Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Value of the Digital Darkroom

Here is a photo I shot a few years ago. It was just a few months after I'd started taking photography seriously, and merely days after I got my first SLR.

Truth be told, it was a lucky shot more than anything. I was practising panning with moving objects, and as I was tracking the streetcar, I accidentally turned the zoom ring at the same time.

When I saw it on the viewfinder, my jaw dropped. I thought this was, up to that point in my development as a photographer, the best shot I'd ever taken. But as time went by every time I looked back on this photo, I kept thinking there was a little bit missing. The image was a little bit dull, the colour didn't pop the way I'd like, it was a touch on the grainy side, etc etc etc.

Still, it continues to be a steady seller on I have a few pics on for sale, and I get email notofications that this has sold roughly once or twice a month. At a commission of 30 cents or so it's not exactly breaking the bank, but still something to be proud of!

But there was just something about the image that wasn't quite right...

As I progressed I kept coming back to this image and I wondered if I could make it bettter. I evolved into shooting RAW, and processing all my photos in Adobe Lightroom, and I would like to believe I've gotten quite good at "developping" my images.

So today I decided to try and revisit the streetcar shot. I didn't spend a lot of time. My belief is that if it takes too long to improve the image, it probably wasn't a good enough image to begin with. So I limited the changes to removing the blue colour cast, brightening up the image overall, adjusting the tone curves to get bright light areas, and rich darks, reduced the noise, and boosted the red saturation. Sounds like a lot but literally it took me about 5 minutes -- and all of this was done within Lightroom. I didn't touch it with Photoshop at all.

Here's the result:

OK so I'll admit, it's probably not going to be hanging in the Smithsonian any time soon, but I finally feel like this image is as good as it can be. Given that it was shot while I was still very new to photography, I am very proud of this image, and I no longer feel like there's something missing.

So my point here is don't underestimate the importance of the digital darkroom. I'm not suggesting that a bad picture can be turned into a Picasso via the magic of post, but a great image straight out of camera can be made into something spectacular with just a few minor tweaks. Decades ago the masters did this kind of thing in the darkroom, so don't for a second assume it's cheating (I can already hear you purists out there revolting against that statement). Spend the time and learn to be a great developer as well as a great photographer. The two go hand in hand in creating some of your best work.

- jc

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