As photographers, we mustn’t live with our heads stuck in the past. If we’re not trying new ideas, exploring new techniques, or finding ways to push ourselves to be better, we might quickly find ourselves drowning in a sea of irrelevance and mediocrity. However, there is a time and a place to look in the rear-view mirror. Looking back at some of your old photos can have incredible benefits, aside from just happy feelings of nostalgia. Sometimes the best way forward is to look at the path we have taken. Even though to look through your old photos can be embarrassing, there are some clear benefits to doing so.
1. It helps you realize you weren’t that bad
I’m a pretty self-conscious guy, and as such, I don’t like looking at pictures of myself. I always find something to criticize, even if they are things that no one else would ever notice! Looking back at some of the earlier pictures in my photography portfolio is the same way. Sometimes seeing the pictures I shot is enough to make me cringe. So I want to throw my old albums out the window!
This is precisely why it’s good to dust off your old photo albums or look through the image folders on your computer you’ve been neglecting for years. Looking through the images you shot when you were new to photography, can more often than not, let you see how you really weren’t as bad and probably much more talented than you realize.
If the thought of looking at your old pictures makes your skin crawl, there’s a good chance you might have been a lot better than you thought. While your early images were probably not perfect, they can be a source of encouragement. You see that you clearly did have some skills – even if they had a little way to go before maturing.
2. You can learn from your mistakes
Even though your older pictures might not be as bad as you think, you can learn a lot from going through your earlier work. Over the years, you have almost certainly improved your techniques in terms of lighting, composition, framing, or even just posing your clients.
I know how it can be painful or embarrassing to scroll through your photos from five or ten years ago. It’s almost like looking through your high school yearbook and cringing at the silly hairstyles and weird fashion choices from days gone by. If you do this with your images, instead of turning away from your mistakes, learn from them. Realize what not to do now and in the future.
The image below is a good example of this. While my clients were happy, and so was I at the time, when I look at this picture now all I see are errors to fix. I shot it with a 50mm lens at f/2.8 and focused on the man in the back, which meant everyone else is out of focus. I didn’t have a sense of how to pose, nor was I really paying attention to lighting. The list goes on.
However, rather than pretend this session didn’t exist, I use it as a learning opportunity.
Here’s another illustration of how much I have learned since my early days, especially when it comes to formal sessions. Why is there an orange shoe in the middle of the picture? Also, why is there a giant tree growing out of the head of the child on the left? Why did I use a 1/80th shutter speed?
The world may never know the answers, and I certainly don’t. However, when I see this old picture, it helps me also see what I can do differently today.
3. It helps you refine your editing style
In addition to photography style and techniques, searching through your old pictures can give you a great deal of insight into your editing process.
It’s not easy to see slow, incremental changes over time. However, when you compare your current editing style to that of when you first started, you might be surprised. You may even be shocked at the difference. This can be a learning opportunity and help give you insight into how you might continue to refine and hone your edits.
I took the following picture in the summer of 2013, and I clearly remember spending a long time working with it in Photoshop. The result is what you see here: over-saturated sky, poor dynamic range, and a weird color balance that seems unnatural and icky.
When I edited this RAW file, I was way, way over-thinking the process and ended up with kind of a mess. I can still see myself hunched over an old iMac, refining my selections, creating new layers, and fiddling with color edits ad nauseam. Now I’d just pull this into Lightroom, tweak a few sliders, and end up with a much cleaner and more pleasing image.
Here’s another picture that, upon first look, makes me want to chuck my computer out the window and never look at my cameras again.
This picture is practically a textbook example of what not to do when shooting or editing a picture. Aside from all the issues in the image itself (soles of shoes, people sitting on an old canvas, awkward posing and hand placements, an disregard for background objects), the editing was atrocious.
My subjects are underexposed. The white balance is all wrong, and there’s no sense of contrast. Moreover, I didn’t bother using any noise reduction, so their faces are kind of patchy if you zoom in to 100%.
I’m a much better editor now than I was back when I shot this seven years ago. When I look at this picture and others like it, I can immediately see how I have changed my editing process over the years. It gives me a few ideas of what I should continue refining in the future.
4. Early photos can inspire you!
There’s a lot I wish I could take back about my early photography. However, I feel some of my work now lacks something: a spark of life and a sense of abandon. When I first picked up a camera, I would see photo opportunities everywhere; inside my home, walking around the neighborhood, even my office at work.
With clients, I had a much more carefree attitude, shooting whatever I wanted, whether I thought it would look good or not. It was a carefree time when I didn’t worry about (or even know about) proper technique, good lighting, high ISO values, rolling shutter, or any of that. Like a kid in a candy store, I remember latching on to anything and everything around me.
I even set my alarm early so I could take pictures of my kids’ toys in the living room before the sun came up.
When I started taking pictures more seriously, I saw the world differently. Every tree, building, or animal was a fun and exciting photographic opportunity. I’ve lost that over the years. Now I think I over-analyze situations – trying to find the perfect moment, subject, or lighting condition.
Going back through old photos takes me back to a time when I didn’t care about any of that. I just took pictures of what I thought was fun and interesting. It has inspired me to be a little more creative and a little less analytical with my photography now.
Looking at your old pictures can bring up some strange emotions, and it can certainly be awkward or feel silly. But buried in your images from days gone by is a treasure trove of education just waiting to be unlocked.
The next time you pull up your photo library on your computer or scroll through images in your photo app, go back to your earliest pictures and see what you can learn from them. You might be surprised at how enjoyable and educational your trip down memory lane can be!
Do you ever look through your old photos? What have you learned from them? Share with us in the comments!