I have been going through old photos lately and have made some discoveries about how I used to edit my work. What I learned could help you avoid mistakes and breathe new life into older, perhaps forgotten, shots.
I made my 4th camera manufacturer switch this past fall since first taking up photography in 1993. I started with Nikon, then moved to Canon, then to Leica, and now to Sony. I moved into quite the upgrade, the Sony a7R IV, which is a 61 megapixel full frame beast of a mirrorless camera. The raw files out of this camera, though compressed, are still huge. It’s the file size alone that caused me to make some massive changes in my overall editing workflow.
For starters, I discovered that a Lightroom catalog of 250,000 photos doesn’t play well with a new camera that is importing 61MP raws. Lightroom basically crawled back under its lagging performance rock and began to irritate me every single day that I went to edit new work from the Sony a7R IV. For the record, I am using a brand new iMac Pro as my main office computer and it is no slouch. It is loaded with RAM, internal storage, and processor and graphics upgrades – so Lightroom should not have had any limitations, but it did.
This prompted me to go back to the software that I used to really love: Capture One Pro. I figured if Capture One could handle a 120MP Phase One files (and the software ships with new Sony cameras), it would work just fine with my new raw files. The answer was an resounding YES! Capture One eliminated all of my speed issues. The looming downside to this is that all of my past photos are cataloged and processed within Lightroom.
Capture One works with local adjustments very differently from Lightroom, so when importing a Lightroom catalog into Capture One you lose all of those local adjustments. This isn’t a bad thing if you are happy with the look of previous photos and those photos have been put into a final destination where they don’t necessarily need any additional processing.
However, Capture One makes my photos look significantly better. So as I imported my old photos into Capture One, I decided to re-edit/re-organize nearly everything. This re-editing included image deletion and reprocessing of my favorites. Times change and so has my creative vision about photography.
Advances in Software Can Pull New Possibilities Out of Old Files
My case for re-editing old work is a bit of an extreme example. You don’t need to go this distance. There are other advantages, however, to re-editing previous shots without a big software switch. The most significant reason, in my opinion, is the never-ending software advancements. Software updates used to be annoying to me, but now they inevitably add better features, fix previous bugs and repair critical running issues.
New processing engines are always being developed. Lightroom is now on version 9.2.1 and Capture One is on version 126.96.36.199. These updates not only allow the software to read files from the latest and greatest cameras, but also add new feature for old files, like better rendering of sensor noise and extending the dynamic range of raws files. This means that some of those older photos can actually be saved and/or reprocessed to look better than ever. Go back and find the files you kept but thought were unusable. You may be surprised by what new software can pull from them.
With my 250,000+ image collection, I would never suggest or even attempt to re-edit all of my work. My image catalog is a very organic structure. It ebbs and flows like the tide. I am constantly pulling photos for articles and projects. When I do this, if a file is running on an older catalog version, I will update it and see if I can make it look better. Nine times out of ten, the photo does look better when re-processed. I am not going to go through 250,000 images every time Adobe or Phase One update their software. But when updates are released, it offers another opportunity to revisit old work.
Have Your Tastes Changed? It’s Okay to Re-Edit Old Work
Trends change as do photographic styles. I have tried a lot of processing techniques in the past, but now I have settled on applying basic, non-destructive global and local adjustments to my raw files using Capture One. Some of my processing choices are client driven, but many are really driven by my knowledge of what has come before. I personally love contrast, black and white, and simplicity in my post processing workflow. I want to get back outside as fast as possible and create new photos. I hate sitting at my computer, so spending an hour or more on a single image isn’t really for me. This new workflow, while labor intensive at first, will save me time later.
So, what have I done when editing in the past and what do I avoid now in my photography style? Warning: I am going to get a little opinionated here. If you love some of my techniques, that’s great! Try them out! But I have decided to take a much simpler approach to my photography and that doesn’t mean you have to follow suit.
Around the world there are thousands of classic and iconic scenes. These shots exist in national parks and preserved land, in cities and at natural wonders. The icon is the obvious successful composition with thousands of people taking, potentially, the same shot every day. Yes, I have shot these same scenes and I continue to shoot them for clients who want them. I don’t find issue with the typical iconic shot – except that shooting an iconic composition doesn’t really train you to be creative. Put your tripod legs in the same position as Ansel Adams and press click. That’s a simplification of complex process, but you understand what I mean about the overshot scene. Of course, weather and timing and attention to detail will all create something a little different for every person shooting an iconic location. But, for me personally, I want something else for my catalog. Photograph the icons but then try something else, too. My “do this, but also try this” advice also applies to editing.
Fads in Editing: Does Your Past Work Follow Trends that No Longer Make Sense?
I’d like to go down memory lane with the editing fads that I went through and my opinions about them now. Again, these are just my opinions – not facts – but you might relate to at least a few of these sometimes-regrettable editing phases most of us go through.
High Dynamic Range imagery (or HDR) is the gimmick of all gimmicks in photography. I did partake. I believe most of us go through HDR phases. Some shooters need to employ this technique but for a lot of us, it’s a fad. I have blended multiple images using Lightroom, Photoshop, and many other HDR-specific plugins. Yes, I loved this technique for a bunch of years. I started using it because I was shooting a lot of architecture photography. Architecture requires the photographer to balance a massive exposure range. You end up using lights and still need some sort of post processing technique to bring exposures within range. Then I realized that you can use those techniques with other disciplines of photography and I did just that.
As I look back at this work, I want to throw up a little. It’s just too surreal to really look like photography. Or sometimes it looks too flat and even, almost as if there is too much information. If you love HDR, more power to you. It’s really just not for me, especially when I started using it outside of its practical use-case of architecture.
You can perform a simple exposure blend with as few as 2 exposures, but you can also add in as many photos as needed. I think exposure blending is where you migrate to when you realize HDR is a bit too much. I actually still use this technique, but only occasionally. It usually occurs when the sun is setting and I realize that I left my graduated neutral density filters at home. This technique gives you a more realistic looking photo than an HDR plugin will.
I have practically replaced whole skies before when using exposure blending, especially when that sunrise or sunset just wasn’t happening to my satisfaction. Now, I can spot this technique a mile away. I gotta say that I didn’t know the earth produced so many “perfect orange sky sunsets”, in so many locations around the world, as I see on so many photographer’s websites today. My point is, odds are, they are exposure blended – or even composited (more on that later) – at least a little.
I mainly stopped using this technique because many of my editorial clients want all the info in a single photo. They dubbed this only-one-shot approach as “photojournalistic”. When clients like National Geographic and Patagonia require a single raw capture as truth-in-advertising, you really have no choice but to give them what they are asking for if you want to work with them. So I did. The major benefit that I discovered here is that I spend less time processing my images. Major editing only became necessary if I had really bad sensor dust or I was building a large panoramic.
I should also mention that many of today’s newer digital cameras give you enough dynamic range to pull off a great exposure without filters and typically with only one exposure. Editing is becoming increasingly just a creative tool and less a necessity since cameras are getting so incredibly light sensitive.
When I critique compositing, I am not talking about the super creative fantasy composites people do. That takes miles of creativity and loads of expertise to accomplish. I am also not talking about something like a composite panoramic or even an in-camera multiple exposure. I am talking about a composite that attempts to pass as reality but to the trained eye is fakery.
The example that comes to mind is a landscape shot that was clearly taken with an ultra-wide angle lens (noticeable because of how the foreground subject looks, with an extremely wide – and potentially distorted-looking – angle of view) that somehow also has a rising moon in the background that is so large it couldn’t have been taken with anything but a super telephoto lens. To understand further why you can’t get those giant moon shots with a wide angle, check out How Lens Length Affects Apparent Background Size: An Example Using the Moon.
I am against this sort of thing because it creates distrust in photography. When someone gets that larger-than-life, but genuine, super-tele moon shot, people are skeptical. Yes, I do know that photography is a creative art form. But, unlike painting, it does represent a real moment in time. Pulling the wool over a viewer’s eyes just hurts photography as a trusted source of how the world looks.
The Orton Effect
The Orton Effect gives otherwise ordinary images a dreamy or misty look. It was originally created in the 80s by photographer Michael Orton. Orton actually produced the effect using multiple images taken on transparency film and sandwiched the transparencies together during the reproduction process. Now, you can produce the effect using a free, downloadable Photoshop action or simply building your own from a host of tutorials on the internet.
Yes, I participated in this technique too and I did, in fact, grow up in the 80s. While I do still listen to 80s heavy metal bands, I think the Orton look needs to disappear just like neon clothing. Again, if this is your thing, have at it, I won’t judge you. I have just personally moved on and am judging my self past.
Warping Lines and Perspectives in Post
Ever see a mountain peak shot where the peak seems steeper in the photo than when you saw it in-person with your own eyes? Nothing like adding a little stretching and warping in post! While I get that this technique can add drama to a photo, I would prefer to use a lens that did this during capture. Enter the fisheye lens! When shooting Canon, I would use a fisheye on almost every shoot. The most important trick to using a lens like this is trying not to make it like you are using a lens like this! An editor once told me that “a little bit of fisheye goes a long way.” This quote sits in the back of my mind any time I use this lens.
What are Some of Your Editing Mistakes?
Can you relate to some of these fads? There are probably a few fads I left out, especially in the portraits space, such as over-editing skin with Frequency Separation. Are you nodding knowingly at the heavy hand with which you edited images in the past? I hope you kept all your original files because you can – and should – go back and see what kind of more-subtle editing you can do to your raws now that editing programs (and, odds are, your skills) are getting better.
This all leads me to a final thought: Are you a magician or a photographer? All these techniques and processes are great. They are ways to explore your creative photographic vision. Some of them may, in fact, save an otherwise mundane photo.
However, for me, photography has become more about telling a story. It’s about illustrating a moment in time that potentially no one else gets to witness. This is where the magic happens. I don’t feel like there is any magic in showing your viewer something that doesn’t exist, unless of course you are making the next Star Wars movie or doing a fantasy image generally. If you have any down time coming up at all, I encourage you to explore your old catalog with fresh eyes. You might be surprised at how simply you can re-edit your photos and get better results, even with some of the oldest files. This is a fun experiment in finding out not only how good software has gotten, but also just how much your tastes and skills have changed over time.