6 Reasons to Go Through Your Old Photos

The sound was a combination of high-pitched whine and intermittent clicking, with just a hint of angels and puppies crying in the background. My external hard drive was singing its swan song. Still in what should have been the prime of its life, my trusted backup drive was being taken from me– a victim of an insidious digital disease that attacks without warning or reason.

A little over the top?

In any event, as I was backing everything up to the new replacement, I found myself going through and taking the time to look at photos I’d not seen in a long time. Before I knew it, I was going through virtually every image in almost every folder, realizing that I should have done this a long time ago.


Looking at Older Work with Fresher Eyes

Looking at old images with fresh eyes, it was almost like I was seeing many of them for the first time. The truth is I’m my own worst critic, which means that a very small percentage of what I shoot ever gets labeled a “keeper.” I know that doesn’t make me unique, but those of us who feel this way about our work often have the most to gain from giving ourselves the occasional grand tour through what we thought of at the time as misses or failures. I give all sorts of things in my life a second chance, so why not photos every once in a while?

I was shooting ring-side for my friend Paul when I captured this image. It didn’t really do anything for me at the time, and I didn’t include it in the final edit. When he announced his retirement from boxing a year later, I went back and took another look at the everything I shot that night. A black & white conversion, along with a contrast bump, and some background cloning, really brought this image back to life for me– capturing the essence.



Not Just Rescuing Throw-Aways

Obviously not every second chance breathes new life into a throw-away. Something that sucked five years ago most likely still sucks now. The bigger trap, though, works in the other direction. How many times have you looked at old work– something you absolutely loved at the time– and wondered how you ever let it see the light of day? This trip down memory lane can be a constructive experience, but be prepared for it to be a two-way street.

This can definitely be frustrating, but only if you let it.

Creating a New Vision

It’s the very nature of it being a two-way street, though, that can make the exercise such a rewarding one. Is there a rule somewhere that says you can only be inspired by other photographers? Where is it written that you can’t be inspired by your own work? Maybe something didn’t work in color, but makes a kickass black & white. It’s also highly likely that you’re a better photographer now than you were then. Your knowledge of exposure or your ability to manipulate light has grown. What’s stopping you from taking a concept that didn’t work before and making magic with it now? You may even find yourself motivated into an entirely new direction.

The two photos below were taken a couple of years apart. The color image on the left came first. Obviously, I was going for dark and dramatic, but the shot never really worked for me. The split light wasn’t really working all that great– the reflector wasn’t putting quite enough light back into the dark side of the face. The position of the hand on the ball really bothered me. The client loved it, but I didn’t, so I just filed it away.

Fast-forward a couple of years. I have another football player in the studio, and I pull the old session to prepare. I’m better with lighting patterns now, so I decide to do a double-main split to create the butterfly pattern. The added light brings in just enough detail to even things out, resulting in a better expression and more background separation. Going back to review the older session showed me exactly what I needed to do to correct the lighting and hand position. The result is an image that both of us liked, not just the client.


You Got Better at Photoshop

If you’ve become a better photographer, I’m betting that you’ve also become a better editor. Post-processing has become so deeply intertwined with what we do as photographers, that even if you are “getting it right” in the camera, you can’t help but tweak it here and there. This is the biggest reason that I never, ever edit the original image file. There have been plenty of times over the years that I’ve gone back and re-edited an image because I’ve added a thing or two to my editing bag of tricks, or edited an old image for the very first time because I am finally able to fully realize my vision for a photo that was never really complete. Always save your originals.

Photoshop Got Better

This is what Photoshop used to look like. Need I say more?


Start a New Project…Finish an Old One

If you read my recent article about 365 projects, you know that in the deep, dark recesses of my computer there lives the remnants of several unsuccessful 365 attempts. While I technically can’t go back and finish an old 365 project, I do have several projects-in-progress that have no time limits. Looking through my old images from time to time, gives me the chance to finish some of these projects, or find inspiration for new ones.

Sometimes, you may discover you’ve been working on something all along without even realizing it. It wasn’t until I was generating the new backup, for example, that I realized I’d been photographing locks for years. What this says about me or my photography is anyone’s guess, but there’s a body of work there that might be the foundation for something down the road. It doesn’t have to be something that’s going to change the world– just how you look at it.


It All Comes Down to This

You can divide it into as many different reasons as you want, but it all comes down to a couple of basic points. While there is a lot of overlap here, it is all ultimately about looking at old work with a new perspective. Our sensibilities as photographers change over time, hand-in-hand with our creativity and talent. Together, they share a sort of give-and-take relationship which can sometimes have a profound impact in how we approach new work and new challenges. Taking the time to revisit the photos that got us here is a great place to start.

Just don’t wait until your backup crashes.


  • http://wilcfry.com/ Wil Fry

    A few years ago, I went through all (okay, *most*) of my old images over a period of several months. It was definitely worth the experience. Here’s what I got from it:

    * Tons of empty hard drive space… I deleted more than half of my old images. Far too many of them were near-duplicates, taken only split-seconds apart. Far too many of them weren’t up to my current standards. I’d been keeping *everything*, including stuff from portrait shoots that nobody wanted to buy, then or now.

    * Impressed with myself… I was often impressed with some of my old work, when I’d been expecting the opposite.

    * Incentive to get better… In several cases, my old images pointed out that I was still making some of the same basic mistakes (I’m really bad about ignoring distracting elements in the background, for example), and compelled me to improve

    * A lot of fun… I had a great time remembering certain events or moments or people that I’d forgotten.

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      Thanks, Wil. Learning to edit yourself is another great benefit.

  • http://www.joelmeaders.com/ Joel Meaders

    I started doing this after losing all of my design work since 2004 last week (Design and my design backup drive fried from a bad power supply). My photo drive is safe thankfully, and I do not have a backup for it yet which is what led to me going through all of my old photos. I want to get a manageable size to allow backups

    I have culled every single concert/event photo that was not marked as final without a single look at any of the shots. So far I’ve deleted a little over 30,000 photos. I looked through my artistic photography and decided to keep all of them until I go through them one at a time because there are some real gems that never stood out before.

    I still have 1.5TB of photos to go through and will apply the same principle.

    If you don’t have a backup, DO IT! I got brand new backup drives in an external USB3 external case and have portions of those drives set to backup to the cloud now.

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      Awesome tips, Joel. Thanks!

  • flynfoto

    One other idea is to look at images that could be used as part of a composite.

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      I don’t do a lot of composite work, so I didn’t stop to think of that one. Great idea.