February 8, 2013

Back from Death Valley, and the Devastating Discovery

Sunday I arrived home after spending 16 days in Death Valley. It was a fantastic trip; the weather was perfect, it was relaxing and I felt very productive. Each night I’d review my images and the compositions were looking good. However the images had a funny look to them on the camera’s screen, they were flat and dull, but it was a new camera and so I figured that I had the brightness adjustment set a little differently than on my other camera.

When I got home and all caught up with two weeks worth of mail, email and phone messages, I anxiously began processing my images. As I reviewed the thumbnails, the images again looked a little odd, they were very flat. Then I noticed that I was looking at a JPEG, which I thought was okay because I had set my new camera to record in both RAW and JPEG.  However as I looked for the RAW files, my heart stopped when I realized they weren’t any. I went back to the CF Card and they weren’t there either.

I could not believe it.  I had shot for those entire 16 days and didn’t have a single RAW file to show for it. I went into the camera settings to see how I had set up the camera and sure enough, I had misread the settings and had mistakenly it set to record only in JPEG. I was devastated because as I reviewed the images it appeared to me that I wouldn’t be able to salvage a single one.

The problem was twofold: First the images were recorded in JPEG and were a much lower resolution than the RAW files I normally work with. And second, the files were recorded in B&W which meant that I could not convert them they way I wanted using the color channels.  This took much of the creative control from me.  As I worked on some of the files I concluded that I wouldn’t be able to use any of them.

That was a very long night for me. I could not stop thinking of all of the mistakes I had made:

  • Setting up the camera wrong.
  • Not creating some test images before I took the camera into the field.
  • Not processing some of the images while on the trip, which would have uncovered the problem.
  • Not digging deeper into why the images on the camera’s screen looked funny.

I felt pretty foolish and just couldn’t believe that after all of that time, money and shooting, I was coming home empty handed.  It was a long sleepless night.

The next day I thought that I’d take another stab at some of the images, perhaps by using some different techniques a few might be salvaged? After working on them for a few hours, it turns out that I might be able to save about five of the images. Not a lot to show for 16 days work, but a lot more than I thought I had last night!

I felt foolish for making such a silly error and thought maybe I’d say nothing about this to anyone and just quietly show the five images, but I then thought better of it. That was pride speaking and the truth is that I messed up and I need to share this experience to keep myself humble and to help others from making the same mistake. This disaster was completely avoidable and I’m grateful that I’ve learned this lesson now, before I travel to Iceland later this year. Can you imagine coming home from Iceland with no images? Now that would have been a tragedy!

So, please learn from my mistake and tuck this experience away.  When you get a new camera, test it out thoroughly before you head out on a big photo trip.  And if something doesn’t look right, investigate it right then and there until it’s resolved.

Also, after working with these JPEG files and seeing their limitations, I must reinforce my previous recommendation to always shoot in RAW!  There is an ENORMOUS difference between RAW and JPEG, and you are handicapping yourself when you work in JPEG.

I’ll be finishing these images over the next several weeks and will introduce them in the next newsletter. In the meantime, the above image is one that I think I’ll be able to salvage.



38 thoughts on “Back from Death Valley, and the Devastating Discovery

  1. First you have my enormous respect for admitting to it.
    second the image above is absolutely stunning, if that’s from a JPEG I’d love to see a RAW.
    I think we have all done it to some degree, I spent a day shooting a once in a lifetime event only to find the film was not winding on. After that I always loaded film a different way. I also shot a spent a day shooting with the DSLR set wrong and realised too late.

  2. I just spent ages writing a comment on your G+ but at the end when I hit the ‘post comment’ I was told I was not allowed to comment on the post. I was going to share your post with the community as I was very moved by it, but there doesn’t seem to be much point if your followers are disabled from engaging with you.

    Just thought you’d like to know why you might not be getting much response on your posts over there…

  3. Dear Cole,

    so sorry to hear about this!

    At the end of all my trips I always feel anxious about backing up all the files I’ve created, and usually feel relieved as soon as I get back home and create multiple copies of them.
    I can only imagine how your discovery could make you feel!
    Seems like you have learnt the lesson the hard way.

  4. I think we all have a similar story or cautionary tale. I’m glad that you shared it, although it isn’t surprising as it is completely in your spirit of teaching. Mine would be about good tripod technique. After having spent a lot of money on a RRS tripod I foolishly allowed my pleasure in the purchase to cloud my better judgement and the whole thing went over on asphalt in strong wind. That could have been avoided by more cautious tripod technique – lower camera position and wider spread (it was center weighted with my gear bag but still went over).

    Glad that you shared that story Cole. There are certain guidelines or checklists that we should all go through during our photographic endeavors. It helps to see that even the accomplished make mistakes.

    On a different note, I read you interview on Andrew Gibson’s site and realized that it might be time for me to practice a little photographic celibacy myself. A few weeks ago I came home with an image of buoys on dark water. It wasn’t successful but I couldn’t really account for why I stopped to take that image. After reading the interview, I realized that your buoy image was buried subconsciously. The impact of striking images goes deeper than we can ever know and are likely to acknowledge. Without a doubt, many of your images are rattling around in my head. Lots of inspirational work here Cole.

  5. Man, do I get this. I learned my lesson as a professional musician years ago. Every time, without exception, when I added new gear (bass drum pedal – I played the drums professionally in a past life), drum head, new cymbal, anything, something would go south. Then in my photographic life, whenever I took anything new (without backup) in the field, something would go wrong. After a couple of times of this happening in my photo life, I made the connection to my music experience. At that point, about 15 years ago, I ALWAYS have a backup with me of whatever I have for the first time in the field (camera, lenses, camera bag (in the car in case of a bag/strap crisis), etc.) There’s nothing like having something go wrong in front of a live audience of thousands of people to change the way you think!

  6. Thanks for sharing this lesson,and please forgive the following ramblings of an inveterate taoist! Cole I believe all things happen for a reason and, once the initial shock and dismay begin to wear off, we can take away positives such as you have with your lessons learned. I would also suggest you not give up so quickly on the images just because they do not fit the way you “normally” do things. Remain open to exploring other techniques that might allow you to salvage them in different ways. You said yourself in an earlier post that one goal you had for your trip was to see differently…maybe that is what this experience might guide you to, but in the post processing rather than the capture. The inherent beauty in your vision is there regardless of format, and I believe you can find ways to achieve it.

  7. Yes, we’ve all experienced something similar. And lived to shoot another wiser day.
    I’m still looking forward to seeing what you do “salvage”.

  8. Hi Cole – I agree with what Bill McMyne said. Your positive attitude follows you wherever you go, and I’m sure this experience will be no different. Thank you for being brave enough to share this with us, as it is a good reminder and it helps the rest of us realize that more accomplished photographers also make mistakes (ie, I’m not the only one!). As an aside, I have been hesitant to make the leap to shooting in RAW, though I’m not exactly sure why. However, you have convinced me that, the next time I go out, I will start shooting in RAW+JPEG. Thanks!

  9. Cole, I felt my chest tighten while reading your words. I’m sorry that this happened to you but it is indeed an important lesson for everyone. I will likely be getting a new camera next month ahead of a freelance job and I already plan on making sure I familiarize myself with the camera at least two weeks before I use it for the customer. I’ve kicked myself after personal shoots when I realized that I had forgotten to change the settings back to RAW after shooting snapshots in normal JPG mode. Ugh! I feel your pain! Glad you were able to salvage something and am looking forward to see what you bring back from Iceland. I’m jealous. Iceland’s near the top of my list for locations I’d love to visit.

  10. Oh Cole! Happens to the best of us buddy. I’ve done that too. Maybe not the jpeg thing but iso cranked to 2500. The lesson you’ve learned is invaluable. I can guarantee you this will never ever happen to you again. Ever!
    This is what I did over the weekend.
    I went to Banff to meet up with my friend Paul. We went for sunrise to this spot. We had to hike a bit. Coming to the location Paul said I’m gonna move a little further down. I look up and I see he’s waist deep in snow. I shout. Stay put. Great profile pic! So I set up the film camera and start composing. It was early morning so I had to use bulb and manually close the shutter. Anyway. Long story short. Now I know bulb doesn’t work when I have a cable release in my mirror up socket. Oh. I didn’t know that. So yeah I was embarrassed to tell Paul. No profile pic buddy. Film recorded nothing cause the shutter never fired. Duh.
    Stuff happens. We are all humans. And humans make mistakes.

  11. I think it’s safe to say we’ve all been there…

    You have my heartfelt condolences.

    Take heart in that, there is a lot to be said for that whole lemons – lemonade scenario. When your forced to work with what you’ve got, you just may end up surprising yourself with what you CREATE from it…

  12. Above you said “I could not convert them they way I wanted using the color channels” Why was that not mentioned as one of “Photoshop and Six Tools” in a previous post????

  13. Oh my! I’m so sorry Cole. As others have said, now you know that will never happen again. Take solace in the fact that you have spent 16 days capturing neurochomes. You know those sacred images etched in your minds eye. Images that no one can take away from you, forever stored on your own personal hard drive for eternity my friend.

  14. Ron, using the color channels is covered in Step 2:

    2. B&W Conversion tool – I like Photoshop’s b&w conversion tool and play with each color channel to see how it affects the different parts of my image.

    It’s one of the most important steps!


  15. Hello Cole,
    If you are talking about the 5DM3, I made the same mistake when I first got the camera. Luckily, it was just a local outing but I still learned the same lesson. I think the lesson in your words is that “it’s OK to amid you made a mistake” too often, people refuse to admit failure. I admire people who admit their mistakes… I know you will turn those jpg’s into beautiful photographs…

  16. So sorry to hear what happen to you Cole. For sure thank you for telling us. I think we all make some mistakes like as forget to set back some settings used a day before and the day after shooting with the wrong settings resulting in bad images …etc.

    Anyway I’m sure you will save some more images and show us gorgeous work…

  17. Hi Cole,

    Really, no way to spin it. It just sucks. I ache for you. I really do. It’s an emotional punch in the gut. I think you just take the punch, get up off the canvas, consider it tuition for an invaluable lesson, and search for a way to convert a horrible negative experience into something positive.

    The positives I see are:
    1. You are a much better, more credible, more human teacher from this experience. If it happened to you, students will never forget the lesson. I know I never will. I think you have save people from ever having this experience themselves.

    2. The images you do salvage will be so much more special,because of the story behind them.

    3. We all want perfection, which I think is a great goal, but sometimes the Gods remind us to chill out on that one. So does Leonard Cohen with his classic lines which fit here: “Ring the bell that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There are cracks in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”


  18. I totally feel your pain Cole!
    And I agree with the first comment: congrats on admitting your mistake. Nevertheless..unless you had the camera set to a really lower res than the native file size, I’m pretty sure you can take a good amount of fine images nevertheless… Maybe you could look into one of those editing plug-ins, like snapseed, not to recover quality of course, but to give the pictures some extra “mood” I’m sure you’ll figure out a way: limitations are key to creativity!

  19. I am so sorry to hear that. I did the same exact thing on a work visit to Italy. All my photographs from Venice/ Milan/ Cinque terre are jpegs. I could salvage few but it was tough. You live, you learn. I was so looking forward to your work from DV. I hope you make it there back soon.

  20. Emotions aside from the harsh reality of what happened, was it your norm to not look at what you had until the end of the shoot?

  21. I also just got back from a trip to Death Valley, and I too have a new camera. However, I decided to go with my old crappy camera instead of the new one, mainly because I did not want to be stuck not knowing how to use various functions, or to get stuck in an unwanted mode. Your experience has made me realize that this was the correct decision (not that I am rubbing your nose in it). Anyway, the first step in learning is admitting mistakes. Thanks for being honest and sharing that we all make mistakes, and a great lesson for all of us.

  22. Hi Sue, On previous trips I had been processing the images as I went along each night. I didn’t do this on this trip, which would caught the error on day one!

  23. Cole, Like many others, I thank you for being humble enough to share and own an experience that is a lesson for us all. I started getting that queasy feeling as I read because I knew where it was going. However, I echo the sentiments of someone else. If the above image is one of the 5, then those other 4 will be stellar.
    I am going to Cuba in a couple of months. We cannot take a computer and I am trying to take minimum gear. So, I will have a lot of memory cards. Cautious is now my middle name.

  24. Cole, back in the days of film cameras one of the best pics I “never” shot was due to the fact that the film hadn’t caught on the sprockets and advanced. Started to rewind and it kept spinning and spinning, my heart just sank! They’ll be many other great photos coming out of your new camera, sorry about this baych.

  25. holy Cow- that Sucks! Oh man! I’m feelin for ya, and to think you would have learned all of your lessons by now eh!? Here’s one for ya tho: I was shooting a family portrait a couple years back and had the kit on sticks and once we were done with the group shots wouldn’t you know it but my nephew starts to make to give a speech and it becomes obvious that he’s about to propose to his long time girlfriend and so I make to roll video on the bit- and his dad (my brother) makes eye connection with me to verify that I am recording this whole scene and I wink back “ya, ya” only to find out 15 minutes later that I had hit the go button twice- thereby starting it and stopping it a half second later. The part that really got me tho was that supposedly I was already to get this moment (on sticks, focussed, etc) and my job as the picture maker was to get it- and I returned a wink wink saying “ya, I got it!” only to find out that I blew it. I was hanging my head for a month after that one. Really tho- this example takes the cake! Oh! I can’t believe you did that! Like Oli said tho- you won’t do that again!
    How bout that you have to experience the experience as just a person and not a photographer this time-

  26. As someone who steadfastly refuses to listen to anyone and does everything myself, I have had more than my fair share of photographic tragedies. And Then turned them around to be something really great. You will be fine, my friend 😉

  27. Ha! Here I was thinking about medication to manage my OCD-like behavior of constantly checking quality, ISO, white balance…thought it was a neurological tic I developed!
    I am sincerely Sorry for you trouble Cole!

  28. Cole, so very sorry about this. Empathy isn’t difficult to summon – we can all easily imagine ourselves in your situation and relate too well to how you must feel. On the plus side – you found those new dunes. 🙂

  29. Cole, while not for one moment being unsympathetic, it is perversely nice to know that the absolutely majestic black & whites that we see in your blog & on your website are not the work of ‘the gods’, but produced from the toil of a fallible mortal, just like us! Kind regards, Geoff

  30. One thing I really enjoy about reading and listening to your thoughts is that you never have any problem reminding us that much photography comes from being human and making mistakes.

  31. What can i say Cole? you are always so kind to share with us everything..even this so unfortunate event of yours..we learn every day from your photos and your ideas..hope your trip to Iceland will be a great success..

  32. Two months after I purchased my 1st DSLR, I wasn’t convinced about RAW yet. My wife and I were on our biggest vacation in 25 years and one day found us at Taos Pueblo. I shot a ton of images and was really looking forward to working these images. When we got back to the car I decided to take a quick look and all the images were bright blue! How could I have screwed up the white balance that bad and all in jpg too! Was able to save some images by converting to B&W, but that day is always in my mind every time I go somewhere to take pictures. I guess the person who first said that we learn much more from our mistakes than our victories was correct.

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