How I failed at recreating one of my toy photos

Sometimes you make an image that you love, but end up not entirely happy with it. There is a tiny detail that you think is a bit off. You might notice it as soon as you take it. Or it might be years later. Eventually, you decide to attempt to fix it by reshooting the image.

The sad truth is that this is not always a successful endeavor.

Reimagined

If you have been around for as long as I have, this isn’t something new on the blog. You might remember years ago when Vesa and Brett were telling about their attempts at re-creating one of their images. (If you haven’t, go read them!) These blog posts are among the ones that are constantly on my mind. They have deeply inspired me and helped me grow as a toy photographer.

Because of them, the task of recreating a somewhat finished photo has always daunted me. From my experience, I know it rarely succeeds. Instead of improving the old image, it often leads to a completely different picture.

Just a few weeks ago, I experienced that problem while photographing the new LEGO Ideas Piano… But this blog post isn’t about the Piano, but instead about one of my images for SiPgoes52. Yes. It’s been almost two years, but I’m still (very slowly) working on SiPgoes52.

Back to SiPgoes52

Last time I talked about my SiPgoes52 project, I had managed to reduce my set of 52 photos to a selection of 12 images. I had almost completed my project. However, I wanted to reshoot one photo. Overall, I wasn’t unhappy with the photo itself. Quite the opposite: it’s among my all-time favorites. But over time, I grew unhappy with one small detail. The shadow on the right side of the Snow Queen’s face bothers me.

The original portrait of the Snow Queen

Usually, I would only decide to reshoot an image if I’m really not satisfied with it. I know there’s no way to recreate an outdoor photo faithfully. There are too many variable parameters, and it can only lead to a different one rather than a truly improved version of the original. But this case was different. From a technical point of view, this picture is among my simplest. So it should be easy to recreate… right?

The Snow Queen portrait

Technical behind the scenes

I took my Snow Queen portrait on a snowy day, one of the first of winter 2017-2018. I used my macro lens with a long focal length aimed at the figure’s head. The sky was covered with clouds, the ground with snow. The light was so soft, and everything was so white that the photo could have been made in studio. The only thing to change was to add some artificial light so there wouldn’t be such a strong shadow on the figure’s head. 

Recreating it had been on my todo list for the whole winter 2019-2020, but I kept procrastinating. Then at the end of April, I finally found the motivation to do it. Snow had fallen during the night, it was still cloudy in the morning, but the snow was going to melt throughout the day. With spring just around the corner, this was most likely my last chance to re-make the picture.

Going out for photos on the last day of winter

Guess what? Even with such a simple setup, I couldn’t recreate anything close to the original one. So what went wrong?

First, there were technical issues with the photos. I didn’t aim the lens at the figure with the exact same angle as in the original photo. In some photos, the eyes are slightly out of focus. The cloth piece around her neck was also slightly off and quite messy. And finally, I don’t think I’m happy with the way I lit the figure.

In this photo, the angle is not the same as in the original image.

However, these technical details don’t matter much.

The real reason why I failed at recreating the original photo

While these technical details could (most likely) be fixed with another photo session in the snow, or in Photoshop, there are two other things that cannot be fixed or changed.

The figure had changed in the course of the last two years and a half since I took the original photo. It wasn’t brand new anymore. The figure was dirty. And more importantly, the prints around the eyes and the mouth had faded. Even though I have a spare brand-new Snow Queen well protected in a zipper bag, I wasn’t willing to use a different figure than the “real” one. The one I had started to photograph just after moving to the North. Her being old and used is part of my story. Her aging is not a flaw that needs to be fixed but a quality.

Here while it’s technically closer to the original, her face and expression look quite different than in the original figure because she has changed.

But not only the Snow Queen had changed. I had changed too. In 2020, I wasn’t the same photographer that I was in 2017. After trying recreating the (almost) exact same picture, I couldn’t resist taking something completely different. I wasn’t that interested anymore in taking a photo exactly like the original.

I have also changed because I cannot resist taking a step back and include more of the environment in the frame…
…Or take a picture completely out of focus.

Once I was done looking at the photos on my computer (and the snow had all melted), I concluded that my attempt at recreating my Snow Queen portrait had failed. Instead of having a “better” image, I had several different ones. None of which fit in my SiPgoes52 project.

Plan B: re-processing

Following this failed attempt, I decided to try something else. Rather than reshooting the photo, could I instead re-process it to “fix” the shadow in her face?

It is not something I usually do as I struggle with re-editing a photo even more than with reshooting one. But it was surely worth the try.

First attempt at re-editing the photo in Lightroom.

Well, even re-processing didn’t work so well. First, it seemed I had succeeded. But I always like to wait a few days (or weeks, or months) before making any final decision. After some time, it became apparent that I couldn’t make my mind about which photo to choose. One day I might pick one, then the next day, or sometimes even a few minutes later, I pick the other one. I tried to tune down the changes applied to the original photo, but it didn’t help and only created an additional third photo.

Half-way between the original and the re-edited image.

The aftermath

Over a year and a half after the end of SiPgoes52, I am still stuck with this project that I cannot truly finalize.

But besides SiPgoes52, this attempt at recreating an apparently simple image led me to discover something more general about my photography. Once I create a finalized image, it cannot be changed or improved. Any attempt at fixing a minor detail (other than removing a distracting speck of dust) doesn’t create a better image, but a different one. It doesn’t solve any problem and instead potentially creates new ones.

It’s not the end of the story, though. Similarly to SiPgoes52, I also have to finalize SiPgoes53. On top of my todo list, I have two photos I want to reshoot, this time before winter comes. However, it’s a bit different. These are photos that are far from being among my favorites. Here the goal won’t be to improve them but create different ones. This time, it should be more successful. I hope…

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HerrSM
1 month ago

From my point I can only agree with you, Maelick. Even though I haven’t trid reshooting any image that excessively, I know you can almost never recreate an exact old one. You will create different ones instead. I had similar thoughts when decades ago I was in my apprenticeship to become a carpenter. You see blueprints of, let’s say, a cabinet. But: will the material behave in the same way? How precise can one milimeter be? Are your tools as sharp as they were before? Are you as a craftsman as fit as you were the last time you built… Read more »