The Star system
First, an explanation: after every shoot, photos are rated from one to five stars in my library.
One star is for something awful: misfires, blinks, out of focus shots etc. Two stars means poor: this collection contains uninspiring but required images, the dull fillers.
Three stars get awarded to anything reasonable. They're fine, but wouldn't go in any portfolio.
Four stars: while I wouldn't put these on a website, I might keep them for clients requesting to see examples of something.
Five stars are for my favourite work: many of these are on my website. Those which aren't are either too similar to my website portfolio, too old, or not quite relevant to the kind of work I do.
I never spend more than a second deciding on each picture. The majority get three stars - or at least this is the default rating (I realise this undermines the purpose of the system). Occasionally I'll award an entire batch four/five stars for a shoot which I was happy with, but which provided very similar shots. I'll go back after a few days with a fresh perspective, and after the initial buzz has gone.
Now that's out the way, there are three things I wanted to talk about.
The first is that I've realised there’s no real need to rate the images, as the value is limited. Mostly, it’s self-appraisal after a shoot is complete, and sometimes the only critique they'll receive. While an important debriefing process (of a kind), my own narrow judgement is not ideal; it's too subjective and informed. Constructive criticism is best coming from other photographers - but this is a rare thing. Feedback from clients is typically rare.
The second - related - is that star ratings over-simplify and commodify the qualities of a photograph. Worse, they do so in a rather diluted and liberal fashion. At least there's something unforgiving and final with the simple thumbs up/down system (or "kill" and "keep"), and which I apply to the first round from a shoot. Bear in mind that anything less than four stars won't ever be seen again, so it amounts to the same thing.
Third, I notice I’m not improving. I scatter roughly the same amount of stars now as I did when I first went freelance. Less than a dozen times a year will I make a five star image. Actually, I’m probably giving out fewer fours and threes, as I see the same kind of images I’ve shot before: less original, and scarcely improved upon. The fives would also be going down, but for the fact I’m doing more interesting and different work than I used to, which I suppose allows for more possibility of getting something I like.
Practice does not make perfect
Of course, it’s entirely to do with the critical eye. As we improve on the ground, by necessity our more informed eye looks for higher concerns, and becomes a tougher critic. I’ve probably mentioned elsewhere my press photography NCE portfolio (2004?), about which I was once very pleased. It now makes me cringe. Yet there are still three images from it on my website (I've said too much...) and whether I’ve kept them because they stand the test of time, or because they show an aspect of my style which I’d like to continue to present, I don’t know.
I do know that I’d like to replace them, and that urgency grows every year. There's something Dorian Grey about it all. You just get bored of seeing them, and their appearance is both shaming ("WHY haven't I bettered this?") and a source of pride ("...but I still like it after so long!").
Even the five-star images have a shelf-life, an inherent entropy. Eventually they lose their shine and drop down the rankings: one day you demote them to four, then, later, into the abyss of three stars and lower.
The only thing to do is to keep working, to keep trying. To replenish the top tier, to keep feeding the beast with something fresh, at least for a while.