One of the biggest—and, in my opinion, most desirable—changes that took place with the transition from film to digital capture was moving the developmental process of the endeavor from the wet darkroom to the digital darkroom. For those of us with an interest in taking our vision to the final stages, we no longer had to deal with all of the negatives of either immersing ourselves in chemical development or turning our film over to someone else for development of prints and/or slides.
Asserting control over the entire photographic process, as enabled by the digital darkroom, is an incredibly powerful process, but it comes with a number of caveats. Those include, but are not limited to, the fact that there’s really no one left to blame but yourself for the inability to realize your aesthetic vision. And make no mistake about it—that’s how I view the digital darkroom: it’s a tool to help me realize my vision, just as the camera itself is. (In fact, that’s the imprint that I put on every piece of photographic equipment I own, from lenses to tripods to camera bags and compact flash cards; they’re all vision-realization tools.)
The digital darkroom has always been accompanied by a learning curve—one that I think has become a little bit less steep in the 12-odd years that I’ve been immersed in it, given the development of wide variety of new, (somewhat) more intuitive tools and an entire cottage industry of training mechanisms and venues. But the curve is definitely still there.
I posted an entry on my own blog about five weeks ago that lays out my philosophy about post-processing pretty thoroughly, and if you’re interested in the subject I direct you there. But here, I want to demonstrate how the process of understanding the means by which the digital darkroom fits in with your vision can help you make decisions at the time of capture (i.e. in the field). As I detail at some length in the linked post, I feel it’s a mistake to think of post-processing as way to fix in-the-field errors. For one thing, you usually can’t—use the digital darkroom to cover up mistakes in the field, I mean. For another, if you think of post-processing as a giant bandage you’ll miss out on what it’s really designed to do; this is where the “realize your vision” mantra kicks in.
The Case Study
The image I’m going to use as an example was made shortly after sunset from Miner’s Beach in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. There was a stiff breeze that evening, which produced some significant waves on Lake Superior and a nice post-sunset sky. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to reproduce the scene before me in a single frame; the scene exceeded the dynamic range of the sensor in the camera that I was using at the time. In theory, it could have been captured in a single frame using a two- or three-stop graduated neutral density filter, but one of the very first things I did after converting to digital capture 10 years ago was stop carrying my GND kit around with me. I’ve never liked graduated neutral density filters; I found them a pain to carry around and to use. With film, I had to use them sometimes, but digital provided the possibility of manually blending multiple exposures and doing so was one of the first advanced digital darkroom techniques I mastered. This allowed me to ditch the GNDs.
Digression: One of the things I dislike about graduated neutral density filters is that they rarely really fit, spatially speaking, with the subject matter I’m shooting. Consider the image immediately below. There’s really no way to effectively make a GND conform to this scene. Blending with multiple exposures (the below scene is a manual blend) or even HDR effectively creates the equivalent of a filter that is customized to the nuances of the individual scene and I find both processes far more flexible and customizable than GNDs.
When I was in the field, considering how to approach the Miner’s Beach scene, I knew that multiple exposures would be needed. I also knew that, to realize my vision with this scene, HDR was out. Why? There was no effective way to tonemap multiple images without “smearing” the waves. See the image below. I created a mock HDR of the scene based on three exposures separated by two stops for the purpose of illustrating the point. Look at the water.
Some people may like that heavily blurred effect, and that’s fine, but it’s not what I wanted. I felt that the drama of the overall scene required retaining the spatial integrity of the waves. That’s the vision I had and the emotion I felt and it’s what I wanted to express through the image of the scene that I created.
So, I took two shots of the scene. One was exposing for the sky, and you can see that shot below. Note that while the sky itself is fine, the foreground and mid-ground are mostly lacking in detail.
The second shot was exposing for the water and land. You can see that shot immediately below. By comparing the two shots, you can see how much of a dynamic range problem the scene presented. There was simply no way to hold detail throughout in a single frame–without the use of a GND, as I’ve discussed above. (In truth, a GND approach, properly executed, would have worked pretty well with this scene, but I didn’t have the filter set with me.)
The problem here is that the land/water part of the image—excluding the sky, which you’ll note is blown out here—has a pretty high dynamic range as well. The whites of the waves and the dark areas in the rocks and trees cover an awful lot of ground, exposure-wise. I had to slightly underexpose this entire part of the frame to make sure that I held detail in the brightest areas of the water. To recover this, I converted the RAW file containing the land/water exposure three different times: once at base exposure, then at plus-one stop and at plus-two stops, then I ran a faux HDR tonemapping of the three exposures twice, using a pair of custom presets I’ve created in Photomatix. You can see that image below.
This approach allowed me to work around the problem of the “wave smearing.” Since I was using a single frame, exposed three different ways (via the power of RAW conversion), there was no smearing to be concerned about; all of the scene’s elements are in exactly the same place in all of the exposure iterations of a single image.
I then manually blended the sky exposure with the water/land hybrid using a series of layers and masks in Photoshop and applied some standard post-processing tweaks to the final image. The finished product is immediately below.
The real point of this is that I recognized the essentials of what I was going to need to do in the digital darkroom to realize my image while I was in the field. It was simply a theoretical extension of my camera and lenses: something to consider when making decisions about how to go about capturing the frames necessary to support my vision (specifically how many frames to capture and how to expose them). Understanding what I could do in the digital darkroom was a guide to decision making about what to do in the field.
Thursday Tips is written by Kerry Mark Leibowitz, a guest blogger on 1001 Scribbles, and appears every other Thursday. To read more of his thoughts on photography, please visit his blog: Lightscapes Nature Photography.