As a photographer, it is easy to feel excited about the newest images that you take. After returning from an amazing shoot, there is nothing more fun than loading your photos and sorting through them for the first time. This initial thrill, though, doesn’t always last. If you took hundreds – or even thousands – of photos at a time, sorting through your work can become a tedious task. Sometimes, too, you just aren’t in the right frame of mind to be looking through photos; perhaps you are distracted or simply tired. Whatever the reason, it is deceptively easy to overlook a high-quality photograph if you aren’t paying enough attention – I speak from experience! The only way to fix the problem is to look through the old photos that you have taken. In this article, I will discuss some of the important reasons to revisit your archives from time to time. Along the way, you may find beautiful shots that you never noticed before.
1) Photos You Overlooked
Some of the best photographs in your archives may be the ones you never considered in the first place. On more than one occasion, I have taken hundreds of photographs during an incredible sunrise or sunset, and I decided to load them into Lightroom immediately after the shoot. If I am short on time, I find myself scanning through the photos without giving each one its due consideration. In such cases, it is quite easy to overlook some of the better shots.
No matter how carefully you sort your photographs, you are almost certain to miss some of the good ones along the way – especially as you take more and more images each year. For me, this is especially true with macro photography; sometimes, I take hundreds of macro images in just a single shoot. When I sort through this many photos at a time, it is remarkably difficult to give each shot the attention that I should.
The photo above, for example, went unnoticed for almost a year in my archives. Indeed, I had taken almost four hundred images from the same morning; my only interaction with this shot would have lasted a couple seconds. It is not one of my all-time best macro photos, but I think it is a perfectly worthwhile shot. Certainly, it shouldn’t have been left in an obscure corner of my Lightroom catalog.
Like many photographers, I believe, I also have a habit of seeing my images comparatively rather than objectively; if a good photo is near a great one, it is easy to overlook the first. (At the same time, this means that I sometimes feel pressured to love at least one photograph from every shoot, even if none of them are any good.) So, on the rare occasion that I see a truly incredible sight, I find myself dismissing more of the resulting photos than I should.
The photograph above is the perfect example. I actually think that this is one of my better photographs from Iceland, but I didn’t notice it at first – because, just a few minutes later, I took one that I like even more. Although the subjects of the two photos were completely different, the simple fact that I took them so close to one another made me biased against this first image. By looking back from a later date, though, I had a better perspective on the photos I took that day; ultimately, it was clear that this shot was almost as worthy as the second.
All of this is to highlight the importance of revisiting your older images. As you become a better photographer over the years, your good-but-unnoticed images will stick out more strongly than they did before. Plus, you will see your old photos with a new eye; you no longer have the emotional biases – positive or negative – that you did before. No matter how closely you consider your photos, there are bound to be some good images that you didn’t notice at first.
2) Forgotten, High-Quality Images
By the same token – although, in some ways, even more frustrating – are the photos you did recognize the first time, but then forgot to label as such. This is more likely to happen if you use a haphazard organizational structure; at the same time, though, there is no foolproof system.
Personally, to mark my better photographs, I star my images as they import to Lightroom. Then, I move the four- and five-star images into a separate collection to review later. Although this system is generally successful, it doesn’t always work. Sometimes, for instance, I hit the wrong key, or I don’t place an image in the proper collection. These are simple mistakes, but they sometimes go unnoticed; as a result, I lose track of some images that I liked.
I remember one instance in particular: a leaf photograph that I actually printed, then forgot to move to any of my Lightroom collections. I completely forgot about the photo until I found the print in an old folder! Even though I clearly liked this shot, it had gotten buried under the weight of all my new images.
I didn’t have the best file structure at the time I took this photo, which is the main reason why I lost it so easily. This is not an unusual situation for other photographers, either. Even if you have a top-quality organization system right now, has that alway been the case? Some of your oldest photographs may not have been sorted in any coherent, logical way. This is why it pays to look through your archives! You may have taken great images a few years ago – and even known it at the time – but simply forgotten to move them somewhere that you can find today.
3) Making New Edits
If you spend enough effort over time, your post-processing skills are certain to improve. Perhaps you learn new tips and tricks in your editing program, or you may become better at judging how much saturation an image needs. Is it not possible, then, to edit some of your old photographs again, knowing everything that you do now? For me, in more than one case, I have taken years-old work and processed it into something far better – a photo worth displaying, rather than a throwaway snapshot. Take the image below, for example:
This is one of my better photos from a trip to California, but it didn’t start that way. Take a look at the original version below:
It is easy to see the changes I made to this photograph. I cropped to the left-hand side, for one, and I converted the image to black and white. I also made some shadow and contrast adjustments, although those were more minor edits. With my current post-processing knowledge, it wasn’t hard to get the finalized version; back when I took the image, though, I was lost.
At the time, I found it hard to look at a photograph in Lightroom and see the possibilities that it held. For this photograph, I couldn’t think beyond the literal, uncropped, full-color version. It wasn’t that I had glossed over this photograph at first; I simply didn’t realize that it held any potential. As my post-processing skills grew, though, it became easier to see how I could make this photo much better without too much effort.
It is rare, perhaps, that a good image can be coaxed out of a mediocre original. But if you shoot thousands of photographs each year, it is bound to happen more than once. Start by looking at your old, mid-level images – photos that already had potential, but perhaps ones that you didn’t edit to perfection. See if you can crop or otherwise adjust those old shots in ways that you hadn’t considered before.
I also have found it valuable to look back at your old, high-quality photographs just to make sure that they are edited to their best. Ask yourself, would you process this photo exactly the same today? If not, what would you do differently? By editing your old photos – even ones that were never lost, per se – you can help your portfolio maintain a modern, cohesive appearance.
In the end, for almost every photographer, looking through your old images is completely invaluable. While writing this article, even, I found more than a dozen photos in my archives that I had forgotten over recent years; now, I have more material for my website and other articles. No matter how good you are at recognizing high-quality images, nobody is perfect. Over time, you are certain to overlook a handful of the photos you take. By going through your archives, though, you can see the photos that slipped through the cracks. In doing so, you may discover a wonderful image that you never noticed before.
As an advertising and product photographer I find that by the end of a great day’s shooting, I am well and truly over what I’m seeing on the screen. By the time I’ve worked with my crew styling, lighting, finding angles etc, dozens of test frames have been shot. So, hours have been spent in the studio being overly critical, finding the issues, and then again in retouching…that’s enough! And then 3 months down the track I find myself searching through that same shoot and it looks great! I can even judge the shots with fresh eyes, and maintain an objective view. If you don’t do it, I think it’s difficult to be progressive and improve, it is motivating whether you like what you see or not. Particularly if you’d differently or better next time.
I remember some years ago suffering agonies sitting for hours in a stiflingly hot hide in Africa being assailed by sweat bees and flies trying to capture images of a hoopoe feeding chicks at the nest.
At the time I thought I had created a masterpiece.
Given the time, effort and pain involved how could it be anything else?
Competition judges (all of them idiots of course) damned it with faint praise.
I was outraged.
How could they be so blind?
Three years passed.
I reviewed the image.
It was crap.
But didn’t the image remind you of that time you shared with the hoopoes?
Yes, but it also reminds me of being boiled alive in a tiny makeshift hide unable to move to wipe the bees off my dripping face.
I’ve never suffered so much for so little!
Most worthwhile advice. Over time I have become much more proficient in post-processing and some of my photos from years ago that I had passed up as “meh” haven proven to be quite good. In going through my archive I have also started to look at the tags and to assign “missing tags”. Recently I was looking for “windows” and found many interesting photos that qualified but that I had not labeled as such because the primary subject was something else.
Spencer, Your opening paragraph is very true. The effect that you have described is the direct result of cognitive biases that inevitably lead to inattentional blindness, aka perceptual blindness, which is the impossibility for any human (or any other animal) to attend to all of the relevant stimuli in a given situation. The cocktail party effect is the most well known example of fixing our locus of attention on a particular stimulus while managing to filter out a wide range of other stimuli.
Photographers suffer inattentional blindness in double- and multiple-whammy forms that non-photographers never experience. When we review our images, soon after taking them, it has the unfortunate effect of setting our current locus of attention back to that which it was when capturing the images. This prevents us from being objective and otherwise realistic during our review process.
Suppose we were capturing images of a robin in a garden that was covered in snow: pixel-peeping the images to ensure that the robin was in focus keeps our locus of attention on the robin — as it was when we were using our camera to capture the images — and maintains our inattentional blindness towards the simple and obvious fact that it isn’t a picture of a robin, it is supposed to be a picture of an environment that includes a robin as the main (but not the only) subject! A picture of the main subject that contains no context is very useful in the fields of science and medicine, but it is utterly useless for the purposes of meaningful communication and/or artistic expression.
I’m ruthless with culling for several reasons. The most important reason is that the UK Data Protection Act stipulates the length of time that I can retain client data before I must securely erase it. The second reason is that if I can’t be bothered to review my images, and keep only a few, then I know damn well that nobody else on the planet can be bothered to look at them. My portfolio comprises only circa 30 images — nobody has ever wanted to see beyond the first ten before making the decision whether or not to use my services. That isn’t a boast, it is simply having learnt how care about clients enough to tailor the order my images to best match their needs.
To those who keep tens or hundreds of thousands of images, I have to ask the serious questions: What on earth are you going to do with them, other than gloat over your increasingly amassed collection that not even you has the time or inclination to frequently look at and admire? Would it not be better to spend your time and money on improving upon what you have done in the past, rather than on hoarding your past?
I completely agree with Betty’s statement: “Amassing quantity in the hope that somehow some quality might emerge is surely not the path to creativity or improvement? Instead of storing terabytes of garbage perhaps we should shoot a little less and think a little more – about what we are doing and why we are doing it.”
Having spent most of my life with film photography, I long ago learnt the vast difference between the very short-lived thrill gained from randomly pressing the shutter button on a newly acquired toy; and thinking very carefully and considerately of how to best thrill my audience, rather than myself, before making each and every full depression of the shutter button to capture the image I’d composed in the viewfinder.
I am not sure I agree with this philosophy of ‘save everything’.
I am pretty brutal with culling my images. If they are bad on first viewing they don’t usually improve with keeping.
That said, I agree that revisiting one’s archive is a good idea and can be productive, but the archive should surely not just be a dump for every single time the shutter got pressed.
The one exception, which mirrors Spencer’s example, is the image shot in horrible/uninspiring light which later ‘comes to life’ in post processing
For me the archive is principally a repository for images which have at least some redeeming features and for images which might yield a source of pixels for later cloning/compositing or expanding the canvas where the subject is a little short of space in the frame.
Amassing quantity in the hope that somehow some quality might emerge is surely not the path to creativity or improvement?
Instead of storing terabytes of garbage perhaps we should shoot a little less and think a little more – about what we are doing and why we are doing it.
Great article! There are times you return from a shoot with the “money shot”–the one that you know captures your heart and will probably appeal to others. Other times you get shots that, with a little post-processing (B/W, Color Efex Pro, etc.), can also be spectacular. I delete the “dogs”–ones that will require too much fixing to reflect the vision you had while shooting. Others I hold onto for reflection on rainy (or snowy) days!
I need to go through my old pictures more often! I once took a picture of mountains in Iceland and just glanced over it when I was going through my pictures later because I didn’t blow it all the way up, but I looked at it a year later and loved it because it looked so much better when it was larger.
Hi Spencer, your timing is immaculate in my case. We are doing a really major kitchen refit at the moment and frustratingly, I have yet to ‘properly’ field test my Nikon D5500 due to very serious time constraints to do with the project.
On top of that, I have had to upgrade my computer, as my previous computer did not support 64 bit processing, and unfortunately, my new camera won’t work with Photoshop 5 Raw’s latest and final update for it (thanks Adobe!). As a result, I have now a new computer, photoshop CC, DXO Optics Pro Elite 10 (upgraded from 9 recently) and one or two other software upgrades.
Given that, and a total lack of new images to view from the new camera, I was forced to re-visit all my archived images, just like you suggested in your article, and it is quite amazing how some of them respond to re-editing on the new hardware / software I have been forced to buy.
You are so right in that shots that I virtually ignored on the first few passes, when they were newly taken, are now leaping off the page. The other side of the coin is that the ‘best’ images, when re-processed on the new software almost always edit down to a better end result. I would urge everyone to re-visit their archived shots and if they are forced to upgrade like myself, I would very strongly urge them to do so, you’ll find some little undiscovered treasures in there, I guarantee it. Even if you have not done any recent upgrades to your set-up, here in the UK we are still in the very cold and rainy season, and this is a great way to enjoy your hobby when the weather is not so encouraging for actually getting out there and shooting (even though shots in bad weather are often better anyway!).
Thanks for an interesting and very timely article Spencer.
A comment from another Ross : )
I frequently keep many images to see what does/does not work with lens/aperture/ISO combinations. I do get rid of the old HDR grunge photos – they are the rainbow suspenders of my collection.
I also recently got DXO Optics Pro Elite 10. I am finding that some raw photos look much better than in Lightroom. Problem though is the size of the tif files from a D800. If there were a way to get DXO quality with a .NEF size….
I may be off here, but isn’t NEF the raw image, as captured by the sensor?
If TIFF is “better” that’s because there’s been some kind of processing on the NEF image. I know for a fact that, by default, DxO Optics applies a lot of processing, especially lens distortion corrections before rendering the image on screen, and that’s why it looks better to you. It was designed to do exactly that.
So, NEF is really all you need as a source, no?
Hi Steve, I’ve been offline working on that project I mentioned in my earlier post, hence the delay in replying. I get that the D810 files are huge. In fact, even the D5500 files are quite a handful, 610with a new fast computer and the latest software.
When you come down to the export part of the post processing, why not output them ‘to application’ and have Photoshop receive the output files. In there you can reduce the file size before final save to disk, and of course, you still have the original RAW (NEF) files from the camera should you want to completely re-work your shot.
Scale of the file size on a D810 is important if you are going to make a print of a very large size. In my case, I went from the D5100 to the D5200 a few years ago, in order to get more pixels to play with, as at the time I found that most of my images needed cropping to one extent or another, even if it was just getting the horizon straight in a landscape, allowing maximum quality to persist through the post processing phase.
Once done, the output size comes into play, in the context of print size. The 8×6 or 10×8 print is more than sharp enough for a 12mp camera to provide the source of the print, so I could even have shot these on a D5000, which I also owned pre the D5100.
It is only when you know you are going to severely crop into an image, or, print a huge print, that these large source NEF (converted to Jpeg for final printing purposes) are needed.
I am sure you already know all of this, my reply is aimed at those a bit new to the concept of the very high resolution cameras, and the problems they bring to us when dealing with post processing them.
After reviewing the the comments of this ELECTRIFYING debate: #1 Save your work! If it’s interesting or or important SAVE IT! For review or edit later. I acquired an enormous slide collection of interesting and historic subjects. I bought 2 deck quality slide trays to preserve this guys excellent photography. Save what’s interesting or historic, If you are not sure DONATE IT!!!
Mr Cox :
You have a dilemma similar to mine : I have inherited a 50,000 Kodachrome slide collection from my best friend, recently deceased. He was an excellent photographer and gave me many pointers , as I gave to him. Now I am scanning, at high resolution, his best work, which may blow your pants off! How do you decide how to manage such a volume ?? SAVE the Originals , AND scan the BEST!!! With external hard drives, SAVE what’s good. !!!!
I’m sorry to hear about your friend. Would love to see an article with some of his great work – I’m sure it would interest our readers.
Thank you for your consideration!