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.