(NOTE: This is a long article and you may want to print it out for easier reference.)
“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”
In the last three weeks, I have heard from four professional photographers who used to work exclusively in film. Two of them have added digital to their shooting arsenal and two have made a total switch to digital capture. All of these people have national reputations. All of them are old war horses nervous about switching. And all of them e-mailed me this week and asked pretty much the same questions. “How do I make the move from the wet darkroom to the digital darkroom? How do I get started with Photoshop? What is a workflow?”
It occurred to me that there must still be a few die-hard hold-outs who have recently made the switch or who are about to make the switch to digital. If you too are making the switch, here’s what you need to know.
The first thing to do is to think conceptually. There are many new computer keystrokes and menus to learn. There are lots of new steps to go through. You will be assaulted by new jargon from the folks at Nerds-Are-Us. There will be time for discussions about which button to press and when. But for now, relax and think conceptually. Develop a plan, think about your goals, and draw upon your experience with film and traditional processing and printing techniques. This will serve you very well as you make the leap to digital.
For instance, when you want to make a print in your darkroom at home, what steps do you take? In what order? This is what we refer to in the digital world as workflow. Workflow is simply moving images from the camera to any medium that allows a third party to see the image. Since you are already familiar with how this process works with film, simply think about the “concepts” that are involved in making a traditional silver print and apply them to the digital domain.
THE DIGITAL NEGATIVE
Since you started your career with film, you are used to negatives (or slides.) Your digital camera creates computer files. Perhaps your camera generates JPEGs or TIFFs. Most cameras generate what we call RAW files. Whatever the format, these files are your digital equivalent of a negative.
You want to move the file from your camera to the computer. Your camera came with software and a cable that make this possible. So this is step one. Move the file to the computer darkroom. (You can also use a device called a card reader to make this transfer easier.)
Once you have the image on your computer, you use post processing software like Apple’s Aperture, Photoshop (or Photoshop Elements) to work with the image just as you would use chemicals and enlargers in the wet darkroom. (NOTE: Always make sure you are working on a copy of your original file. That way, if you don’t like the results you get, you can always go back to the unchanged original. If you use Aperture, your master image is always safe, and all the corrections you make in Aperture are non-desrtructive – not so if you work in a program like Photoshop.)
Chances are, one of the first things you do in the wet darkroom is to frame up your image for a traditional crop. Whether you’re making an 8″ x 10″ or a 20″ x 30″ print, you want to crop out some of the parts of your image that don’t add to the final product. You can do this in by using your software’s Crop Tool.
Once you have your negative, whether digital or film, it’s common to adjust it for printing. Typical adjustments will include exposure, density and color in the case of color film. You used to do this with an enlarger and some color filters. Now you can make all these adjustments to a well-exposed digital file in post using what’s typically called a LEVELS command. Using this option, you will see a graph that represents the tonal range and luminosity of your image. Assuming you have a good exposure to begin with, all you have to do here is find the blackest point of the image and the whitest point of the image and you will have made 80% of the corrections that are necessary to get a good print.
While your initial LEVELS adjustment will help improve the contrast ratios in your image, you can further enhance contrast using something like Photoshop’s CURVES command. In a wet darkroom you will achieve a certain contrast range by selecting the right film, the right developer, the right development time and the right paper to print on. In the digital domain, you don’t have as many steps. All you have to do is boost the image highlights so that they will be brighter and boost the image’s shadows so that they will be blacker.
DODGE AND BURN
Once you have your first test print in a wet darkroom, you often notice that some areas might need to be “burned in” and others need to be “dodged.” No doubt it took you a while to master the dodge and burn techniques in the wet darkroom. In the digital darkroom, you only have to make these corrections once and save them with the file and every print you make in the future will be perfectly dodged and burned.
In the digital domain, sharpening is necessary to restore some image clarity that is lost when the picture is captured RAW or unprocessed or when corrections made in post have resulted in lost detail. While contrast masking is nothing new to advanced wet darkroom users, sharpening is something fairly unique to the digital world.
There are several ways to sharpen your images. In Photoshop, a typical method is to go to FILTERS > SHARPEN > UNSHARP MASK and apply this special filter to restore lost contrast at the edges. If you choose this method, you will be presented with a dialog box and asked to input three numbers. The AMOUNT, RADIUS and THRESHOLD. In a short tutorial like this, it is impossible to go into all the nuances of the UNSHARP MASK filter. I will tell you that it is best to pick a starting point such as an AMOUNT of 90, a RADIUS of 1 and a THRESHOLD of 2. From there, it is simply salt and pepper to taste. Be careful not to over sharpen and always make sharpening the last thing you do to an image in Photoshop.
There are more refined and subtle ways to sharpen, but that level of detail isn’t appropriate for this article. For now, just remember that your eyes are the best judge of what looks sharp or not. So make some test prints and view them from the appropriate distance and decide if they more or less sharpening.
SAVE AND PRINT
You’re almost done. All you need to do is save your masterpiece. Next, you will want to make a print. At its most basic, it requires that you do nothing more than make sure your printer is connected, that you know what size paper it uses, and that you select the appropriate print dialog box. I like to “Soft Proof” my prints, meaning I like to get a screen representation of the print just to make sure all is well.
I could write an entire book on printing. Until you have time to learn color management, I would not worry about that initially. Just concentrate on getting a print that is reasonably close to what you hoped for. Size and resolution are two of the most important factors when printing. Assuming that you are using a photo inkjet printer such as an Epson 3800, you will want to set your resolution to 360. Check with your printer’s manufacturer to find out what its optimal printing resolution should be.
If you follow my advice and think conceptually, you will always be able to figure out what you need to do next in the digital darkroom. Is there more to learn? Sure there is. But you didn’t become a wet darkroom expert in a week, and you will need to practice and study in the digital darkroom to advance as well. You will also find that there are many opinions on how to use Photoshop. I have described a simple workflow that will bring you results you can print. I could have suggested additional steps but at this point, you want to go easy on yourself. Don’t try to do too much at one time. Experiment with the digital darkroom the same way that you did in the wet darkroom. Don’t expect perfection on your first try. Make some test prints and then make some more. Take note of what works. When you are stuck, ask yourself what you would do if you were in a wet darkroom. There’s plenty of help online. Start attending classes, read books and do all the things you did when you started making prints with an enlarger and number two paper. I am willing to bet that you will get great results in no time.
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