Feb 15 2013

How I Salvaged My JPEG’s

Thanks to all who have written to commiserate with me about my disaster last week, and to share your own stories of mistakes made. I should compile them into a book and call it “The Ghosts of Photo-Mistake’s Past.”  

And thanks to those who offered technical advice on how to salvage my JPEG’s, because of this advice I was able to save more of my files than I thought possible. I thought I’d share what I found worked best.

To bring everyone up to speed, I accidentally photographed Death Valley with no RAW and only JPEG files. Because I was shooting in Monochrome Mode, the JPEG’s were in black and white and not in color like the RAW files would have been. The reason for this is that when you are shooting in RAW, all of the settings you make to the camera such as the mode, saturation, sharpness and etc, are ignored by the RAW file. However the JPEG file is affected by all of those settings.  So because I had JPEG’s files, I was unable to convert them to black and white myself.  

Why does this matter? Because much of “my look” comes from this conversion process as I adjust the color channels.

The JPEG files are also more grainy and the grain seems to clump together more than the RAW file. Lastly, the JPEG file is an 8 bit file while the RAW is a 16 bit file. This matters because I do a lot of dodging and burning and an 8 bit file will not produce smooth gradients, it’s subject to banding and posterization.  

There is nothing I can do about not having a color file to work with, that ship has sailed. But, there was something I could do about the 8 bit files, I thought I’d simply go into PhotoShop and converted the file to 16 bit. However my friend (and master printer and great photographer) Adrian Davis pointed out that this approach is not ideal and offered a better way.  

His suggestion was to use HDR to create a true 16 bit file as opposed to taking a 8 bit JPEG and simply converting it to 16 bits. You do this by making a copy of the original file and then using Photoshop’s HDR to merge together the two identical files which resulted in a file with 16 bits of data. Note: it does not produce that “HDR” look in this process.

Now this did not solve all of my JPEG problems, but at least by having a 16 bit file, I was able to do my dodging and burning on a 16 bit file which provided me with smooth gradients. I compared the JPEG image to the converted 16 bit image and it looks better in a three ways. First there is no banding, second the grain looks smoother and third the edges on high contrast transitions are smoother.  

The improvement was enough that with a little extra work, I’ll be able to salvage 10-15 of those “lost” Death Valley images. I’m very happy about this!

So my thanks to all for your support and suggestions, and I hope that my mistake and this technical tip will be beneficial to you.


P.S. Please take a look at Aline Smithson’s L E N S S C R A T C H entry for 2/14/2013.  She invited people from all over the world to submit their self-portraits and there are some amazingly creative images here! But there’s a twist, she tells the story about how I got to know someone who wrote me and how it led to a friendship and an exhibition. She then invites all of the self-portrait artists to contact the person who comes before and after them in the exhibit.  Aline’s a pretty clever woman.



Dec 3 2012

The THREE Stories Behind the Image

Story Number One:

I was 16 years old and living in Anaheim California. I had this idea for an image, a gull flying against a clouded moon, but I couldn’t find a way to create the image with a single shot. So I decided to combine two images, not as a double exposure captured in-camera, but by combining two images in the darkroom. Composites are easily done in today’s digital world, but they were not easily done back in 1970. Back in the “old days” I would sandwich the two negatives together in the enlarger and project them as a single image.

The first image was taken at night in the local K-Mart parking lot. I took a series of shots with clouds floating past the moon. I had this idea (vision) in my head of what the final image would look like and so I placed the moon and clouds on the right and left room for the sea gull on the left. The shot of the sea gull was taken later during the daytime in my high school parking lot, I shot a series of gulls looking straight up. Working from memory of where I had placed the moon and cloud in the frame, I positioned the gull on the left.

After I processed the negatives, I had to find two images that would work together, not just in terms of composition but also exposure. Getting a good print with this method is a challenge since you have two negatives that may have different printing needs, but you must print them together as one.

I named the image “Gull and Moon” and while I loved the composition, I was never able to get the blacks that I envisioned, the print was very muddy.

Story Number Two: 

I was new to Loara High School and had joined the Yearbook staff as a photographer. The new yearbook advisor was John Holland the photography teacher, he became and remained a friend and mentor until last year when he passed away. What was so very different about John was that he encouraged us to create fine art images for the yearbook, not just pictures of the football players, cheerleaders and cheesecake shots. This was fun (!) and we had a wonderful time creating artistic images for the yearbook including my “Gull and Moon” which was prominently featured.

Unfortunately neither John nor any of us really stopped to consider why people purchased yearbooks. It was not for fine art images but for the pictures of the football players, cheerleaders and cheesecake shots! When the yearbooks arrived and were being handed out there was a near riot as the football players angrily confronted the yearbook staff. I was a junior (and small for my age) and I remember slowly slinking out through the back of the crowd and hiding in the photography room. I made myself scarce for several days.

Story Number Three:

After high school and for 30 years after, I focused on family and career and neglected my photography. During those years we moved several times and with each move I threw out more and more old things, including much of my photography. When I returned to photography around 2004 I wanted to feature some of my earlier work on my website and I began searching for anything that might have survived.

Most of my negatives were gone and only a few prints survived, in fact only 13 remained from all those years of work. Most of these images survived only because a single print was still around, and this was the case with “Gull and Moon.” I found a single 8 x 10, poorly printed and curled up print. This has always been a special image to me and I so set about the task of restoring it.

I scanned the image and worked on it in Photoshop. I was pleasantly surprised because not only was I able to restore the image, but I was able to bring it into compliance with my original vision, something I was never able to do in the darkroom!  Just tonight I was comparing the original to the restored version and it reminded me of why I love digital.

If you are interested, you can see those 13 restored images from my early years here:  http://colethompsonphotography.com/1970s.htm

Recounting the story behind this image reminded me of the many lessons that I learned from this experience. 

  1. Vision is the most important ingredient of a great image.
  2. Yearbooks are for documentary work, not fine art photography. 
  3. Focus on the creative early on, it’s more important than the technical which can be learned quite easily.
  4. Don’t throw things away when you are young, you’ll regret it later. 
  5. If you have an image that you cannot get just right, keep working on it.