How Many Keepers Should I Get From A Photo Trip?

You've been there, right? You plan a trip to an awesome place, and you're very excited about the photographic potential. Or it's an outing closer to home, the weather conditions are looking good, and you head out to shoot something beautiful. But in the corners of your mind, that little voice whispers... "Will I get any keepers?" And how can I increase my odds?

So let's get the reality check front and center. There is never a guarantee of a keeper. It doesn't matter who you are. When it comes to landscapes, there are forces beyond your control and nature will do what it wants... with zero regard for your photo aspirations.

I have taken a few photo trips in the last year. I went back to look at the number of frames I took versus the number of images I'd consider keepers. In my parlance, a "keeper" is a shot I want to share. Here's the rundown.  

  • Death Valley: I spent a whirlwind 2 1/2 days in and around Death Valley. After culling, about 325 shots remain in my library, with 15 keepers. A 4.6% hit rate.
  • Italy: A 2 week family vacation. Not purely a photo trip. Discounting family photos and after culling, about 1800 frames are in my library, with 18 keepers. A 1.0% hit rate.
  • San Diego: My hometown. I'm out shooting landscapes nearly every weekend. After culling,  about 700 shots remain in my library, with 53 keepers. A 7.5% hit rate.
  • Pacific Northwest: A three day visit to the greater Portland area last month. I'm still culling the shots. As of this post, about 525 shots remain in my library, with 23 keepers. A 4.4% hit rate.

Those are low percentages, right? I don't know how well other photographers fare, but I'd hazard a guess it's about the same hit rate.

And it's biased in favor of a higher rate because I'm using  total number of shots is after culling the shoots. If I count all of the photos I flat out threw away, the keeper hit rate is more like 1% or lower on average. Wow... only 1% of the photos I take I feel are strong enough to share. (And with rates like that, yeah, sometimes I share the B-roll. :)

So.... what can you do to improve your chances for a keeper? I have a few recommendations:

  1. Research: The more you know about your shooting location, the better your chances are for a keeper. Know the area. Check out photos of the site in a variety of weather conditions. Have a plan when going out, even if it's only a loose plan. Here's how I plan for a photo trip.
  2. Shoot more frames: Keepers is, to a degree, a percentages game. It seems obvious. The more photos you take, the higher your chances for a keeper. Now, I'm not talking about shooting 200 frames of the same, fizzling sunset. That's a waste of time and energy.

    Use the 50/50 rule for a shoot. Spend half your time getting the shot you planned for and the other half working the scene in different ways. Research is great and having a plan is important. Execute the plan, but take heed not to limit yourself solely to the planned shots. And know when to trash the plan if conditions don't mesh well with the shot you had in mind.

    Also, shoot more frames by revisiting that same picturesque place. In the world of landscapes, the photographer controls very little. You may need to visit the same location 20 times before you get the keeper you are after. And yes, my friends, I know all too well that's not typically possible when you travel far from home.
  3. Keep Your Camera With You: Always. The whole trip. Don't leave your camera in the hotel or car. Take it with you. Have you ever experienced the pain of an inspiring scene unfolding before you and you don't have your camera? I have. And now I don't. Because I keep my camera with me.
  4. Practice: In any discipline, the more you practice the better you become. With photography, you'll get better at operating your camera, know where the buttons and settings are, and spend more time looking at what's in front of you vs. the buttons and dials. Yet practice goes beyond the technical aspects of how to work your gear.

    For landscape shoots – nature or urban –  the more often you go out, the more weather and lighting situations you'll put yourself in. Each outing is experience gained. Over time, you develop a feel for what types of shots will work better for given conditions. Will that sky will light up brilliantly at dawn or dusk? What compositions work best for an interesting piece of architecture? How can I shoot this scene differently? Is there a better angle? How will the light play off of surrounding objects? Is there a better time of day for the shot I want?

    These are all questions you'll being to answer more easily the more often you shoot. The more you practice, the more nimble you will be in the field. And that translates to a higher chance of getting a keeper.
Tide Pools
Star Of India

Did you notice my success rate in San Diego is relatively high? I shoot San Diego all the time. I live there. I know where to go, what places are good at what time of year. International trips aside, I shoot more frames in my hometown than anywhere else. Thus, my hit rate is higher. It's all of the above in action.

There are still the days I don't come back with a keeper. And that doesn't make me I'm a lesser photographer. Some days, it's just not gonna happen. I also think my standards have risen as I've grown as a photographer. And that, in part,makes getting a keeper all the more joyous.

What about you? Are your keeper "hit rates" about the same? Better? What tips or rituals do you use to boost your chances for a keeper?