Updated: Oct 25
Mining the Archives for new opportunities
After a shockingly fruitful season of fall color here in north Texas that ended in early December, I haven't taken my camera out into nature since. That means, as I type this, the urge to scratch that itch is becoming almost unbearable: thankfully, I'm also now counting down until I leave for my Big Spring Trip for 2023.
While culling and editing the wealth of photos I took locally in November and December carried me through the end of the year, culminating in the release of my first-ever (and free) ebook, An Explosion of Color (which can be downloaded here), I still wanted/needed the creative release provided by working on photos in Lightroom.
Fortunately, I'm also a digital packrat, and for good reason. Although there are naturally some files that will never be worthy of reconsideration for processing - I missed focus, there's a gross compositional issue, etc. - my general rule of thumb is to never delete older photos in my archive. If I feel there's any possibility of teasing out something of interest in a photo, the file stays.
I adhere to the same rule when it comes to photos that seem to tick all the foundational boxes but never manage to come together in the digital darkroom when I try to work on them. Perhaps I wasn't in the right headspace when I first tried to work on them or couldn't realize my vision with the skills and knowledge - and the tools - available to me at that time.
After all, as I've been espousing on social media recently: storage is cheap, don't delete!
Thanks to that mindset, I have nearly 40 new photos below that are being shared for the first time.
I know of some photographers that review their photos after an outing or trip, pick their winners, process, and never look back (I even know one or two that delete the non-winners!). I also know there are some photographers out there that refuse to revisit older work, whether it's been shared already or not. Their argument is that the results of their editing is representative of who they were at the time, and they have no desire to go back and apply an updated approach to older work.
I obviously don't follow the first approach, and as I've gotten further into my own photography journey, I have mixed feelings on the second.
On one hand, in an ideal world, any artist or craftsperson should be improving their skills over time. That may encompass the refinement of a photographer's eye when out in the field; gaining a better understanding of post-processing techniques to better realize one's vision in the digital darkroom; or undergoing a shift in personal preferences that influence one's style. Or, more likely, improvement is achieved within multiple areas.
On the other hand, while I agree with everything I just stated in the prior paragraph, I've also gained far more confidence and competence in my work over the years.
Accordingly, I don't feel the need to revisit my more recent archived photos as much as I have in the past. In 2020, for instance, I could readily look at my work from 2017, 2018, and even 2019 and immediately find issues. Here in 2023, however, it's far rarer that I look back over a similar timeframe of one to three years and find reasons to be dissatisfied with the quality of my work.
Where my archive (or backlog, whichever term you prefer) comes into play these days is both finding hidden or previously overlooked gems, and in taking a fresh look at photos I tried - and failed - to edit in the past (many of the photos I've shared below are great examples of positive outcomes of that process).
Perhaps most importantly, it's not uncommon for me to look at a photo that I previously dismissed as subpar and suddenly find new appreciation for it. Although I fall very firmly on the representational side of the line when it comes to my editing of photos, there's still a strong creative element to my work... and as my creative vision improves over time, new opportunities can suddenly leap out at me when scrolling through those older files.
Now imagine if I rejected all my "non-winners" out of hand (or deleted them!) and never took the opportunity to give them another look (or two... or three) over time.
It's common for photographers to use the term "dumpster diving" when talking about going back through older files, but I reject that term. I'm not looking for garbage for the simple purpose of sustaining me creatively between outings: I'm looking for lost gold!
That common trope - dumpster diving - also insinuates that one's past work is not worthy of further exploration or consideration: that it's blatantly junk. While I will be the first to admit that, yes, much of my older work found in my archives is far below the standards I set for the quality of my photos, I still don't refer to it as junk.
As already noted, there may very well be hidden gold in those files. More importantly, why would I look back upon my journey in photography and be so dismissive of what I've done before? It's still representative of who I was, where I was in my journey, and, to a large degree, who I still am today. Dismissing your older work as only worthy of being tossed in the trash - and only worth editing out of pure desperation - is a huge disservice to your own journey (and your past abilities).
Enough with the negative self-talk! Appreciate your older work for what it is, and where applicable, what it can be.
Stepping back down from my soapbox...
Following are several photos that I've pulled from my archives over the past few weeks. For some, I never even attempted to edit them as they just didn't strike me as worthy when I initially culled my files after the corresponding trip. For others, I've attempted to edit them once - or multiple times - over the years but failed to get the results I wanted for one reason or another.
Yet others were edited in a manner that - how shall I put this? - kind of makes me want to vomit a little, and I've re-edited them anew. 2018, especially, was a time when my editing was often brute force than artistic, so I've found plenty of opportunities to right past wrongs.
Now, I'm not here to say that every single one of the photos below are worthy of going into my portfolio (e.g. made available for print), but at the least they are worth sharing on social media to share past experiences. And a good number of them will be making their way to my print offerings!
What gold may be hidden in your own archives? Go exploring!
Bryce Canyon Photos (2018)
The main attraction at Bryce Canyon - besides the amazing hoodoos of the amphitheater - is the amazing warm, vibrant oranges and reds of the rock. Yet I found myself really enjoying black and white takes on several of the photos I took there back in 2018. I ended up putting together a small series focused on some of the trees which, until now, I've never shared.
A few minor tweaks were all these needed for these. That wasn't the case for the photos in the next set from Grand Teton National Park.
Click on any photo to view a slideshow for all images.
Grand Teton National Park Photos (2018)
This trip may have been my peak over-confidence era. 2018 was a bit of that throughout, but my trip to Grand Teton National Park was probably when my arrogance towards tripods (who needs 'em?!) and using higher ISO settings (I ain't afraid of some noise!) were at all time highs.
Fortunately, I knew I definitely had some hidden gems that I'd never touched or, in many cases from the photos from this trip, I had brutalized some good photos with heavy-handed processing. Also, thankfully, tools like Topaz Photo AI, Denoise, etc. exist and can help recover previously "junky" files (note: none of these have been cleaned up yet).
Ireland Photos (2019)
I've always known I had remaining gold in my files from this short trip to Ireland back in 2019, but aside from the photos I've shared in the past I found myself struggling with some of the edits. I think it's similar to the challenges I had with many of my files from Oregon in 2021 (see below): I'm rather unused to lush scenes full of strong greens and yellows given my surroundings here in Texas and my experience shooting out west.
Then, suddenly, I hopped over to this collection in Lightroom a few weeks ago and the pieces started falling into place. More to come over time, as well!
Glacier National Park Photos (2019)
Although I've released a handful of photos from this trip to Glacier National Park before - all which I'm very happy with - I consider this collection to be an overall failure (in terms of my "hit rate" out of the frames I shot). I found myself forcing my edits more than usual, which is usually a surefire sign that I'm either in the wrong head-space or trying to work with files that just aren't up to my standards.
At the same time, I've felt positive about several untouched files (or failed attempts at editing), so as part of this Hidden Gold project I was excited to see what I could find, and what I could do with newer processing tools in Lightroom coupled with more experience.
Oregon Columbia River Gorge Photos (2021)
And here we are in the home stretch: this is the final collection of new photos from my archives. As noted above in relation to some of my photos from Ireland, I really struggled with these shots taken in the Columbia River Gorge. I never felt I was getting the color of the foliage right and, having taken most of them in fairly soft light, I found myself forcing the edits too much in the past by applying a lot of heavy (for me, anyways) dodging and burning.
On the same late night I hit flow state while revisiting my files from Glacier National Park, I hopped over to this collection in Lightroom and either started over on or tweaked the processing for the photos you'll see below. I finally feel they truly represent the experience of exploring the gorge!
And there you have it! If I had abandoned these older files or relegated them to the trash bin, I'd have tossed aside a sizeable collection of worthy files.
If you've scrolled down this far, I'd love to know which are your favorites, and whether this has inspired you to take a fresh look at your own archives. Drop a comment below!