Going digital in the dark? Suit yourselves.
When I discovered scanning and Photoshop I sold all my darkroom equipment. I can’t see myself ever going back to silver printing.
Don’t get me wrong – proper printing was very satisfying. I had a decent enlarger, Multigrade filters, an enlarging exposure meter and an extractor fan. I even had the time to use them. I could spend all night in the darkroom, and did. It was a separate and dedicated room, so nobody would bang on the door demanding to use the toilet/ bath/ shower/ sink. I was the coolest of darkroom dudes.
I was prepared to put the effort in too. I dodged and burned and kept careful notes. The reward was a proper physical object. But it’s hard work. I’d be poring over my contact sheets deciding which ones to print. Then I would make some test prints, unless it was obvious on the baseboard that the shot was out of focus or blurred. Then I would think about them for a while. And then I would spend the long sessions needed to turn this particular pig’s ear into at least a cotton purse.
I got some good results that I am still happy with. But turning-out a load of 6x4s to show people the pictures from a family event was horse work. It’s no wonder film photographers used to shoot two or three rolls for a wedding and not the thousand or more that we expect from digital. Even if you get someone else to develop and machine-print the proofs you still had to identify and label them to pass them around.
Incidentally, a hero of mine called Terry Cryer was giving a talk when someone asked him about shooting weddings. He explained his approach of providing a high quality boxed album with twelve pictures, chosen by him and no-one else, and getting cash on the nail. But he’s hardcore, and if you hired him it would be because you knew and wanted his work.
So one day I bought a mildly capable flatbed scanner with film carriers and a copy of Photoshop Elements. After a frenzied period of self instruction from library books and breaking every setting, I gradually learned how to do in daylight with a computer what I could previously only do in the dark with my hands. And layers. Oh, I learned to love layers. I could make an adjustment, look at it, fiddle with it and then throw it away and still have the original image. If I learned something new and clever I could go back and reapply it to earlier images.
I also discovered toning. I had done a bit of sepia toning on silver prints previously, but the results were mixed and the process made bad smells. What I found with Photoshop is that I could so split toning, making my highlights warm and my shadows cool. I found a site on t’interweb that gave the RGB values for various Pantone colours or I could sample a colour and use it. This meant I could tone a picture of a vintage MG in British Racing Green. It let me tone the background in a portrait to match the colour that the person’s wall was painted. It looked like they had stuck the picture directly on the wall and put a frame round it.
But the main joy was applying learning as it happened. I was watching a how to video and learned that you could apply dodging and burning to just the highlights or just the shadows. So I went back to some earlier pictures, hid the original adjustment layers and tried the new ideas. Then I could switch between the two sets of effects to see the difference. And all without giving up easy access to tea and biscuits.
The joy of digital meant that I could break off at any time, for any length of time and pick it up again at a moment’s notice (or once Windows had finished installing updates).
Elements is perfectly capable of doing these things. Indeed, I’m running an old copy of version 7 that I got cut-price from Amazon. You can stick all this Creative Cloud give me money every month nonsense. If it wasn’t Elements it would be GIMP, but Elements got there first and I haven’t broken it yet. I’m keeping my gimp in reserve, if I can say that. What I did do though was build my own cheat’s guide to Photoshop. If I saw a technique in a magazine or article I would make notes of the processing sequence and the layers. This became my cookbook, which helps me remember what I did if I ever do something good.
The only thing I lack is a good printer. I have one that will do up to A4 but I don’t use it enough to keep the heads clean, which makes me want to use it less. I’ve got a totally brilliant Canon Selphy dye sublimation printer that does 6×4 prints that won’t smudge. It’s expensive compared to ink-jet, but perfect for jobs when I need to turn out rapid postcard prints at high speed that won’t spoil. And the way the print appears out of the top of the printer with the colours building on each pass is perfect entertainment for anyone waiting for their print. For the big stuff though I send it off. I can send the digital file directly to a printer who can turn out better results more quickly than I could, for less total cost. Plus they can do all the funnies like canvas mounting, block mounting with bleed round the edges and so on.
What I’m thinking of next is to get them to gradually make a series of prints at A4 size. I will arrange one or more pictures per sheet plus some binding margin. Maybe some words or captions if I feel like it. I have it in my head to then source a hot-melt binding machine and make up some photo books. Basically photo albums but with the pictures fixed. The good thing is, of course, that I can work on each picture individually and then use Photoshop to do the page layouts, sending each page as a single file to be printed. I could never do this with a conventional darkroom. I used the same idea to make a banner. I got the printer to give me the dimensions of the PVC sheet and made up a page in Photoshop, then laid out my pictures and text on it. Zapped it to them by email, wait a few days and picked up a super waterproof banner with grommets in the corners for hanging. That too would have been a right bugger to do using conventional printing.
But, as has been said elsewhere, my original negatives are analogue. If a better scanner comes along I can rescan them. If someone makes a computer that takes film and makes silver prints, I could do that too. If all the computers in the world die in flaming misery I can still contact print them. So come the apocalypse, I’ll be there with my EMP-proof camera, my smelly chemicals and fumblings in the dark and I’ll be turning out cartes de visite of you stood on a pile of zombies in return for the odd spare rat or pidgeon.
Vive la revolucion!