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There's Gold in Them Thar Files!

Updated: Oct 25, 2023

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.

A lone tree against the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park
A simple tweak of the crop helped provide a better sense of place for this lone tree

Famous tree with gnarled roots along the rim of Bryce Canyon amphitheater
Another crop refinement: I originally went with a 4:5 aspect, but upon revisiting it felt that a taller 2:3 ratio worked better

Pine tree along the rim of Bryce Canyon National Park
The trend continues... this was another 4:5 crop initially, but I opted for a wider view as I prefer the use of more negative space in the sky

Remains of a bristlecone pine in Bryce Canyon National Park
I actually didn't make any new updates to this one: I just accepted that it was truly done!

Pine tree in Bryce Canyon National Park
And we're right back to crop adjustments, once again switching from 4:5 to 2:3. This tree reminded me of a puppeteer working behind the front rockface to bring their character to life.

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).

Wildflowers at sunset in Grand Teton National Park
This is completely new edit: my older 2018 approach involved adding fake light and color, both to the sky and the foreground.

Sunset over the Grand Teton mountain range
This required a relatively minor redo as my original edit from 2018 was basically just oversaturated and a bit heavy on the use of the Clarity slider

Wildflowers in Grand Teton National Park with a sun pillar at sunset
Another photo where I discarded the old edit and started fresh, making up for blatant fakery of light on the foreground, which created an unrealistic balance of light and shadow given the location of the sun.

Dramatic black and white photo of the Grand Teton mountains
I was never happy with my past efforts to process this in color, so I decided to take a complete turn and work it in black and white... and I love the result!

Grand Teton mountain in dramatic black and white
From the same vantage point as the last photo, this one is actually a telephoto vertical panoramic. Again shifting from color to black and white to better show off the sharp textures, light, and shadow of the scene.

Rolling hills covered in pine forest in Grand Teton National Park
This photo screamed black and white from Day One, but my processing skills back in 2018 just weren't quite up to the task to realize my vision properly.

Rainfall and a rainbow over Grand Teton National Park
My original edit of this scene had two major flaws: I went nuts with the saturation, and - even worse - I used a file that wasn't even in proper focus. So, I started fresh with this sharper file and held things to a far more accurate representation of the scene.

Double rainbow over Grand Teton National Park
I never even attempted to edit this photo in the past as I was never happy with the framing. All it took was a bit of a crop from the right and the bottom, which helped the interest of the rainbow create balance with the heavy/bright foreground on the right. This was an amazing moment to experience, and now the photo is one of my favorites from this trip.

Dramatic light on the face of Grand Teton mountain
The original edit of this wasn't too far gone, but I still started anew and dialed back from the overcooked colors and dodging and burning I applied back in 2018. I've always liked this scene, and now it better represents what I witnessed.

Sunrise at Delta Lake in Grand Teton National Park
I had never edited this photo as it's similar to the next one in this series, but I always liked the little added detail of the cascade in the lower left.

Sunrise at beautiful Delta Lake in Grand Teton National Park
I've always liked this photo, but once again my past editing was far overdone, both with colors and a weird application of the Orton Effect. This new edit far better represents the scene I came upon when I finally made my way to this alpine lake (still the hardest hike - by far - I've ever completed)

Pine branches with glittering sunlight off the surface of Taggart Lake in Grand Teton National Park
This small scene along the shore of Taggart Lake just needed a rebalancing of colors - including a shift from overly warm to a cooler white balance - to find new life.

Dramatic light spilling through the valley leading to Taggart Lake in Grand Teton National Park
I spent so much time working on this photo back in 2018/2019, yet with a new start here in 2023 I had it redone in about 20-30 minutes. My processing has become far simpler over the years, and this file benefited tremendously from that refinement.

Black and white circular ripples at Taggart Lake in Grand Teton National Park
One of my first attempts at photographing a smaller scene like this, but once again my past attempts at processing failed me. This was another fresh start, using black and white to add dramatic contrast within the ripples.

Morning fog filtering through the trees near String Lake in Grand Teton National Park
I'm still a bit undecided on this one, but the central fog brings to mind the soul leaving the body of the dead tree on the left. Black and white helped provide added drama and mood.

Dramatic black and white photo of mist rising through pine trees near String Lake in Grand Teton National Park
I have a color photo of this scene - Awaken - already in my print store, but I wanted to give it another go in black and white. I'm quite happy with it, but am not sure if this will ultimately be added to, or replace, that other version.

Dramatic black and white photo of sweeping hills and swooping clouds in Grand Teton National Park
Here's one I had never touched, and had completely forgotten about... and I love it! I opted for black and white for this one, too, to emphasize the dramatic swooping lines and cloud textures.

Dramatic golden hour light in Grand Teton National Park
And lastly, another file I had never processed before. I always dismissed it because of the lens flare, but taking another look I'm feeling pretty good about how that element plays with the rest of the scene. I may have to sit on this one for a while longer... what do you think?

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!

Sunrise at Ladies View in Ireland
Between the strong morning light breaking through the clouds and the lushness of the foreground, I found it incredible difficult to find balance for this photo. Starting over, I once again simplified my approach and everything came together as I embraced the natural light in the scene.

Dramatic sunlight and storm clouds over Ladies View in Killarney National Park, Ireland
Taken later the same morning, I had an incredibly difficult time pulling this scene together when post-processing. I tried cropping out the glow of the sun, overemphasizing the glow, brightening the foreground far more than what you see here... none of it worked. I think I've finally found the right balance of color, light, and shadow nearly 4 years later!

Dramatic black and white storm clouds near Ladies View, Ireland
As that same morning progressed, the clouds grew heavier and I began to play tag with intermittent raindrops. As a result, this photo was quite monochromatic to begin with, calling for a dramatic black and white edit.

Blooming rhododendrons amidst lush green foliage along the Owengarriff River in Ireland
I've had this photo flagged since Day One for processing: I've always liked it, I've always felt it had strong potential, yet I never touched it. Not surprisingly, now that I've finally gotten around to it, I'm extremely happy with the final photo.

A rainbow over the coast of Ireland
Same story as the previous photo: I liked the scene and felt it had potential, I just never bothered to edit it until now.

Dramatic storms clouds looking out over the sea at the Kerry Cliffs in Ireland
In a 90 degree turn from my photo Culmination - and a 180 degree turn in processing - I decided to tackle this as another dramatic black and white as the color in the sky was rather subdued at the moment. This is another one that I had never even attempted to edit until now.

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.

A moose shaking water off in Glacier National Park
I briefly shared this file in the past, but it was a far warmer/more saturated take on the photo. Here, I simply toned things down a bit using a lighter touch.

Sunset at Glacier National Park
Something about the colors in this file has given me fits for the better part of 4 years. In the past, I always attempted to edit this scene on the warmer end of the spectrum, but it just never came together. I still felt there was potential, but my results in the past left me well disappointed. As with several other photos in this Hidden Gold collection, things just clicked when I decided to lean into a cooler interpretation of the scene (which is more accurate to what I witnessed anyways).

Sunset in Glacier National Park near the Weeping Wall overlook
This is another previously shared photo - albeit a different file - that I later pulled off my site. I believe you can still find the original edit further back in my Instagram feed: it's far more dramatic, and darker, with stronger colors and heavier dodging and burning... but it was too far removed from reality for my tastes of the past 2-3 years. I'm much happier with this new take (which was also far simpler to process!).

Sunrise over Goose Island in Glacier National Park
I never attempted to process this photo before now, although I always felt the composition held potential. As with many of my current-day editing, this was a fairly simple approach... something I like to refer to as Complex Subtlety.

Dramatic clouds along Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park
Just a file I've always liked but never touched. I'm not sure about the bright sky on the left side of the frame, but generally speaking I'm happy with how this turned out using a more dramatic black and white approach.

Dramatic skies over Glacier National Park along the Going to the Sun Road
Whereas I'm still a bit uncertain about the last photo, this one I love! I have no idea why I never bothered to process it before now.

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!

Latourell Falls in the Columbia River Gorge of Oregon
Being unused to such lush greens where I live in Texas, I often find the color overwhelming when I come upon it (even when I head back to Missouri to visit family: it almost feels surreal driving around). I was originally trying to compensate for that disconnect by shifting the greens more towards the yellow end of the spectrum, but it just never felt right. It just took a fresh look combined with a subtle shift in hue to pull everything together.

Beautiful forest stream in the Columbia River Gorge of Oregon
This is another example of where I was trying to force the scene more towards yellow than green; I was also applying some funky Orton-like effects to the light coming in from the top-center of the frame. I stripped out a lot of the masking I had done in Lightroom previously and let the greens shine through more naturally with this updated edit. I am far happier with the results!

Lush forest waterfall in the Columbia River Gorge of Oregon
I don't know what I was thinking back in 2021 when I first attempted to edit this one, but I butchered it. Overly warm tones, once again shifting the foliage from lush green to sickly yellow, and I lifted the exposure to the point that much of the contrast and moody beauty was lost... yet I knew this could be something far better.

Horsetail Falls in the Columbia River Gorge, Oregon
This is the one file in this new collection that didn't need a massive overhaul. The only thing I did upon revisiting it was to give the foliage an ever-so-subtle shift back towards green - just a bit - and some very minor dodging to the grasses in the lower left.

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!


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Mar 29, 2023

Hey Michael, Brent Clark here. Nice article! The topic intrigued me since I practice the same activity (I just found a gem from 2013!).

I may be one of the photographers you've seen use the term "dumpster diving" in the past, and while I agree that negative self-talk should be minimized, I assure you the term is meant to be just a joke! I am indeed looking for "lost gold." 😀

Anywho, it looks like you've found a bit! My favorites are:

  • Bryce #1

  • Teton 4, 6, 12, 14, 15

  • Ireland 1, 3, 4

  • Glacier 1, 3, 6

  • Oregon 3, 4

I like the clean and natural style you're using, and I've had a similar experience with my work where…

Michael Rung
Michael Rung
Apr 05, 2023
Replying to

Hey man, thanks for taking the time to read and share your thoughts. It's quite possible I've seen you use that term, but generally speaking I see it used by (especially newer) photographers that seem to hold a true, unfettered disdain for their past work. I was guilty of that at one point (and still am, to an extent, once I start perusing my files from 2017 and earlier!). I think it was one of Matt's F-Stop, Collaborate, & Listen episodes I listened to on my way back from Utah where the topic came up, centered a bit around having an appreciation for your older work, even if only because its representative of your journey and improvement over time. Even if…

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