Picking Your Favorite Photos for the Year

A simple task that every photographer should do, every single year
Let me start by giving credit where credit is due, my friend Tom Vadnais challenged a group of us photographers a few years ago to choose five of our favorite images from the year and share them.  I’ve now done this several years in a row, have integrated it into my New Year’s traditions, and have become a huge proponent of the idea.  I sincerely enjoy the process, and now firmly believe every photographer that is serious about their work should do it.  There are several reasons for this; let’s discuss.

Why do it?

First and foremost, what better way to end the year than by reflecting on what you’ve done photographically.  For me it’s a great reminder of the places I’ve visited, the things I’ve seen, and the people I’ve shared it all with.  Frankly, this can also make it hard to choose (more on that in a minute) your favorites, but as I’ve found over the years, that’s a very good thing.  It’s like looking back at your trophies, and appreciating your accomplishments, except for artists. 🙂  A few of my friends make an evening out of the selection process, with wine and snacks.  I’m not a wine drinker, so I prefer to do it with a bowl of ice cream, but however you decide, it should be a fun and rewarding process.

Secondly, by choosing your favorite images, you start to see patterns in what you like.  While we were discussing our crop of pictures for the year, my friend asked if we’ve noticed themes, or scenes that our eyes are drawn to.  At first I struggled with this question, but then when I went back and looked at my photos, I starting picking things out.  I like the big scenes!  Lots of my favorite images are panoramic images, images that you’d have to turn your head to actually see the whole thing in person.  There is something about pulling it all in to a single frame that I really like.  I also really enjoy my night images. I can see how they’ve improved, and I can see how I want to improve them (which mostly involves getting a new camera, because mine just can’t do what I want it to do… well).  You can use this information a number of different ways.  For starters, it’s a good reminder to do that thing, whatever it may be, when you’re out shooting.  It can also point out areas where you need to improve.  As an example, I used to NEVER be happy with my stream scene type images.  Because of this, I have made a concerted effort over the last two years to shoot more stream scenes, so that I can work on my technique and my eye.  To that end, this year was the first time a stream scene image has appeared in my favorite 5 (it’s also a panoramic shot!) selection!  I’m getting somewhere!

Coinciding with this, and my final point as to why do it, is it gives you an opportunity to see that you’re improving.  To further prove this point to myself (and just because it was a fun exercise), I actually went back to the beginning of 2010, and picked my 5 favorite images for each year up through 2015, which is when I started doing it as a yearly tradition.  I now have 7 years of data to look at and see, yes I still love a lot of those images, but I’ve also gotten better at taking photographs in general.  I can see now, when I look back at my images, that if I had just done this, or just done that, the image could have been so much better (like taking a few steps to one side or the other).  Additionally, the process gives you a chance to see how your style has changed, both from a shooting perspective and an editing perspective.  Maybe you used to edit more subdued, but now you edit more vibrantly.  Why do you like one now more than the other?  Should you go back and try the old way again?  Should you edit some of your old pictures in the your new way? Powerful stuff!  It was also a great reminder that, even though I had a crappy camera (compared to what is available now), I got some shots all the way back in 2010 that are solid images, and have been hanging on my wall since then for a reason.

Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop – Ansel Adams

Finding Lost Dogs

I’d like to make one last case for why this is important, and that’s finding lost dogs… or photos you’ve forgotten about.  Going back through all your old photos can be a real pain in the rear.  This whole process can be especially aggravated if, like happened to me, your camera wasn’t set with the correct date and time.  Evidently in 2010 / 2011 time frame, this wasn’t something I was paying close attention to, and so I had to go through and change the date on a bunch of pictures.  Luckily Lightroom’s batch processing can make this easier, but lets be honest, it was still a royal pain.  HOWEVER, in the process of going back through my pictures, I stumbled on this one.  I’ve gotten a lot of play from a photo I took about 15 minutes before this one, and I was frankly so enamored with the other one, that I completely ignored this one!  (You can see the other version here)  I really like both versions, but the colors in this one pop more, because the sun was still much lower in the sky.  The barn is in the shadows still, but the whole feel is different because of that.  Had I not gone back through my pictures, I’d have never found this one again, and never gotten to enjoy this second version of an old favorite.

How to do it

As I’ve talked to photographers about this process, I’ve found that different people rank and file their pictures in different ways.  That’s totally fine.  If you have a system in place that works for you all ready, I’m not suggesting you change it, but perhaps my way will give you some ideas… or if you just don’t have a system, this will be a good place to start.  This is also a very Lightroom way of doing things (though I’m told you can accomplish something similar in Bridge), so if you use a different program, you’ll need to adapt.

Here’s my workflow (which I’ve admittedly adapted from a process I learned from Colby McLemore).  Every time I import images, I go through them and flag (P for the keyboard shortcut) the images I like.  From there I filter the view to “Flagged”, and now I only see the images I’m going to edit.  After editing, I’ll give 1 star (Lightroom supports up to 5 stars) to the images I really like.  Generally speaking, I post images to my website that I really really like, so I’ll give anything I feel might end up on my website 2 stars (I’ll just post my 1 star images to Facebook or wherever) and leave the rest 1 stars of just flagged.  So flagged images I *think* are good, 1 star images are in fact good, and 2 star images are great (this is all of course subjective to your own taste, BUT you’re doing this for yourself anyway, so that’s what matters).  And that’s it!  I repeat this throughout the year, never giving any image more than 2 stars.  Now at the end of the year I’ll go into my Library module, select Grid view (that’s G on the keyboard), set the filter to greater than or equal to 2 stars, and then choose the year from the Metadata Library Filters.  Now all you see are your 2 star images from that year (subsequently you can also just create a ‘smart collection’ with Capture Date set to “is in this year”, and Rating set to “is greater than or equal to” 2 stars and it will accomplish the same thing)!

This is where the fun starts.  With only my 2 star images showing, I’ll start picking my favorites.  My favorites of the 2 star images get 3 stars.  Now, at first pass I don’t keep count, I just start picking my favorites.  Once I’ve made my first pass I’ll filter my view one more time to just show me images with 3 stars, and I’ll start downgrading images back to 2 stars.  I generally find that getting the number down to 8 or 9 is pretty easy… then it greats REALLY hard to choose.  I may bring in my wife to help me choose, or I may just take a break for a while and come back later (or both!), but ultimately the goal is to get it down to 5.  Admittedly, I do sometimes fudge and choose 6, but never more than 6, and when I do that I’ll mentally say which one is the 6th image, and why I think it deserves a 3 star rating.

So, what do you do with the remaining stars?  Well, here’s the idea.  Every 5 years you can go through your 3 star images and pick 5 to give 4 stars to, and then every 10 years choose 5 of your 4 star images to give 5 stars to.  This last part I’ve not done yet, though I do intend to make some 4 star images before 2020 gets here, so that I can choose my 5 favorite images of the decade.  🙂


–Dan Thompson

Some of my favorite photos from across the years

My 5 Favorite Photos Collections

As I’ve mentioned above, each year I go through the process of choosing my 5 favorite photos, and then I make a post about it to share with the world.  Below is the collection of each of those posts, all the way back to 2010.

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