APPROACHING AN OLD PHOTO

March 15, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

                THE OREGON COAST'S IDEA OF A SUNSET

This week I would like to discuss the idea of one path you might pursue in approaching an old photo that you discover in your archives. This is not the only path by any means, and I will once again caution you that anyone, including me, who suggests that there is "the way" to post-process your photos is either lying or just ignorant. I only suggest through three examples that this method frequently works for me, until it doesn't. The "Goldilocks" method of trying something you have not really explored, testing it, and then probably dialing it back a little, works for a lot of things in life beyond post-processing your photos.

I find that there are four stages to this process. The first, and probably most important one, is to look through your archives in search of an image that deserves a second chance. Forget about discovering something that will achieve fame and glory. After all, why would you miss such a golden nugget in the first place? Chances are that you did pick the "best" shots from that particular day years ago, but maybe, just maybe, you missed something that might be worthy of your attention. The most important part of that statement is the unspoken "today." You are looking at something years after the fact. Why wouldn't you see something that you didn't see years ago - haven't you changed since then?

So you don't look for gold, but you ignore most of the lead as well. Just admit it when you see something that might respond to your hard-earned post-processing skills. Have enough faith that if something caught your eye, it probably has a lot of room for improvement. Maybe ignoring the fact that it was you who made the original capture might help - you are just looking through a pile of "historic" photos of uncertain lineage, and there is one that caught your eye. All it takes is to acknowledge why your eye was caught, and to run with it.

                SOMEHOW THIS SEEMS EVEN MORE UNREALISTIC

My first move is to usually consult the crop tool. Frequently I find that the thing that caught my eye is lost within a frame that is just too big. This seascape is distinguished by the glow of a sun on the water, even though we don't see the sun at all. A lot of the sky, and at the same time , a lot of the silhouetted beach grass, contributes nothing extra to the image. My thought is that while I like the dark sky, and the sea grass silhouette, the image might benefit from a wider perspective. I think that the 2:1 panoramic frame focuses the attention on the central glow while it simultaneously gives it room to breathe.

I run through my usual strategies of exposure modifications, which include adding contrast by lowering blacks and raising whites, before I actually modify the exposure as a whole. Lightroom allows many ways to subdivide the image, and in this case I raised the exposure in the sky while lowering it in the water, which is actually the opposite of what I might normally do - but this reveals a lot of detail in both areas. The beach grass silhouette is reinforced by increasing the black point in that area.

What is interesting is that these changes have actually brought much more color back into what was a pretty monochromatic image. I usually try to see if what originally caught my eye in an image might benefit from a black and white conversion. While I liked the additional details, and the panoramic crop, I wondered if the image might look better without the distractions of color.

                DRAMA WITH DETAIL

This monochromatic version eliminates the color casts, adds even more detail in the sky, and brings the glow back to the sea while allowing for more detail in the surf - it is no longer blown out. I believe that these changes have lead to more realistic yet still mysterious image that warrants a closer look.

                ON THE TOP OF MT. HOOD, OR AT LEAST 5000 FEET CLOSER THAN I HAVE EVER BEEN

While this is a wildly different subject, I pursued a similar editing strategy in looking at the very top of Mt. Hood. I was intrigued by the wisps of wind-driven snow and the contrast between the rock and the glaciers. While I do not think the modifications have been as dramatic as the seascape, I still think that they have led to a more dramatic image. Which is not to say that you have to agree, or that on another day I might actually like the original crop or the color version better. There is no one right answer.

                MOUNTAIN TOP DREAMS

I think that the panorama focuses your attention on the mountaintop while still giving it room to breathe. More importantly, white balance changes and exposure modifications have brought out "truer" colors in both the snow and the rocks, while the sky is still an overwhelming blue. I think you can see why our intelligent but stupid cameras can be fooled by these alpine conditions. I lowered the blacks and raised the shadows on the rocks, which made them come alive.

                IT'S GETTING PRETTY CHILLY UP HERE

This is why I love black and white. It reveals detail, while it ignores reality. There is even more detail in the rocks without worrying if they are the right shade of brown. We know the sky is not black, but the blue looked almost as unreal as the black. We can make even darker here - after all, we know the sky is not black, so why can't it be blacker? Most of all, how does the lack of color make you feel? I don't know about you, but his rendition lowers my temperature way below zero. It just looks way cooler and bleaker and I am much more comfortable in my study while I am looking at this version.

                                                                  WHERE WAS I? WHAT WAS THIS? I HAVEN'T A CLUE

Finally we have here an image that is almost totally graphic and already separated from reality to a very large degree. At first I didn't know what the hell it was, and I took the photograph! Now I could have ignored it as I have done for the last dozen years, but I was intrigued, because I very rarely forget why, and even if, I took a photo. Photography is my moment of zen, so I was baffled by this image. I set to work on it as if it was an out-of-body experience - what was this totem trying to tell me?

                                      POSITIVELY AGLOW

What ever it was, there was too much sky. So even though I knew that there was no future coaster here, I went for the 1:1 crop, straightened the image by looking at the flashing, which I had no idea was actually straight, and finally  carefully and anally made sure that the lower flashing hit the corner of the frame just so. Even though I still had no idea of what I was looking at, Lightroom's new "Texture" tool really brought out the texture of what I concluded was stucco. I adjusted the exposure of the sky and that mysterious cap so that it could glow a little more at the top.

                                      PORTLANDIA TOTEM, IN ENIGMATIC BLACK AND WHITE

I think you know what happened next. Often I investigate black and white because the real world has not supplied much color, or even more arbitrarily, I just don't like the colors in the image. Who says I can't change them or get rid of them as I see fit? The black and white version also allows for even more detail (grit) to be exposed, and for the relationship of colors to be changed now that they are just different tones of gray. My image, no matter what it was about, was certainly not a pretty pucky shade of tan and a line of green flashing. Black and white allows me to add some detail to cinder block wall in the foreground, and to lighten it up in relation to the formerly tan chimney to balance the parts of the image that really don't matter. And the top of the totem stands out even more from the darker sky. While you can certainly question my choice of subject here - is there a subject at all? - I find the result a very mysterious totem from some forgotten religion of "Darkest Portlandia." And I still don't know what this really is, and would be surprised if Lightroom's new AI selection tool could find the subject better than I can.

I hope you have found my quest for meaning in three old photos at least amusing if not enlightening. I encourage you to explore your own hidden mysteries that can be found lurking in you photo archives.


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