Rediscover your Photos

Fri Dec 11 2015

In 2001 and 2002, when people around me started buying the new DSLR cameras, I was reluctant. I was incredibly satisfied with the quality of color that my Fuji Velvia or Kodak Ektachrome E100VS provided me. When I saw the results of what my photo colleagues were getting with their digital cameras, I did not think it matched in quality of color. I also knew that the file resolution was not even close to what I could get even from a Tango drum scan of a 35mm slide. In 2004, I reluctantly purchased my first DSLR, a Nikon D100. I still primarily used film because of the color and resolution issues, but also knew that I needed to start getting familiar with the digital world. When I upgraded to a Nikon D200 in 2006, I still kept shooting film – digital had not yet caught up.

Jump eight years ahead to now, and my Nikon D800E far surpasses the resolution of a 35mm slide. I still occasionally shoot film, but only 220 medium format film with my Hasselblad 503CX.

During that same time, photo processing software has similarly jumped ahead in quality and capability. And along with it, my skills in processing photo files has also increased dramatically. And even though I can never recapture the images I shot eight years ago with my Nikon D200, I can improve them in the digital darkroom because it is now better equipped than it was in 2006. Since I have always shot my images in RAW mode, even those Nikon D200 or D300 image still contain the maximum amount of data available, thus making it possible to bring out the best of color, hue, saturation, and contrast.

So, I have started the slow process of reexamining my older images, even those as recent as 2011, and exploring how I can improve them now that I have a better digital darkroom and am a better artist. The key is to take a look at how you processed that image previously, think of how you could enhance it and make it “pop” a little more, and then go back to the original RAW file and start over.

For my two examples in this blog, I took an image captured on a Nikon D200 in Glacier National Park, Montana, in 2006 (above) and one captured on a Nikon D700 in Denali National Park, Alaska, in 2011 (below). For the Glacier photo, it was clear to me that the old image looked drab and flat, lacking contrast or color – much unlike how the image looked to me with the naked eye. Working in layers in Photoshop, I made four principle enhancements. First, I increased the contrast in the foreground and mountains by adjusting levels and selectively brushing out the levels adjustment where it was not needed. I then took a similar approach with the sky. Third, I focused on adjusting the contrast of the tree, as I felt it blended too much with the background of the original image. I did this using both Levels and Brightness/Contrast while working in layers. Finally, using Selective Color in layers, I brought out the gold and orange hues more and enhanced the blue/cyan tones in the sky.

For the Denali image, I had much less work to do, as the Nikon D700 sensor and software I originally used to process it could better render the tones and contrast on their own. But, I still wanted to balance out the exposure better between the sky and reflection, which I did by using Levels in layers, brushing out the reflection so it was not affected. I then selectively increased the contrast of just the mountain and its reflection (also in layers) to bring out more detail. Finally, I wanted the slight hint of alpenglow to stand out more, so I improved the magenta channels in Selective Color while working in layers.

And these are just a couple of examples of how some modest changes to old images can bring existing work back to life, and more in line with the incredible colors we can see in the natural world with our own eyes. I encourage you to revisit some of your own classics and see what you can to do them as well.