A Valuable Archive

I must start with an apology as it is now a few weeks since I last wrote an entry on this blog. The truth is that I have been acquiring new images at a frantic pace, and that makes the title of this post particularly relevant.

Every time you go out and capture a few more images, your archive grows. I’ve just checked my Pictures folder and found it contains over seventy-four thousand files. Allowing for duplications, and original and processed copies of files, there are perhaps fifty thousand distinct images. That represents about ten years work. Additionally, I’m not entirely sure how many folders have been archived off the Hard Drive completely, so the figure could be larger than I imagine. Managing an archive is hard work, but vital work, if you are to protect it and also make it accessible as a resource.

This Post is not about protection – but it would be remiss of me not to reinforce the concept of backing up your archive, not once but twice, and keeping at least one copy off-site. We have to think the un-thinkable. The what ifs? What if the house was flooded or burnt down?

What I really want to write about today is the value of your archive as a resource.

Your archive is a visual diary of where you have been, what you saw, and when you saw it. It resolves arguments on who did what and when. It measures the seasons: when did the Apple blossom bloom last year, for example? It answers questions: what was the weather like last September? Which winter was it when hoar frost lasted for days? Your archive documents events, celebrations, holidays, the growth of your children, and much more.

Hoar Frost - Dec 7, 2010

Hoar Frost – Dec 7, 2010

It also is a record of your growth and development as an individual photographer. By examining your archive you can measure change, and note the advancement of your processing skills. You may re-visit old images and find that you can re-work them, producing different or better results. You might find images that have never been processed – those hidden gems – that for one reason or another have never seen the light of day.

An archive is also a learning tool. Looked at as a whole you can see how far you have travelled as a photographer. How your Eye for an image has sharpened, how your vision has broadened or consolidated into a few well established strands. You may more clearly see a direction of travel that reveals itself over time when you review your archive. You may even see the emergence of a distinctive Style.

Finally, you can learn from your mistakes. That’s why sometimes it is not always the best idea to eliminate all the errors and imperfect images from your archive. When you re-visit a place, a city, a resort, or re-walk a known walk, that’s a good time to view the archive of your earlier visit and ask yourself: what did I miss, what do I want to re-shoot, how can I improve on previous images?

All this is possible provided you can find the files you are looking for. And that is the sixty-four thousand dollar question. How do you find those files? For those of us who weren’t circumspect enough to plan in advance, this is when we wish we had the benefit of hindsight. The sooner you develop a filing system for your images the better. Forget about it, allow the files to accumulate uncontrollably, and the task becomes a mountain to climb.

There are two principal choices for a filing system: one based on folders, and one based on keywords. If you opt for keywords, then think this process through carefully, and ideally make a note of the ones you choose – keywords are useless if you cannot recall the precise words you used to identify a tranche of images.

Value your archive, view it and organize it. Most of us are well skilled at putting off the tasks we would rather not do. For those of you in the Northern Hemisphere reading this, the approach of darker evenings may provide the opportunities to set aside time to maximise the value of your archive. I would be most surprised if you didn’t find it time well spent.


Mini Tutorial – Solarization

Solarizing an unexceptional B&W image is a path down which few of us travel. For several reasons perhaps: the idea that Solarization produces ‘weird’ results, or a failure to understand its potential, or maybe you’ve never heard about it or never thought about experimenting with it. But experimentation is easy and the results can be surprising.


Solarization is generally understood as the partial reversal of image tones achieved by fogging (brief over-exposure to light) of film or print during the development process. In addition the process of Solarization often produces a characteristic edge effect known as a Mackie Line – a clear line delineating what were, in the original image, sharply contrasting highlight and shadow, but which in the Solarized form are similarly toned. Depending on whether the final image is positive or negative the Mackie line may be a white line separating dark tones or a black line separating white tones.

Man Ray is the photographer probably best known for his experiments with Solarization in the 1930s. He was one of the first artists to use the process for aesthetic purposes, although the original concept of Solarization – gross over exposure at the point of capture of an image (resulting in a black sun) – was a phenomenon known about since the mid 19th century.

To be strictly correct the techniques employed in the darkroom, or digitally, amount to Pseudo-Solarization or the Sabattier Effect.

Solarization can be applied to film or to prints. Solarizing developing prints produces a range of silvery tones with intriguing results. Applied more commonly to Lith film inter-negatives the results are of much higher contrast.

In the darkroom era, from my experience, Solarization was a fiddly hit-and-miss technique that could be exciting but frequently intensely frustrating and wasteful of both time and chemicals.

The original negative was copied onto 2¼ square Lith film (a high contrast sheet film) to make an initial Lith positive. Part way through development the Lith positive was exposed briefly to light. This resulted in a peculiar reversal of some tones as a result of the fogging of undeveloped areas of the film. The Lith positive was then fixed, washed and dried and then used to create a Lith negative from which the final print was made.

Immediately below is a straightforward Lith image of a signal on a London bridge printed about 40 years ago, and alongside the Solarized version produced at the same time showing the Mackie Line.

ARPS12_compositeSolarization in the Digital era

Solarization in the digital era now involves a simple click on Solarize and an adjustment to Levels. What could be simpler?

Here is the latest image I’ve worked on. On the left is the unedited RAW original, on the right the final Solarized image. Click to enlarge the image.

IMG_6039_montageIt may not even look Solarized to you. The result has increased contrast and bite that would be hard to achieve by any other means. It doesn’t look odd or weird. And that is perhaps one of the main points to stress. Solarization has the capacity to produce results that certainly can be at the dramatic or obvious end of the Solarization spectrum, but it is also a tool for breathing new life into the unexceptional.

Here are the steps taken to reach the final image using Photoshop, and for those using Elements you will find the Solarize filter available there too:

Here’s the base image straight out of camera:

IMG_6039_0Step 1: Adjust Curves and Levels to increase contrast in the base image.

Step 2: The image was then taken into the plug-in Topaz Clean/DeGrunge to clean up the image a little – a cleaner image seems to Solarize more smoothly.

IMG_6039_1Step 3: I desaturated the image by Using Topaz B&W Effects/Stylized/Dynamic II Smooth, but I could just as easily have used a standard option in Photoshop.

IMG_6039_2Step 4: The critical step: Filter/Stylize/Solarize. The image, immediately after that simple ‘click’ to Solarize, looks awful – no highlights at all. Look at the levels overlaid.

Grab-before levelsStep 5: Using levels move the highlight slider and see how the image comes to life again.

Grab-after levelsStep 6: Finally the sky needed a little work to increase the contrast – so I made a selection of that using the magic wand and adjusted levels and shadow/highlights further. A final nudge of +0.2 degrees in Lens Correction and a crop and the image was finished. There’s no Mackie Line, and very little trace of this being an image derived through Solarization.


Click on the image to see a higher quality enlargement

In the gallery below I’ve picked five before and after Images where Solariazation has been used to create the final image. In all cases the original image is completely unedited – SOOC.

In the first pair you will see a very clearly visible Mackie Line. Similarly in the second pair, the girl is also picked out and silhouetted as a result of a distinct Mackie Line.

The final three pairs show hints of an edge effect but their main strength is in the contrast and bite that Solarization has brought to the processing pathway.

Click on the first image in the gallery and then navigate through. Individual images can be enlarged for a closer view

Three final points:

  • Selecting images on which to use this technique is not always obvious, but those with initial strong lines will usually yield stronger results.
  • Solarization can always be applied to colour images but expect some very strange colours.
  • Inverting a Solarization may occasionally yield a different but more pleasing image, especially when applied to colour work.

Do give it a try – you won’t be disappointed.