Dry Darkroom vs Manipulation


Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Photo Wikimedia Commons


It is amazing how many people, in varying degrees of  photography, do not understand the difference between a dry (digital) darkroom and photo manipulation when it comes to the digital workflow of an image after the capture. Photography software, the dry darkroom, is an essential element of the professional photographer using digital image files as a means of replacing traditional ‘wet darkroom’ applications.

The ‘wet darkroom’ was a necessary step, and is still for some, of analog photography to achieve the end result. That being the best possible photograph the photographer could produce from an original work. The wet darkroom evolved over time with advances in film, chemistry, better enlargers and a broader range of papers available to the artist. The process involved to produce a print from film went far beyond simply exposing the film and although the technology has evolved the process still goes beyond simply capturing the image in a digital camera. The leap from analog to digital was a huge step for photography. The development of photography software to compliment the technology and enable the photographer is just as important to professional and serious amateurs alike.

Before digital photography, film was  the primary means used by analog photographers to transfer a vision to the camera. Light sensitive material, the film, was exposed and the process began. Development of the film was achieved with the use of a ‘wet darkroom’, wet because of the use of chemicals and dark because of the light sensitivity. Precise chemical mixing, timing and agitation are the science of the wet darkroom. Proper development combined with exposure would yield a negative with the desired amount of contrast. The negative (neg) is then placed in a carrier and into an enlarger. It is focused, for sharpness,  onto the base or easel on which the photography paper would be placed. Prior to the exposure onto the paper a series of chemical baths are prepared depending on the paper used and the type of print desired.. Filters  could be applied to the enlarger to enhance contrast of the print onto the paper. The neg is exposed with light onto the paper for a precise duration and intensity, the image can also be dodged (lighten) and burned (darken) in areas where the effect would enhance the overall photograph. Finally the paper is placed in a series of chemical baths to develop, stop, fix and wash the print.

Manipulation: Photo manipulation is the application of image editing techniques to photographs in order to create an illusion,  deception or mislead (in contrast to mere enhancement or correction), through analog or digital means. …

The first recorded case of photo manipulation was in the early 1860s, when a photo of Abraham Lincoln was altered using the body from a portrait of John C. Calhoun and the head of Lincoln from a famous seated portrait by Mathew Brady – the same portrait which was the basis for the original Lincoln Five-dollar bill. Computers and photography software have made it much easier for people to go beyond simply enhancing a digital file. Some create art through the deliberate manipulation of an image to the point where it does not resemble the original image. If the intent is not to mislead the viewer than it can be interpreted as art. Photography is meant to be fun for the masses and there are no rules or limits to what you can do with your images. Manipulation of photography only becomes an issue when the work is presented for interpretation as original photography either professionally as art or in the media as editorial. In the world of advertising, album covers, book jackets and the like a creative license is assumed and manipulation is expected to some degree.

There are photography enhancements used since the inception of photography that, although not as recognizable, are still acceptable, and expected, in the photography process. The adjustments of contrast, color correction, retouching portraits, spot removal, sharpening, filters (i.e. polarizing, color spectrum, neutral density), burning, dodging and cropping are all part of the history of photography. Converting a color file to black and white is acceptable since most digital cameras are incapable of shooting B&W files. Analog photographers would choose a specific film for different subjects because of it’s qualities. To people who refer to photography software as ‘cheating’ I explain that the image they have in the back of the digital camera is not finished, unless they want it to be. It would be akin to shooting rolls of film and not getting them developed. People unwilling to continue with the process are usually those who do not edit, rotate or crop their images before uploading them for the world to see. The benefit of continuing past the camera either eludes or seems like to much work and they will never produce photographs to there full potential only quick snapshots. Quitting the process when the project requires an effort is the waste product of such a fast paced technological society. Those who are unfamiliar with what is acceptable, and expected, and what is manipulation in the world of photography would benefit and grow as photographers by taking a course in photography software. Learning the skills to produce the best photograph from the images they’ve captured.

We will all draw our own lines with respect to what is standard acceptable photo enhancement and what constitutes photo manipulation. The conscience is a great deterrent to faking art.

“Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships”.  ~Ansel Adams


rooftops, Cortona, Italy

rooftops, Cortona, Italy



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