Short Answer = I Don’t Know
I honestly don’t have any idea how many photos is enough to document a single event. For one, it depends on the nature of the event. Are we talking about a Pee Wee hockey game, or a wedding? Are we trying to document an event of national historical importance?
If there was an easy answer, this entire article would be a single number. Like 42.
I don’t even know how many photographs is enough to document a career. Enough so your biographer can fill the middle part of the book? And I sure as heck don’t know how many photos is “enough” to document a person’s entire life.
There’s no “one size fits all” answer to my question in this headline, but…
Frankly, it’s a question that doesn’t get asked enough. As in, almost never. Trying to answer this question — even if just in passing as you read this while waiting at the doctor’s office — will help you de-clutter your photo collection and focus only on the best ones. I hope it will also inspire you to take fewer and better photos.
Here are some suggestions, and one of them even includes a number…which I told you was impossible, I know. We’re gonna try it and see how it goes, OK?
1. No more than 10.
This rule mostly applies to photos you haven’t taken yet. I learned this when I was interviewed for an article in the Austin American-Statesman for Digital Savant. I can’t remember if it was Omar or Sarah who told me the rule but it’s basically this: Don’t take any more than 10 photos of any event. More than 10 is too much. Plus, if you’re taking more than 10 photos chances are you are not fully participating in the event itself. I can see this applying to a Pee Wee hockey game, or a single day on a special vacation. You get the idea.
You can also try to apply this rule to the keeping of inherited photos, but the era of over-photographing everything didn’t start until the 1970s so your chances of having too many ancestor photos are kind of slim. Slides are one obvious exception, and we’ll talk about those in #3, below.
2. Whatever fits.
This approach can be super helpful in the photo universe of paper and film, prints and negatives/slides. In that world, you can’t escape from the fact that they are taking up space in your house or apartment. Pick a maximum storage area and pare down accordingly. Maybe it’s one big box, maybe it’s a whole bookshelf. That part is up to you, but be sure to keep in mind that someone else is going to have to do something with them down the road. Make your photos a gift, not a burden!
In the universe of digital photographs, this rule is totally useless. We can easily pretend our photos aren’t taking up space, since they don’t take up physical space. I would wager a guess that folks with smartphones that have a decent camera might be more aware of the space photos take up. Let me know if that’s true for you in the comments.
3. My new idea — really more the beginning of an idea — involves the question: “How long of a slide show is enough?”
This occurred to me when I was creating a digital slideshow. You can tell it how long to spend on each image, but humans still need about 8-10 seconds to “see” the photo properly. You can have the photos go by faster as a “speeding up time” effect, but no one can process what’s going on in photos that quickly.
So that’s definitely a kind of limit for digital photos that’s analogous to limiting your analog photos to a certain number of archival boxes.
Let’s say you just inherited 10 boxes of old family slides, and each box holds a carousel or tray with 80 images. That’s 800 images, times 10 seconds for each image is over two hours of slideshow. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like torture.
Think about it: How many minutes of slideshow would you be willing to willing to sit through for a single event or set of slides. An hour? Two hours? A full week?
Like I said, this is really just the beginning of an idea. I think it will be a useful framework for deciding what digital photos to keep and how many old photos you’re willing to scan.
Do you have other suggestions or strategies that have worked for you? Go ahead and share them in the comments.