Practicing, Retouching, and Making Old Things New

This month marks one year since I started taking photography seriously. I used to believe that with a better camera I would take better photographs. In some small way, this is true. Having a DSLR allows me to take photographs that a point and shoot or camera phone wouldn't allow. But, in reality many photos straight out of a camera look terrible (sometimes worse than those taken with an iPhone). 

There are two truths to photography. First, it's the photographer that matters when it comes to making a good photograph - not the camera. Second, photographs aren't taken. Rather, they're made. That last one always sounded a little pretentious, but the more I explore post-processing techniques, the more true it becomes. Having spent a year retouching photos and watching hours of tutorials on image editing, naturally I'm far better at post-processing photos than when I started. 

Looking back at photographs I took a year ago makes me wince. Not because the composition or lighting was bad (though in many they were), but the retouching was lousy. 

Retouching or "Photoshopping" has a negative connotation and in many ways it deserves it. I tend to take two approaches. People think that the image out of a camera is truth, but that's not actually the case. In fact, the camera does a fairly poor job of capturing what your eyes see. I try to create an image that looks like what I saw (or felt) standing in that moment. The second, especially when capturing portraits, is to try to make the subject appear like what they'd look like on their best day (if you can write that last sentence better, please email me). The portrait should always look like the person. 

So, this month I've been going back to old photos and revisiting my post-processing workflows. Some changes in images have been dramatic. For example, here is a photograph I captured of Kristen 8 months ago.

Kristen (edited November 2015) 

It's not terrible, but it's not great - in fact, it wasn't even a select from the session. However, below is the same photograph I retouched this month.  

Kristen (edited May 2016) 

Clearly, the second is a more interesting photograph. But, it also does a better job of capturing what I saw standing there.

Other edits have been less dramatic, but make the photographs work. For example, below is an engagement photo of Anne and Ryan that I took back in January, straight out of the camera (left). I liked the composition of the first photo, but didn't realize that Ryan's face was out of focus. Looking back through the series, I didn't find one that I liked as much. However, I did find a second shot that was similar where Ryan was more in focus (right). 

Through Photoshop, I was able to align the two images as layers with my preferred photo on top and added a mask. I placed the second image with Ryan in focus below it and made a hole in the mask (top photo) to reveal the part of the image below where Ryan was in focus (the way my content management system down-samples photos probably doesn't do this justice).

Anne and Ryan, engaged (May 2016)

In the past, I would have tried to selectively sharpen the image, likely causing more damage than good.

Similarly, below is a picture of Will and Chelsea. I love this photo, but in the original Chelsea was out of focus - I was young and naive and misjudged the focus depth. But, I was able to find another photo in the series where Chelsea was slightly more in focus and used the same technique to composite a better image. 

Will and Chelsea (edited May 2016)

I'm glad I saved all these old images from previous sessions and had the awareness at the time that one day I might be able to make them even better.