Some thoughts on reprocessing and revisiting images

Reprocessing
The difference of seven years of Photoshop skill: 2012 (left) vs 2005 (right). Mandarin duck; Nikon D2H, Tokina AF 80-200/2.8

From day one, I was told by every serious photographer two things: one, don’t delete anything because opportunities never come twice, but storage is cheap; two, shoot raw, and keep your raw files somewhere in an archive. Or at very least, keep your original jpegs if your camera doesn’t do raw.

I only recently started doing the former: I keep all of the raw files from a commercial shoot, and then send a contact sheet off to the client to let them pick the ones they want retouched – usually between 10 and 50%, per whatever the commercial agreement was. The rest stay in the archive in case they come back later and want to license additional images, or I need to composite in bits during the retouching. For my personal work, I cull ruthlessly – the rationale and the methodology was previously covered in this article.

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Venice, 2004. Nikon D70, 24-120VR

One of the more popular justifications given for being the image-hoarding equivalent of a packrat is that you might want to go back and reprocess your files later once technology or your technique improves, so you can get more out of the original image. This makes sense from a logical point of view, but from a practical standpoint, if you’ve improved that much as a photographer it’s probably because you’re out there shooting new stuff and refining both the shooting and processing portions of your technique. In short: I’ve never gone back and reprocessed anything. Well, there might have been a couple of exceptions when an image was licensed to a client and adjusted for print or to the client’s taste, but nothing more than that. I honestly don’t have time to reprocess my personal work.

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Venice, 2012

However, I suppose we could all find time to do things if we thought they were important enough. And this brings me to the biggest argument against reprocessing images: your artistic vision for that particular image, or what you saw in that particular scene, will never be stronger than at the time of shooting. It just fades gradually as time passes; this is just a consequence of the way the human brain works: we forget things over time. And unless you suddenly look at an image again later and find something that bothers you hugely, you’re probably just going to go with whatever you thought was best at the time.

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Courchevel cloud, 2005. D2H, Sigma 70-300/4-5.6 APO

However, in the interests of academic curiosity, I’m going to do some reprocessing for this article. I don’t know how it’s going to turn out: I’m writing this philosophical portion of the article before doing the work. Frankly even finding shots that meet my compositional standards is tough, because I (hope, at any rate) have moved on significantly in my photographic abilities since these images were shot. There’s no point in reprocessing something from last month, because I don’t think you’ll see any difference in the before and after – one’s style changes slowly, like a tree growing. But one’s style is also defined by the way you shoot, and there are things I do routinely now – for instance, cinematic, very shallow DOF in low light – which I couldn’t physically have done back then, because the equipment didn’t exist.

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Courchevel cloud, 2012.

The archives have been raided, and yielded a number of images. In some cases I’ve had to use the original JPEGs as a starting point because I didn’t have raw files; this is obvious in the lack of file quality and noise. There’s not a lot I can do about that, unfortunately; 8 compressed bits of tonal information can never be made into 16 complete ones. You’ll also see in some places I disagreed with my original processing choice of B&W vs color, and even the final crop – I guess as one’s style and eye evolves, we see different things in the same image. The eagle-eyed of you will also notice small corrections to composition via distortion, cropping or stretching; I normally do these things today, but I’m sure I wasn’t doing any of it at the time. Similarly, dust/ speck cloning was something I never bothered with. I’ve picked a wide range of subjects, too. I’m going to post the final state I arrived at back at the time – usually a mildly edited jpeg – and the reprocessed, 2012-version. I would highly encourage all of my readers to share their thoughts on which they prefer, and why; let the comments section be a forum for discussion. I’ve also provided some thoughts below on each individual image.

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Nikko station, 2007. Nikon D200, 17-55/2.8

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Nikko station, 2012. There’s a lot of empty space in the top portion of this image, especially the overexposed window at top left; it threatens to imbalance the composition – hence switching to a 16:9 crop. The original colors in the scene were delicate and tonally interesting, so I opted to rebalance for true color instead of do another monochrome conversion.

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Piazza San Marco, Venice, 2004. Nikon D70, 24-120VR

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Piazza San Marco, Venice, 2012. This is one of the very early images from my DSLR career; up til this point I’d been using a super zoom compact. If I’d known any better, I’d have used a different exposure time to retain more suggestion of people in the scene, or better yet, stacked many exposures. And f10 isn’t exactly the optimal aperture on the first-generation 24-120VR. Aside from the obvious color fix – this is much closer to the reality I remember than the original processing – verticals, horizontals and tonal maps have also been tweaked. I don’t think the composition is particularly fantastic, but gimme a break, I just started at this point, okay? :)

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Kinkakuji, Kyoto, 2007. Nikon D200, 17-55/2.8

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Kinkakuji, Kyoto, 2012. You’ll notice there isn’t a lot of difference between the two; this was from a later period in my photographic career where my processing was both more refined, and I was shooting RAW (with all of the associated available adjustments) to hand. I didn’t change the composition, though I’m not 100% happy about the positioning of some of the edge elements in the frame; the majority of the change was to sort out the dayglo colors, and the horribly inaccurate foliage. It was a particularly hot summer that year; the image was shot in August, and the trees were looking a little dry and wilted – I think this is much closer to the reality I remember at that point.

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Scarlet Ibis, 2007. Nikon D200, AI 500/4 P

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Scarlet Ibis, 2012. Not a lot of change; I punched up the color a little, because these birds are pretty darn striking in person. I don’t remember the color of the swamp, so I left it much as-is. Again: a late 2007 image.

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La Tania sunset, France. Nikon D2H, Sigma 70-300/4-5.6 APO

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La Tania sunset, France. WHOA! You’re probably wondering what happened here – of all the images, this is the one which is the most different from the original. Aside from the obvious change in crop, I’ve now got the shadow recovery tool at my disposal, and better yet, an intimate familiarity with it. The problem I faced at the time was the sunset was a) both not very punchy and b) the native dynamic range of the scene was already quite challenging, meaning that making the highlight portion punchier would have sacrificed tonal detail in the shadows. At the time, I had no clue how to unblock it. I don’t remember the exact color of the the scene, but I suspect it was probably somewhere between the two images. Which one do you prefer?

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Venice, 2004. Nikon D70, 24-120VR

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Venice, 2012. At the time, I was influenced heavily by a number of ‘classical’ monochrome shots I’d seen in magazines; as a result, this street scene was instantly converted. What I failed to notice in the original – until now, fortunately I still have the original color jpeg – is that the light spillage from the shop windows at left actually give the image an interesting structure that’s lost in black and white because of the similarity of luminance values between the warm-lit stone and the regular stone. I’ve attempted to bring this back, however the limited dynamic range of the jpeg has led to less smooth tonal transitions than I’d be able to achieve with a raw file. Actually, working this ‘vintage’ jpeg reminded me a lot of dealing with iPhone files – imperfect color, blocked shadows, blown highlights, and a decidedly averse reaction to resizing.

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Canal reflections, 2004. Nikon D70, 24-120VR

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Canal reflections, 2005. To me, reflections are juxtapositions. Our minds invert them subconsciously anyway, otherwise we would recognize them as the mirror images of their own selves; I usually take this further by treating the image as the real subject, and the subject as the abstraction – what’s the difference anyway, since all images are subjective and facsimiles of the real thing? Aside from that obvious flip, the verticals have been corrected, and the tonality smoothened out – especially in the water, so it looks more like liquid and less like a block of color.

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Mandarin duck, 2005. Nikon D2H, Tokina AF 80-200/2.8. For some odd reason Flickr won’t let me re-upload a modern duplicate of this image with the right border and matching image size, so I apologize. However, the original image remains the same.

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Mandarin duck, 2012. Improved color accuracy and worked on micro contrast a little.

With all of the reworked versions, I’m not sure I can say that I 100% prefer the 2012 version over the originals – photography is very much the sum of the parts, and the interaction between the original framing and the processing is very much a large component of that. The processing methodology I currently use doesn’t really fit the vision I had back then, and vice versa. Score one for the argument against do-overs: you really can’t fix it in post; you can enhance an image, but not fix something that’s fundamentally wrong with the composition or lighting. Here’s another interesting idea for a future article – reprocessing somebody else’s raw files. Might provide an interesting insight into how much difference Photoshop really makes…MT

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. This article is wonderful. I would have to say I am adding it to my list of favorite MT articles.

    1) I really like the Ibis photo re-processed. I like the dodge on the Ibis and the color.

    2) The mandarin duck is improved and it is amazing to see.

    3) Venice 2012 the re-worked one is wonderful. I prefer it to the original for its rich colors. I would like to go to Venice based of the second photo.

    4) I do prefer the crop on the updated Courchevel cloud, 2012.

    5) Nikko station, 2012. – Prefer the crop and color. Learned a lot from your explanation of this. Very cool effect and improvement.

    6) I much prefer the new version of La Tania sunset, France. Not even close. Colors seem better.

    7) Venice 2004 has turned into a masterpiece in the re-worked version.

    8) And of course I like the canal flipped.

    Best Wishes – Eric

    • Interesting to hear feedback from an external perspective. I honestly can’t say I always prefer the new versions, probably because I know what else was available in that scene to use in the composition; and I know I’d do it differently now.

  2. Great post concept. I think you can make arguments for many of the he and original edits, but the most important emphasis to take away is to especially do this early in your learning curve! I have been shooting for only four years now, and while I agree that when I go back, most of the images are less than ideal techie ally, there are certianly things there that I did not recognize before, and many are worthwhile to revisit and re-edit.

    You and the other more experienced individuals here discuss whether the passion and/or otivation for the shot wanes over time or a fresh perspective is developed – I would say that in reality for the beginning photographer there may be only a hint of conscious awareness about why an image impacted you enough to fire the shutter, and in revisiting that image as you mature, you may be able to better express that initial inspiration.
    Thanks for posting!
    Brad

    • I think you’ve got a great point – for the beginning photographer there may be only a hint of conscious awareness about why an image impacted you enough to fire the shutter, and in revisiting that image as you mature, you may be able to better express that initial inspiration – knowing why you shot something is just as important as having actually shot it, because then you can do everything you can to process the image in such a way it brings out the key compositional elements best. But to do that, you need to know what they are, and also a bit of the psychology around how we humans view things…

  3. Tom Smith says:

    I find with my own work that if I didn’t like the shots back then, I won’t like them now, no matter how I change the processing. I recently went through my digital archive which began in 2006. I think I found about 2 or 3 shots that I figure I may have “missed” when doing an edit at the time of the shoot. I deleted a bunch of stuff that I was attached to but couldn’t admit they were bad shots. I felt a weight being lifted! My friend thought I was nuts but I honestly found it so liberating to ditch shots that I didn’t really like at the time but refused to admit that they were below my standards. I highly suggest new photographers follow your advice and learn to cull ruthlessly. (For the record, I keep all shots of friends, family, pets, etc. – you just never know….)

    • I did the same a lot back when I was starting – I won’t even keep it if it’s not in the ballpark now, otherwise it’s a waste of time processing and a waste of hard drive space. Client work is a different matter, though. Then I keep everything just in case.

      • I do the opposite. I tend to keep more of my personal stuff (in ‘selection’ and ‘reject’ folders), but delete the rejects from client work, at least after a couple of months. The issue is volume. Client work takes up so much space. And the clients never see the rejects anyway.

        • Oh I never show them the rejects, but sometimes they can provide useful donor material for retouching, or get out of jail free cards if they ask if you’ve got any alternatives…

  4. Xenia Edberg Kledzik says:

    Hello Ming,
    I discovered your blog while reading your excellent Leica MM review and I have enjoyed reading everything you publish ever since. No doubt, you are a most talented photographer with amazing postproduction skills! But there is danger there… Please, don’t let your elaborate technique overshadow the essence of your pictures. For instance: the ‘Venice’ shot had actually more mystique and feeling in it, before you worked (most skilfully) on the background. And the shot of the ‘La Tania’ sunset turned in my eyes into a sunrise, but that is my spontaneous reaction, nobody else seemed to notice. The colours in the second copy are much too cool to look like evening or nightfall. Exception: the ‘Nikko station’ attempt from 2012 has got it all right, right colours, right crop and right feeling of emptiness and waiting for Godot… Brilliant!
    Last, but not least: thank you for sharing your great knowledge and some of the best photographs I have seen on the web!

    • Thanks Xenia! I think different periods in ‘seeing’ require different styles of post processing.

      • Xenia Edberg Kledzik says:

        You are quite right, Ming, while we are looking at our digital age! But go back a while – if only in your mind – and things were quite different…
        A couple of years ago, I was asked to prepare an exhibition showing some of my travelshots, all from mediumformat colour slides. Most of the slides were taken before you and I could even spell ‘digital’. Anyway, by that time in 2005 I had a Mac Pro, an Imacon drum scanner, an Epson Stylus Photo printer and of course Photoshop at my disposel. But when I sat down to work, there was not much post processing to do. All I had to do, was scan, give the scan a little more light and print. And why? Because, when the photos were taken, I had to get it right at first try. Was there enough time (often there was not), I could have another go. But besides the risk, that the moment or the light were gone, there was no preview. While travelling a month or two in the bush or desert of Africa, there was no option at all to have a tiny little look at what I had done. The first couple of days after arriving back home were like a big celebration. I sat for hours at my lighttable looking through the loupe at my freshly developed slides, choosing the best shots and sending them on by royal post:) to the editor.
        Today, as everybody else, I take my digitals home on memory cards and spend hours playing with some selected images in post production. Does that make me a better photographer? I wonder…
        Actually, in my heart, I am a Black & White kind of person, which brings me back to your very tempting review of the Leica MM.
        Thank you, Ming, for investing so much of your precious time in these generously shared posts!

        • Your story reminds me of how Salgado does it these days – he’s very much a film B&W person too – except now he shoots digital, without looking at the back, then converts the files to negatives to print…the irony of course being that most of the distribution is digital, which requires reconversion and scanning. No matter how good your process is, there’s always going to be some information loss in the conversion.

  5. Hello Ming!
    few considerations here:

    Mandarin duck: I prefer the newer due to the more natural colors, specially the less saturated green tones.
    Scarlet Ibis: 2007 version – neutral colors.
    Venice: 2012. The lights in the windows creates a warm atmosphere contrasting with the colder backgroung (that is almost BW) That’s why I prefer the color one.
    Courchevel cloud: I like the 2012 crop, it’s more cinematic.
    Nikko station: for some strange reason I prefer the 2007 crop. It gives me more “emptiness” feeling.
    Courchevel cloud: 2012 crop.
    La Tania sunset – WOW ! So much recovery in a D2H is impressive! Is that clean in a 1:2 or 1:1 view? Did you use some noise reduction or you never use it?

    Thanks for the article!

  6. The Nikon D 70 File from 2004 (Venice). The changes: GREAT!

  7. Thank you! You gave us a very nice and deep view into your abilities in post processing! I like the Venice 2004 shot (Nikon D 70) and your words about “never going back”. You are right: If you work hard day by day, then there is no time to work with older files!

  8. This is really interesting, because – in my opinion – you got it right the first time.

    The only photos where I preferred the reprocessed version were the “Canal Reflections” (for the fact that the inversion made it a much more interesting/abstract photo), the “La Tania Sunset” (where the extra diagonal lines in the lower 3rd add complexity to the composition – but I’d keep the first version two, as they are entirely different aspects of the same photo so it is hard to say one is “better” per se), and the Scarlet Ibis (nothing to do with the colour – the left side seems to have added vignetting, which leads the eye to the subject and puts some interest in the “negative space”). Actually I do also prefer the processing of the colours on the Kyoto photo, so I guess I was wrong – I do like a lot of the “newly processed” versions.

    I like the original of the “Venice” a lot more – it needs some softness, or rather the harsh contrasty background of the later process doesn’t allow the subjects to stand out (it actually BECOMES more of the subject) at least in this small jpeg web size. The soft focus also enhances the feeling of “mystery” or the “dream-like” quality, which I believe to be an entirely appropriate choice.

    Actually it is a similar thing for me with the Couchevel Clouds. You’ve increased the clarity and the contrast in the mountains, sure, but the mountains therefore disappear in the clouds less … again, there is less of a sense of “mystery” for me. It is a more plain, “matter of fact” rendition – the mountain shapes you can see have become more important than that which is obscurred – and I think the more we can make a viewer/reader contribute their own imagination to an experience, the stronger the connection between artist and viewer/reader will be – the more will be transmitted, though it seems as though less exists in the piece of art (wow – long way of saying “less is more” I guess). All in my opinion, of course.

    Sorry, do also prefer your reprocess on the Plazza De Marco – very nice and less garish than the original, but I also really like the original, so that one is close to a draw for me – like the Sunset photo, either version works well.

    I much prefer the original version of the Nikko Station. I like it in B/W, but that’s not the main reason (your subdued colour version is quite nice and subtle – antique and “painterly”). The reason is that the window IS a large part of the composition to me and needs not be “toned down” – getting to see the additional panes balances out the size/shape of the window’s shadow on the floor (provides a counterbalance) quite nicely in my opinion. Though I do see what you are saying – there are 3 main elements rather than 2 (or 4 rather than 3), so I would think many people would prefer the simplicity of the newer version.

    With the Mandarin duck, I prefer the colour of the new version, but prefer the crop of the first version, and I can’t really explain why (other than the fact that it is less “perfect” – maybe a little less contrived and “perfect”). The crop in the new version is EXACTLY how I would have cropped it (right on the diagonal). In fact, now that I look at it, there is not a different crop at all … what I prefer about the old version (that made me think there was additional “space”) is that the bottom right hand corner is a lot lighter, which opens up that space and differentiates the duck from the water (adding some “negative space”). It makes the framing a bit less “claustrophobic” and blocked/bunched up in the lower right corner to me.

    Hope it was useful to hear somebody’s unexpurgated and uncensored opinions (whether you agree with them or not), rather than finding this post annoyingly lengthy. I just know, for me, I love getting detailed feedback (not that it seems to happen anywhere near enough) as it clarifies my own thoughts and opinions, by changing them or strengthening them – or at least making me aware of where I’m uncertain …

    • Thanks for taking the time to write this, Damen – when dealing with such subjective topics, having additional feedback and opinions is always welcome, and beneficial for not just me, but also the readers of the site. I think in the end we come to the same conclusion: the new version isn’t necessarily better; and I think that’s a combination of me not having the same clarity of vision I did at the time of shooting, as well as my current processing style being better suited to my current compositional style…

  9. James de Penning says:

    Super blog Ming. Just stumbled across it and am really enjoying reading all your earlier posts. I spent some time recently redoing some old raw files and it is amazing to see the difference a fews years can make in ones perceptions of what works and doesn’t. Personally my photoshop skills are pretty average, and I rely more on Aperture to tweak colour and contrast but little else. It is a fairly blunt tool in most respects and this post certainly inspires me to improve my PS skills. Learning a great deal from reading your articles, so thank you and please keep them coming.

  10. I re-visited some of my earlier blown-out shots after installing LR4 because it recovers the highlights better than LR3. Some of the surprises I found while doing that weren’t in the highlight recoveries, but how some shots I loved in color then I realize work better in B&W now.

    As it is, I think it’s like you said – luxury of time, and whether you think a new skill you picked up could improve something you had done previously. As for sitting out a work, I like to sit on a processed image for a day at least, so I can look at it again with fresh and unbiased eyes (luxury of time). A pretty experienced photographer once told me that he would not look at his images for at least a week (real luxury of time).

  11. Pete Saunders says:

    You know, Ming, I’m going to mostly disagree. I think originals are done in the heat of emotion (at least for me) so the first result maybe sugar-coated by the euphoria of the moment. I let them sit, my re-evaluations become more objective as emotions subside and my eye becomes more critical. And if I let them sit long enough, my post processing skills have improved enough to make a significant improvement upon the original.

    • Pete, we’ve been having this discussion as long as I can remember :) You come up with dozens of versions – I do one and be done with it, because for me after the euphoria of the moment passes, I can’t remember what I wanted to get out of the shot in the first place. I think it’s more to do with PP being inextricably tied to my way of seeing things and workflow, which means what I see and shoot to process for now isn’t what I was doing a few years ago. I’ve got no doubt it’ll be the same deal in the future.

      • Pete Saunders says:

        I understand your thinking Ming, believe me. I guess two great minds don’t always have to think alike. :)
        Art indeed would be boring anyway if we all did think the same. :)

  12. Really good reminder & loved the images too!

  13. Excellent post, Ming. I wish I had your post-processing skills. Someday we’ll hook up for a class (this doesn’t lend itself to your e-mail class option)

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