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


It’s inside you, not on the shelf!


South Beach, Tofino


Art: The expression and application of human skills and imagination.

Art is one of the beautiful things in life not conducive to the need for speed, immediate results and the option to forgo the skills. A great symphony is not better if played faster than the composers original tempo. Great art is talent and that cannot be faked because the absence of skill and imagination is just bad art.

Painting, music and sculpting, the classic forms of art through time, are impervious to short-cuts. To achieve any notable recognition requires dedication, years of practice and a thorough understanding of the medium in which you choose to express yourself. Photography tools have evolved over time and emerged as the medium of choice for the needs of todays generations seeking a form for art.. With the development of digital technology the mystery of film and exposure was gone.  Master photographers and the work they produced continue to stand the test of time and photographers today continue to produce great photographs. Why? A camera is simply the tool a photographer uses to transfer an image from the mind so the audience can view it. Simply put, Leonardo Da Vinci could still have painted Mona Lisa with a different brush, it was just one tool available to him.

It is not as simple a buying the best brushes, paints and canvas to produce great paintings. Expensive equipment will not give you the skills necessary to apply photography’s basic fundamentals, just the tool to apply the skills. Think of the basic photography skills as a guideline for your imagination. If you have comprehension of light, time, perspective and composition as it applies to photography you have skills to apply to the process and camera equipment are the tools to capture it.

It seems these days that those who possess the art of patience and tolerance are constantly tested by those who feel they can skip the learning curve, jump to the last chapter and never understand the book. A generation growing-up not willing to pay dues in the pursuit of a chosen field if they can find a way around it. It requires an effort, and they fail to grasp the reasoning behind a good base of knowledge. The ‘you-tube experts’, who figure they can learn all there is to know in a 2 minute video are abundant.

I had no doubt you have to work your way through the trenches in a chosen field to earn the respect of your peers or the admiration of those who appreciate your medium. Learning from mistakes was part of the process, not an option, in pursuit of a well rounded successful career. Respecting those who have gone before you and looking to them for advice, inspiration and knowledge was apprenticing. There are many things to be learned that are not in any books. If you were lucky enough to find a mentor and listen and watch, you learned little pieces of invaluable information that stayed with you throughout your career. I can look back at the route I had taken and see the value in the complete learning process and the humility of knowing you still can learn more.

Explaining to someone that there is indeed a reason why some succeed in art and some do not becomes an exercise in frustration on the part of the teacher or mentor at times. Anyone can buy an expensive Gibson guitar and learn three chords, but will never be a great musician without understanding music.  Inevitably in order to excel in any given field you have to understand it completely. It is the process that requires a person to look within and see the benefit of starting at the beginning that discourages most from pursuing skilled crafts. As a mentor, to some, I am constantly using my skills of tolerance and patience to advise people the benefits of starting at the beginning of a learning curve. I can take anyone on a photo shoot, show them the subject and provide the opportunity. Knowing where to start mining for the image and which tools will produce the best photographs comes with the experience of knowing your craft.

Photography is a process to me that embodies a mindset that seems to be fading in these times of instant gratification. I still find photography to be a calm slow process, very methodical with a sense of anticipation and excitement around the edges.  Before the advent of digital photography, when the results of your efforts were still unknown until the film was processed, there were less people interested in pursuing photography as a career or as a serious amateur because mistakes were much more costly through the learning curve.

The evolution of photography has given people the opportunity to bypass the costs involved with film, developing and printing that discouraged most. Digital technology has not provided a shortcut to great photography. There are still, and always will be, those who blame the camera for a bad photo. Not willing to accept responsibility and learn from mistakes will never help someone move forward. What the digital evolution has done is open up the once mysterious world of photography to creative, imaginative people and provide a stage for them to express themselves as artists. The difference between the good art and the bad art will be the individuals understanding of the medium beyond the tool, some creativity and a lot of passion.

The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score and the print the performance“. – Ansel Adams

Pepper #29..28..27….

Edward Weston’s famous Pepper #30 is a great example of studying a subject. Exploring all angles. lighting and composition before choosing the one which best portrays the vision you saw prior to  the first photograph. There was Pepper #29..28..27…, and so on before deciding on Pepper #30. But it took all the previous attempts to get the flow working and really start to see the subject and its possibilities.

There has to be a beginning for any photograph. A start which takes place before you realize it is happening. Perhaps an instinct that tells you a moment is approaching and it is time to start putting something in the camera. All your years fine tuning and reading events, situations or landscapes let you anticipate and prepare for that moment your minds eye envisions. The establishing shot is always a good place to begin. It allows you to begin the process of melding your mind eye to the camera. Just as a musician will tune-up an instrument before the symphony, serious photographers will warm their senses and photograph a subject from numerous angles, lighting, time of day, lenses, shutter speeds and apertures.

This approach has been part of my photography repertoire for many decades now, but with a conscious effort anyone can begin to make it their style too. Why leave something when you’re already there with only one image to show for it, give yourself endless possibilities for the edit later. At times you may find yourself at the right place but the wrong time. You  see the potential in your mind but the lighting would be so much better at another point in the day. Shoot something anyway and plan to come back for the shot in your head later that day, the next week, month or year. At least you have your staring point with the initial shots you captured.

I have many photographs where the final shot is the culmination of over 100 exposures/captures and many trips back to a location. The adage ‘a work in progress’ starts when your emotions and instincts move you to respond by lifting your camera and end when all the shooting is done, the editing completed and the image has become reality.

As with anything else the more you do something the better you will get at it. It has nothing to do with what kind of gear you own if you lack the vision to see the images and react to them. Study a subject and explore it from more than one perspective. Begin to see the light. Is it warm or cool? Is your subjects lighting from the front, back or side? Would it enhance your vision if the lighting were from another angle at another time of the day? If you begin asking the questions to yourself you will become much more aware of the role your ‘minds eye’ has in the photography process. Remember your are not merely the cameras operator, you are the artist with his tools.

The story behind my image. This photograph has taken me almost four years to produce. I knew the location existed but needed to find it, scout it and finally shoot it. My first attempt was six month after I discovered the general area, but was at the wrong time of day, I shot some preliminary photos to review and plan my next trip. Which was on Fathers Day, with a 4 AM wake-up call. I think I shot about 90 frames and edited down to one. I tend to be a ‘fat’ shooter, likely from my background in photojournalism. It wasn’t until a year and a half later that I finally had the image my mind had seen.

“To look at a thing is very different from seeing it.”

Oscar Wilde

Hitting the ‘Revert’ button!

I have had a strong urge lately to step back with my personal photography, to a time when control was more in my hands and exposures focused more on my intentions than the cameras willingness to take it off my hands. There seems to be a laziness creeping across photography. I am glad I did not discard tools once capable, and still today, of producing the images I seek. I applaud that 35mm film has been replaced by the new 35mm DSLR’s, but other formats still have a place in my tool box as a photojournalist and artist. I keep pace with today’s technology and am amazed at the advances made in this field and utilize it everyday. What I’m referring to is the passion for work I have yet to produce that signifies my style and approach. The feeling a craftsman has for their work rather than an operator.

Each time I open my freezer I am reminded of past adventures, dozens of rolls of exposed film and the anticipation of their return from the lab where my efforts would finally realized. Yes, I’ve had have many rolls of 120 and 4×5 sheet film, all waiting for there moment. I have sold some of my tools, a 645 Mamiya system, all my 35mm film cameras and one 67 Pentax body. Keeping in my arsenal a Pentax 67 system , a 4×5, an 8×10 large format camera and my Canon DSLR system. I feel lucky to have been able to experience and refine my photography skills before the digital camera revolution. Knowledge is wealth.

There was a aura of mystery surrounding the masters of great photograph in the past. Viewing the image immediately after exposure was not an option. There was still one more important process before the culmination of your efforts was complete. Developing the film. Photographers were more focused and methodical on the complete process from beginning to end and felt less rushed. Today’s generation of photographers, those who do not know old school, need immediate confirmation of their efforts. While this is advantageous and time saving in the field of news photography it has, in my opinion, weakened other fields of photography and has moved the focus away from what photography is meant to be, for me anyway

We are constantly shown the image on the back of a camera seconds after the photo was taken. Is this the only gratification sought after by the authors of these instant images? No editing, basic correcting, printing, or framing for a broader audience. Most won’t even take the time to rotate a photo when they upload it, that requires effort and time. The need for immediate results, has severely shortened the answer to ‘Where do you want your photography to go?’ I am always amazed at how stressed people can get today when technology, in their mind, is not fast enough. A signal sent to a satellite in space and back takes mere seconds, yet can produce frustrated reactions from people using laptops, phones or any wireless device when it takes a few seconds more. What is happened to society today spills over into every aspect of our lives, if you let it.

I converted my Pentax 67 body over to a pinhole camera recently and began the learning process behind this basic format. Calculating pinhole diameters, focal lengths, f/stops, angle of view and exposures. then adding time for reciprocity failure with long exposures. Why not just pop an SD card into my DSLR and shoot? Maybe I’m not sure the way the flock is veering is where I want to go with my projects. Knowing the effort and discipline it takes to produce even just one great analog image will give me the added satisfaction I’m missing now and see lacking in the digital jungle. It may set my photography apart from the mainstream again and actually feel like art throughout the entire process. There are distinct advantages for a photographer today with computers, software and printing inks and papers but the omission of a sense of participation, other than pushing the button, does not give me the feeling that I really created something anymore. Processing film, editing the images, scanning and digital workflow all contribute to the final work and may be my answer to finding a balance between the new and the old. I miss sliding my loop across a strip of 120 slide film and seeing that one frame reveal itself, days or even weeks after the initial exposure was made That sense of accomplishment, experience and the reaffirmation of your designation as ‘professional’ all rolled into one. I like the anxious feeling I get as I load and check an analog camera, calculate exposures, filter and finally begin the meticulous collaboration between the photographer and his tools. Accomplished void of immediate confirmation, but from experience, instinct and faith in your ability. While good composition, lighting and timing are skills still necessary to the final outcome of any great photograph, sometimes it is necessary to immerse yourself into the process fully to get an inner feeling revived.

I’m searching for a new large format lens to work with and eager to expose a few sheets of 4×5 soon. I have a few ideas that will lend themselves to this format. Reverting to tried and true photography formats from my past while still utilizing all that digital photography and technology can offer, gives new meaning and feeling to my work. The passion and love for what I do was never in question, just the process.

“They say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” Andy Warhol

Ahh! The road trip…

I love road trips, even more since I realized it is really just about hitting the open road and just taking it all in. No expectations or agendas. To me it’s about putting myself out there and enjoying the moment, sometimes with company, my dog Buck, though he has since passed, or just by myself. I still like to spend time alone, guess a career in photojournalism forces you to be comfortable with yourself. Having the choice to stop when and where you choose for as long as you decide is a big plus when going  ‘solo’. There are times. also, when sharing a day on the road, in the company of another person makes the trip that much more memorable for you and them.

I was initially influenced by a colleague of mine at the newspaper who used to disappear on his days off and return with some great photos from his travels on the road. I mistakenly concluded that all you had to do to find that great photo was to drive. It wasn’t about that at all. My colleague had been down these roads many times and now knew where and when the opportunities for his ideas may arise. The point being that he also had to drive some of these roads for the first time at some point as I do now and maybe you will soon.

Spontaneous road trips get my adrenaline pumping. Deciding the evening before is adventurous, just enough time to gather some things and ponder which road to start driving on, but close enough so it doesn’t become over planned. Some trips are a few hours, a couple of days or even a week on the road. My longest road trip started in Calgary and ended in Cabo del Sol, Mexico, with my younger brother. No big plan, no reservations, no firm arrival date, just a destination our passports and some cash.

I prefer to be well on my way when the sun begins to glow on the horizon, a big Tim’s beside me and my favorite tunes on my ipod.  Sure the gear is handy, it’s hard to leave it behind when you’ve worked for a newspaper, but my goal is not about searching for great photos these days. I have spent many days endlessly scanning the landscape for that one photo, logging the kilometers and growing more anxious as the hours passed and I hadn’t found it yet.  You know that elusive career making photo is waiting out there for you on the side of the road somewhere, you just can’t find that road. Your mind starts to tell you “why bother’ next time an opportunity to hit the road presents itself. What you have to hear is ‘why not’ and leave your expectations at home. These used to be wasted days, but now they are days I look forward to. Leaving with no agenda or quota for photos.  Suddenly the world is anything but dull and boring as I drive.

Maybe someday I’ll drive by that career making photograph too, good thing the gear is in the back.

“The real world does not conform to our expectations and predictions.”    Peter London

The ‘idea’….

cemetary, Cortona, Italy

The ability to formulate an idea for a photo or series of photos is key to the execution of it. Read that again! The next step, is to develop a train of thought to follow through with the idea and create an image or works that take the idea to its fruition.

There is a difference between a snapshot and a photograph as there is between a memo and a novel. We’ve all seen photos that were exposed well but left you let down. Dull, boring attempts where the camera was left to interpret your intention. Ideas are what make the difference between a technically well executed image and art. Whether preconceived or realized in the moment the thought process of formulating an idea is the key to success as a photographer. You wouldn’t expect to publish a best selling novel simply by taking a pencil in hand and putting words to paper on a subject you have no interest in, it would be random, pointless babble. You must say something of interest. The same applies in a photographers reason for raising a camera, there has to be a something about the subject that appeals to your senses and that you wish to convey to the viewer.

On a trip to Italy, I stayed outside the town of Cortona for a week. Upon arrival I had a few hours to walk through the town before heading to the villa. The next morning, starting out early from the hills above the valley, my colleague and I were surprised by a blanket of fog covering the valley floor. Continuing to our destination, Cortona, I began to formulate an idea based on a view from my scout of the town the day before. I returned to the area and continued fine tuning the possibilities in my head, though the scene was completely shrouded in a blanket of fog. I committed myself to the idea, grabbed my gear and, guided only by instinct and a few distant landmarks above the fog, walked to my best guess at the vantage point along the side of the road. My colleague, unable to share my enthusiasm and patience that early, left and went into town vowing to return with cappuccino later. When what must have been an hour passed and the sun warmed I could sense the fog settling lower in the valley and prepared to shoot. To add a little more adrenaline and urgency to the situation, I was in the wrong spot when my vision began to take shape through the thinning cloud and scrambled farther up the narrow road to the better vantage point. I did get a shot close to what I had conceived in my mind as the fog descended below the cemetery and lifted it to the heavens. The series of photographs produced, and the final image printed, were only possible with the ‘idea’ I formulated when presented with the circumstances of the fog that morning and the knowledge from a brief walk around the town. That and my willingness to see the ‘ideas’ through to the end. To me there was nothing more important that morning than that idea and the potential for it to be realized. I was oblivious to any photos I may have missed elsewhere as I was in my moment.

I have started keeping a journal of my ideas. Till that point I am sure I let most ideas with some merit slip away by not acting upon them in a timely fashion. I may want to return to a special place at another time, right place wrong time happens a lot, or plan a side trip when visiting an area on another adventure. Inevitably most ideas are lost without keeping notes. Even taking a preliminary snapshot doesn’t work most times as I have photos that I just can’t pinpoint the location for in my files, other then ‘southern Alberta’ as a caption. The process of writing down my thoughts allows me to go back when I am in a different state of mind and examine the idea again and again, giving me a reference to expand, reshape and continue to develop until the ‘ideas’ realization has come and any more time would be merely procrastination on my part. Some ideas, in time, blossom into multiple photographs or projects. Some do not, but still remain in my journal for some more thought.

With the advent of digital photography and its technical leaps and bounds there is no reason not to be able to produce a technically good photograph. The term ‘idiot proof’ has evolved but will never replace the need for originality, creativity and commitment to elevate your work to a more personal level and become art.

“There is nothing worse than a sharp photograph of a fuzzy idea” Ansel Adams


winter storm, Tofino

There is a moral difference between ‘influence’ and ‘imitation’. To be inspired by someone enough to want to harness their creative energy and transfer it into your life or work is a gift. If your main interest is merely to adopt someone’s personal style, question your motives. If your work looks like someone else’s ask yourself why and don’t answer right away. Take some time and think about this in depth. Look inward and the answers may suprise you. In doing this,  you and your work will become better almost immediately. We all have people, places or events which have influenced our lives in some way. Some we have control over and some we do not. When you encounter someone or something that charges you with creative energy and makes you want to shoot more, this is not the same as wanting to imitate how someone ‘did it’ or copy another style.

A person doesn’t grow if the source  is merely copied rather than absorbed.  I would not be an author if I merely rewrote a novel by an author I admired. It is in the appreciation of another’s work that we can begin to mature and absorb rather than feeling compelled to duplicate and learn nothing. The latter being the superficial needs of the ego.

To be inspired by an external force that motivates us internally, is a choice we should nurture and not take for granted.  It is through these encounters that we are able to develop our own unique works and style different from any one influence that may have registered within us. Because each of us is ‘influenced ‘ by different people and places and events and to a different degree by the same influences. What we take from each encounter and what we do with it will always have a different outcome for every person, an individual style as a result of many influences. We too in this process become an influence, consciously or not, to others as their style develops and nurtures.

Knowing you are going to be an influence on someone is a great responsibility that must not be taken lightly. Your approach can either make or break the outcome for another. To be a good mentor or instructor is to be able to put your own ego away and not influence people on your way of doing things. but rather to try to apply your knowledge and skills in a way that helps another begin developing their own works, although that may be very different from yours.  While their are inherent technical skills that must be learned, and struggled with, eventually we will learn them and they will become relatively easy. But these skills alone will not create a masterpiece every time you photograph, they are just the first step. Great photographs are not questions about f/stops, shutter speeds and megapixels but more about a reason for engaging in a passion and maybe bringing some insight for others in doing so.  It is here that true photography starts and the personal style evolves. A signature unique to you that can influence others and dispel any need to ‘imitate’ rather than be ‘influenced’.

“A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give the same measure as I have received and am still receiving…..”

Albert Einstein