Everything old is new again

One of my goals this year is to submit more images to more contests and see how they perform. The Nature Conservancy is one of the organizations I support, and it’s time for their annual contest, so I decided to select some images and submit them to the contest.

The way I typically do this is to create a collection of my portfolio caliber images (4 and 5 stars in my catalog) and exclude any already submitted to that contest in previous years (if any). I then start viewing each image and picking the ones I want to consider, and after one pass, I’ll remove the rest from the collection and go back to do more detailed evaluation and editing.

After the first pass, I ended up with 29 images in consideration. As I started looking at them again, I realized that they all needed to be fully reprocessed, given how I’ve changed my post processing workflow and my quality standards recently. that meant spending the next three evenings working on each image, taking them back to “out of camera” and then processing each one.

These images ranged from 2018 back to 2010, so many of them haven’t been tweaked since I last updated them two or three versions of Lightroom ago. In some ways, it was an interesting experiment to see if the newer tools made a difference in the quality of the final image when I was done (hint: hell yes it does).

Once that was done, I did another edit of the images and reduced the number of images I submitted to 14. Of those 14 images, 12 of them got complete reprocessing. Of the two that didn’t, one is the eagle image that I reprocessed a couple of months ago, and the other was a crane image I took this winter, so both more or less had already been processed to my new standards — and the eagle image was basically the ones where I consciously recognized that my standards had changed.

I thought it might be fun to show off the before and after and talk about them a bit, so you can see both versions and get a sense of what changed, while I talk a little about why I changed them.

Common Weaknesses

It did not surprise me that I found some common weaknesses in the images. One I expected was sharpening, and I’m really liking my new and more aggressive sharpening practices.

One that did surprise me? I found that I was consistently not adding enough contrast to images. The best way I can describe it is that I seemed to be afraid of going overly contrasty, and so I was consistently not pushing it enough and leaving things with too little contrast (or perhaps more correctly, too little for my current me as opposed to past me). This will be most noticeable in the Firehole Springs image as well as the spin dry otter. Ot was also, in hindsight, a major aspect of the improvement of that eagle image although I hadn’t realized that was a generic problem in my processing, as opposed to an issue in a single image.

I found that in most cases, I might have tweaked the cropping and composition slightly, but in general they were fine. There were a couple where I really felt changing the crop significantly improved the image — this is most noticeable in the harbor seal image.

Two of the images I chose were from my “HDR is the future of all photography” phase, and all I can say is “yeah, I’ve changed a bit since then”. In both cases, in fact, there weren’t dynamic range issues in the images so HDR wasn’t even necessary (just trendy!) so the new images are processed from a single image. That actually changes the structure of the image somewhat, for instance by improving detail in clouds. Since both of those images had significant cloud content in the composition, not a small problem.

One of the images (the half dome piece) that I formally showed off in color is in black and white. I also did it in color and really like it that way, but I’ve been using conversion to black and white as a way to evaluate and study an images structure, and I found I really preferred that image in the monochrome form. They’re both good, that one’s better. Doing more black and white was also a goal for this year, and I’m enjoying it and finding it’s helping me see the underlying compositional structure better, even if I end up with the image in color. Color can draw the eye away from problems and hide them, even while you’re processing the shot.

Overall I’m really happy with the results. I’d more or less put many older images into semi-retirement because I just didn’t think they held up to my newer work. What I’m finding is that by putting them through a complete reprocessing from the ground up, these older images are coming to life in ways I honestly didn’t expect, and I’m loving it.

Does Technology Matter?

This brings up a question I’ve been pondering: how much of this improvement is because my skills and compositional eye has matured? And how much of it is technology? The answer is complex because in reality they’re mixed together, but I’m seeing significant changes due to the technology.

Last October Adobe introduced a new Processing engine inside Lightroom, the fourth major update to this engine; Version 3 was introduced in 2012, Version 2 in 2010 and the original goes back to 2003. In this batch of re-processing, I did a number of images previously processed in 2012 and a few from the 2010 engine.

My take is there’s a noticeable improvement in detail between the 2012 and 2017 process versions in detail and micro-detail, reduced noise in the shadows, and generally improved color rendition. I see this both on my Fuji and Canon sensor images. When I look at the 2010 process images compared to the 2017 versions and I see massive improvements.

In terms of overall Lightroom processing capabilities in the version update we got this April, I’m seeing better shadows and reduced noise compared to images processed six months ago. One big change that may not be obvious is how much less noise reduction I feel I need to use to keep that under control, and that is a big aspect of why detail is improved. That is completely because of the improved raw processing engines that are rendering the image to the base raw negative.

In other words, those of you (you know who you are) who are sitting on Lightroom 6 or some older version who keep telling me you’re perfectly happy with them and won’t give Adobe any money, I sympathize about the latter, but you’re rapidly heading into “Hey, my hand drill is good enough, I don’t need these modern power drills” territory. You’re leaving part of the potential locked in your image on the table by using tools that aren’t improving as the state of the art is. Even if you don’t want to give Adobe money, I really suggest looking at one of the alternatives, whether it’s Capture One, Luminar or OnOne. If you’re using tools last updated in 2015 or later, you’re not doing your images any favors, and you’re not doing yourself any favors, either, because some of the newer tools — Radial fills and luminance masks in the new Lightroom, for instance — are significantly reducing how much time I have to spend on an image to get it up to snuff. Those tools have free test drives you can use for a period of time, so you can download them and do some head to head comparisons on your own images and see for yourself.

My view, though, is that a lot of people who think they don’t need to keep their processing tools up to date are fooling themselves, and they need to think about it a bit more. Especially that one person I know still on CC3 and proud of it, as if it’s a badge of honor. Seriously, no, it’s not. It’s building a house with a rock for a hammer. you can, but seriously, why would you?

My Images for the 2018 Nature Conservancy contest

So here are the images I’ve submitted to the contests long with looks at what they were before I reprocessed them. Curious if you feel the changes are improvements or not, and if you agree with me about how much better they look using modern tools and an improved technical workflow.

Upper Yosemite Falls in a Winter Storm

Upper Yosemite Falls in a winter storm

Upper Yosemite Falls in a winter storm, Yosemite National Park, California

This is one of my older images, and one that had been done in HDR for reasons I can’t explain, other than at the time I was in love with HDR. This was shot in 2010 on my 7D and to me there’s a massive improvement in the clouds, which in the old version were just muddy masses with no real structure. I was able to get better color in the sky, and detail in the almost hidden rock faces as well, and this image is once again wall worthy to me where I’d more or less retired it as simply not good enough compared to my modern work. Now it holds up.


Bridalveil Falls in a Winter Storm

Bridalveil Falls  and Cathedral Rocks after a winter storm

Bridalveil Falls and Cathedral Rocks after a winter storm. Viewed from Tunnel View, Yosemite National Park

Another work from that 2010 trip, one of those magical weekends where epic images kept throwing themselves at me. Again, it was an HDR piece when there was no need for the extended dynamic range, and a side effect of the HDR were blotchy clouds, that hideous sky, and poor detail in the rock faces. I’ve re-cropped this one somewhat to give the image a better composition and focus on the important parts. I’ve left it in black and white but without any color tinting (another phase I went through!), because those rock faces just pop out in monochrome. If there’s a spot that the loss of HDR weakens, its the waterfall itself, which seems thinner and less visible because I’m not merging in water from three images into it. This would have been a good image to use an ND filter on, not HDR. But to me, the real heroes of this image are those mountain tops, and they just come into their own in the new image.


Harbor Seal

Harbor Seal

Harbor Seals, Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, Moss Beach, California

This is one of the images I recropped rather drastically, and I love the result. Now the seals don’t compete for attention. It’s also perhaps the image with the most dramatic improvement through less timid use of contrast and better sharpening. I used to really like the subjects of this image. Now I really like this image.


Elephant Seals

Elephant Seals

Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Overlook, California

This is an image that probably changed the least of any in the reprocessing. It definitely has improved sharpening, but other than that, the primary change I made was to back off on how warm I set the color balance. I think it’s now more realistic to the situation, and I think it better shows off the conflict. For those wondering, if you’re a smaller, younger Elephant Seal, you probably don’t want to be noticed wandering around a harem by its elder male harem owner. Fortunately, with elephant seals an enthusiastic spring is measured in yards, and this one got away.


Half Dome from Washburn Point

Half Dome from Washburn Point

Half Dome from Washburn Point, Yosemite National Park

I was a little surprised that I ended up deciding to submit three Yosemite images to the contest, but I really loved them and so why note? I think all of them are a bit different than the standard iconic images in a way. This is an image I ended up preferring in black and white because it really pops out the structure and detail, and I have the color version of this up on my wall, and I really am thinking I’ll replace it with this.


Mt. St. Helens

Mount St. Helens

Mount St. Helens, from Johnson Ridge Observation Point.

This image probably best shows off how much better detail you can pull out of an image with the modern tools. The Dehaze filter was a nice help here as well, but it’s an image where I had to be really careful tweaking the haze and contrast because it was shot with a polarizer at altitude at Johnson Ridge, and so the sky still feels a bit wonky to me. But even with that, I think it’s really nice, although maybe the weakest image I decided to submit (but if so I don’t care).


Firehole Spring, Yellowstone National Park

Firehole Spring, Yellowstone

Firehole Spring, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Here is the image that surprised me the most in reprocessing. It’s one my the images on my wall, in fact, I had it done as a large canvas. It’s one of my desktop wallpapers in standard rotation. In other words, I’m constantly looking at it, and never once felt like it needed tweaking. It’s also one of the few images that sold during my short life as a stock photographer.

And then I decided to reprocess it just to see what happened, and it kind of transformed in ways I didn’t expect. This is an image that changed significantly — in good ways — when I punched up the contrast. The oranges and the blues in then spring itself all intensified, and the sky did so in a lesser way. The new sharpening brought out more detail in the clouds, and boy, now I want to reprint this thing, and maybe print it on metal. I really love this image and I honestly didn’t think it needed improvement, but once I tried anyway and saw the changes, it’s what really made me sit back and think a bit about some of the things I was consistently falling short on in my processing.


Snow Goose in Flight

Snow Goose in Flight

Snow Goose in Flight, Colusa National Wlidlife Refuge

This is another image I’ve moderately recropped. For what it’s worth, I’m comfortable with a crop as long as the short edge has at least 2000 pixels, which is much easier to do with the Fuji X-T2 sensor than my old 7D. The other big change is that in the original I strongly desaturated the background to reduce its impact, and this time, I went more with browns, almost a sepia, which better represents the real colors that were there, and in some ways I think improves separate of the goose from the background, especially around the black wing tips. I’m also seeing a much better and more saturated rendition of the orange staining on the feathers (caused, by the way, by algae in the waters the geese live in) and much less noise in the shadows. This is also an image where I think better contrast is helping, especially in separating the goose from the background.


Red-Tailed Hawk on a Kill

Red-tailed Hawk on a Kill

Red-tailed Hawk on a Kill, Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Not a massive change in this one, other than improved sharpening, especially around the eye. It’s probably not too visible on the smaller old image.


Evening Commute

Sandhill Crane in flight, Isenberg Crane Refuge

Sandhill Crane in flight, , Isenberg Crane Refuge

Another long time favorite of mine that the reprocessing brought to life; better and more intense saturation in the oranges, better detail, improved sharpening and less noise. I was able to bring out body detail in the flying geese to give them some texture vs being black silhouettes, and I love that look when I can pull it off. I love the overall vibrancy.


Golden Eagle in Flight

Immature Golden Eagle in Flight

Immature Golden Eagle in Flight, Coyote Valley, San Jose, California

and my Golden eagle shot, which I’ve talked about previously so I won’t go into detail again, but this is the image that really made me start thinking I needed to up my sharpening game, and along the way, started me realizing I needed to be less timid with my contrast adjustments.


Sea Otter Spin Dry

Moss Landing Harbor

Moss Landing Harbor

And this image wins for most dramatic and unexpected improvement. If you look at the fur, it’s kind of greyish and washed out. Dehaze filter to the rescue and as a side effect, a huge amount of detail in the fur popped out. I’m really surprised and impressed how much better the image looks after reprocessing.


Whimbrel with Lunch

Whimbrel

Whimbrel, Jetty Road, Moss Landing Harbor, Monterey County, California

(I realize as I’m writing this blog that I submitted this to the contest as a Long-Billed Curlew, even though the metadata in the image correctly lists it as a Whimbrel. Oops.)

This image the changes are subtle, a bit more saturation in the colors and better detail from better sharpening.


Sandhill cranes Dancing

This is the only image I didn’t feel needed to be reprocessed. It’s also on of my newest images, so that shouldn’t be a surprise.

Sandhill Cranes Dancing