wholly framed, particularly if it’s a wild cat with a long tail.
The third round of culling moves on to identifying bad compositions, which Winter usually tries to do within the frame of the camera instead of cropping later. Sometimes, it simply helps to come in closer or step back from the subject whilst shooting to find a more pleasing composition. Similarly, if the photographer gets down on the level of the animal or below, it makes the subject look more powerful.
In a well-composed photo, Winter likes for the viewer’s eyes to move around the canvas to allow the photo to tell a story. For that reason, the fourth round of culling identifies images that have a narrative and discards those that don’t tell a story about the subject and its surroundings.
With only eight images left, Winter looks for interesting behavior in his subject and unexpected moments. Left with just two choices, Winter doesn’t forget to mention that the selection process is subjective and what appeals to one photographer, may not be preferred by another.
The final decision is down to gut instinct, and Winter makes a tough choice between two interesting photographs. His final pick is one with plenty of negative space and the cat’s full body composed on the right of the photo as it looks outside the window.