Some thoughts on reprocessing and revisiting images

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 | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved