Why you should plan to spend time reprocessing old images….

by Jun 26, 2019

I spent some time this week reprocessing this image. It is from my 2014 Yellowstone trip, and it's one of my favorite bison images. It's also a good example of the quality of my processing skills at that time, as well as the overall abilities of the processing engine (Lightroom). It's been in my collection but hasn't been updated since 2015, so it was still using Lightroom's older algorithm 3 (Lightroom 6 used algorithm 4, and the current Lightroom classic uses algorithm 5).

Bison, Gardner Hole area, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Why, after all of this time, did I decide to reprocess it? There's a bit of a story (of course). When I set up my new home office many months ago, I added a 4K monitor to the wall near my work desk. The initial goal was to wire it up to my Apple TV and then build a custom screen saver that would show off my images, sort of as a large electronic picture frame, so as I work and am thinking things through I can look at and study my own images. I did this as an alternative to covering my walls with framed prints, because the goal was to always swap out new images to keep those wall prints fresh, and of course, I never found the time to actually do that.

Unfortunately, building custom screen savers for the Apple TV is difficult enough that I never got around to it, and finally gave up the idea as not worth the hassle (why this isn't an easy thing to do is something only Apple can answer, but probably won't. It would be easier if everything was in Apple Photos, of course, but that would complicate my life in other ways so that's not an options. oh well).

So that screen and the Apple TV were used mostly for streaming video, youtube and staring at the Apple screensavers videos, which are actually pretty awesome, so I'm not really complaining, but that wasn't what I wanted to do initially.

Then, a month ago, I had the sudden realization that -- gasp -- if I hooked it up to the iMac as a second monitor, I could make the screen more useful. So I did, and I was happy.

Until last week. When I suddenly realized that if I hooked up that monitor to my laptop, I could not only use the lap top more effectively in the office, but I could set up the mac's screensaver with a set of my images trivially easy, and that thing I spent weeks trying to figure out with the Apple TV would be accomplished -- and 15 minutes later, it was done, and the screen was showing off a set of my favorite images.

Which is awesome, except, of course, when you have one pop up that makes you wince because you know if you re-processed it, you could massively improve it. And this bison image had a lot of things I didn't like, starting with poor color rendition and saturation and ending with a lot of sharpening noise.

So off I went and spent about 10 minutes on the image, and this is what it looks like now.

Bison, Gardner Hole area, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

I don't wince when it pops up on the screen any more. On the flip side, now I really want to go and reprocess my entire Yellowstone trip image set, and I really don't have time to do that.

I'm a big fan of iterative improvement of my image collection. I believe you can do that in three ways:

  • You can add new, quality images to it
  • You can take existing images and improve them by reprocessing them
  • You can cull the weakest images out of the collection

The first one is obviously the most fun and what photographers want to focus on, but the other two are valuable tools to use as well. There are times when going out and shooting new images just isn't possible, and so spending time studying your existing images and seeing how you can make them better is one way to understand your photography and get insight into yourself as a photographer.

I personally try to limit this reprocessing to my best images: to be blunt, it's a fix it in photoshop mentality to think that you can take a mundane image and turn it into an awesome one by reprocessing. Sometimes there's a hidden gem, but an image that's OK or Pretty Good will generally never turn into awesome because you tweaked some knobs. Don't waste your time trying to improve your average photos.

But as this image shows, we all grow and learn how to be better photographers over time, and that includes our post-processing skills. On top of that, the tools we use keep getting better and allow us more options than we had a year ago, or three.

My suggestion: find ways to spend some time looking at your older images. Setting up screensavers to show them off on otherwise idle screens is an easy and free way to do it, for instance. It's a nice and casual way to study and explore your image collection.

And when you run into the inevitable wince image from the past -- because you've grown as a photographer and your standards for what good enough and great have raised the bars -- take it aside and think about whether it's an image that deserves to be reprocessed and improved, or quietly moved aside into retirement. Either way, you've made a small improvement to the overall quality of your image collection, and over time, that can make a big difference.