The evolving eye–or why archive diving is a good idea.

I probably hang on to more image files than I need to, and for longer than I need to (so thank goodness memory is cheap).  It isn’t that I’m incapable of killing my darlings, to paraphrase William Faulkner–it’s that I have, on several occasions, come across a forgotten gem that missed the first (or second or third) cut on processing.  I’m also fairly sure I’m in good company with this habit–which is why photographer friends often refer to the practice as “dumpster diving” (humorously, of course).

That I’m able to occasionally rescue an ancient image file is attributable to a few different things.  Boredom, for one.  If I haven’t had time to get out and shoot for a while, I often find myself scrounging through old image files for something to play with.  Some photographers see post-processing work as drudgery, but I love it.  LOVE it.  I can lose hours working on images, and happily so.  And if I can find an old image file to work into something worth sharing when I’m between shooting trips, all the better.  Scattered around this post, you’ll see four images I’ve recently reworked, and all are two to three years old.

Another reason I do this is that my post-processing skills are constantly improving;  sometimes an image just needs a little TLC to take it from an iffy RAW file to a WOW pic.  This photo of the oft-shot abandoned house in California’s eastern sierra is a great example of that.  I experienced some of the most astounding atmospheric conditions when I took that shot, but I was never able to process it to my satisfaction.  Great light can sometimes be very tricky to deal with in post, and my skills simply weren’t up to the task three years ago when I took this photo.

But mostly, I find myself re-examining old image files because my eye as a photographer, as an artist, has evolved a great deal over the years.  That, I think, is something every photographer should give more thought to than they do (and I include myself in that).

Are you the same person you were two years ago? Five? Ten years?  No–or, at least, I hope not.  We grow and refine the more we shoot, and hopefully that’s reflected in how and what we shoot.  That evolution extends to the way we examine the image files we come home with.  An image I’d passed over several times–for example, the high-key sunrise on the Sausolito waterfront–suddenly jumped out at me when I was going through the image folder from that trip.  I’d intentionally overexposed the shot, but was never really moved enough by the final product to do anything with the image in post.  Three years later, I took another look, and knew that with some minor adjustments to tone curves and white balance, that high-key image would be compelling–would be precisely the shot I’d seen in my mind’s eye that day, but my actual “eye” couldn’t yet see it.

Sometimes it’s simple post-processing that can bring out a forgotten gem, but sometimes I look at a RAW file and realize that a certain crop, or a conversion to black and white, achieves what I experienced in the field or better communicates the emotional impact of a scene as I experienced it.  Ansel Adams famously worked and re-worked and then re-worked some more his images in the darkroom–and we should be doing precisely the same thing in today’s digital darkroom.  This should go beyond just advanced processing techniques.  This should always, always take into consideration your eye, your vision.  Unless you’re a straight-up photojournalist where photo realism is key to what you’re doing, you should not overlook your role as artist in post-processing.  To be clear, I’m not talking about extreme photo manipulation, or adding or removing significant elements of a scene.  But I have no problem with using artistic license in post-processing to convey what you experienced, to convey mood, when taking that image.

Whatever stock you wish to put into the old saying that the unexamined life is not worth living, I would certainly apply that to photography.  Go back and reexamine older work.  Approach it again in the digital darkroom, and assess how your skills have improved, and how your photographer’s eye, your artist’s eye, has changed and matured over time.  Studying this is hugely helpful in getting a handle on what your (hopefully unique) “vision” is, as well as in getting an idea where you’re going with your work (and what, if anything, you need to work on in technique).  Athletes track their performance as a way to help them learn how to improve–and photographers should do the same.

Next up on the blog (early next week): a review of John Batdorff’s excellent new book, Plug In with Nik: A Photographer’s Guide to Creating Dynamic Images with Nik Software.

8 thoughts on “The evolving eye–or why archive diving is a good idea.

  1. Mike Sevon

    Robin, I totally agree with all the points of your post. My eye changes over time. Just the other day I was archive diving, looking for a certain image of an aspen arborglyph and came across some alpine sunset shots that amazed me. Can’t wait to process them.

  2. Michael Russell

    Exactly. I keep the older “possibilities” around because some day I might see exactly what I want to in that image – and I am surprised how often I can find an old image that I like now. I’ve also been going back over some images that I’d already processed because like you, I’ve learned some skills in post since I made them previously. I reworked a shot from 2010 earlier today because this was all before I knew how to deal with a layer mask!

  3. G Dan Mitchell

    Robin, we apparently share a few traits. I also really enjoy working in my “digital darkroom” and watching images come into their final form. And I’m also a big fan of going through old images. Lots of other photographers have done this – some going so far as to put off developing film for a year or more. With some images, though certainly not all, our immediate preconceptions can get in the way off seeing an image for what is really is and might be. Coming back to it later often let’s us “discover” it in ways that we could not see at first.

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  5. Sam McCaughey

    Great post! Well expressed.

    But I don’t hold with any trepidation about the now over-tired discussion of the dreaded MANIPULATION. The image is everything. How you got there does not matter. Bending your knee, removing a stick from a stream, changing your lens, zooming, assembling a panorama, cropping, or using exposure compensation is manipulation.

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