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Work Flow and Real Photograhy

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Work Flow and Real Photography especially if you work in Black & White

The term “Work Flow” seems to be the latest in a long line of jargon that’s only purpose is to make the simple act of taking a photograph into a complex process that is beyond most of us. A whole business has grown up around the production of DVD’s, books and courses that guarantee to make you a great photographer, showing the latest “tricks” in PhotoShop and how to make that perfect fine art print. Also we have to contend with the growth in the web forum, which has given the technical bores a vehicle to express their views and divert our efforts from real photography. This type of debate is not new and previous generations had debated the benefits one developer over another. If you have ever visited an exhibition of original Ansel Adams you will realize that photographers have been using a “Work Flow” for some decades. Adams produced three books The Camera, The Negative and The Print which lead the reader through the steps of pre-visualization to final print. There are several publications that follow in his footsteps and John Blakemore’s is one of the best, as it takes the reader onto consider ideas of composition and sequencing.

The recent explosion in “How to Digital” resources seem to be part of the whole new business that aims to relieve us of funds that had previously been spent on film, chemicals and paper. Buying a new camera had previously been an infrequent event but now we are continuously being bombarded by advertisements that try and persuade us that photographic prowess will be achieved by trading up to the latest variant of digital camera. Magazines run “head to head” reviews, comparing two similar models from different companies. It seems the reviewer spends an afternoon with each camera, quickly shooting a few frames and on the back of these we are supposed to make our choice. The questions of longevity, durability, robustness and future compatibility are never considered. How can we fight these pressures and develop a workflow that we can use, that is reliable and repeatable?

A computer loaded with PhotoShop that is attached to a quality printer has liberated us from many of the tiresome aspects of photography but a poor photograph stays poor however good your skills in manipulation. A good photograph is created in camera and can certainly be enhanced by the skills of a printer but the final result may equally come from the darkroom or computer.

Although I do own a digital camera, I have yet to totally succumb to the pressure of the digital revolution and sell my film cameras. Assuming that the capture is the most important part of the photographic process, I have found that using a digital camera to be a frustrating process. It clearly has some advantages but in balance the simplicity of shooting on film, using a manual camera has yet to be beaten. The bulk of some digital cameras, the lack of differential focus, battery dependency and complex controls are some reasons, but also the longevity and archival qualities of the original capture raise particular concern. Using a film camera stops you continually looking down to see if it “came out” and in the process missing the next shot. There is still something romantic about waiting until you have finished the processing and the magic of looking at a wet freshly processed film is something too many photographers now never experience. A quality film camera does not stop taking good photographs just because of the production of the latest DSLR, only the photographer can improve the quality of the final image.

With Ilford making a resurgence in the monochrome market and Kodak releasing a new version of TMAX, we can be confident that materials will be available for some time and market research shows that many current photographers are moving back to using film, especially when working in monochrome. However there seems to be less discussion about how the final print is produced and this is where I have to admit to be seduced by the power of the computer. This has not always been the story and it was not until Epson produced their R2400 printer did I start to realize prints that were comparable with those made in the darkroom. I think to say one is better quality than another is wrong, it may be that they are of different quality. The clear advantage to using the computer is convenience and the production of images in different ways. I mean in this the ease to produce diptychs, add text and export files for online publishing.

So how do I work now? I have settled on using Ilford films, developed in either Ilfosol or DDX. I process these very much inline with Ilford recommendations and after washing for 30 minutes allow the film to soak for a couple of minutes in wetting agent, before allowing to dry in a cabinet at room temperature. There has been much discussion about changing your processing methods to create negatives that are then suitable for digitization. These seem to centre around lowering the contrast range of the negative, maybe photographers have at last realized that over exposure and over development are and always have been the enemy of quality print production. Poor original capture in the form of composition and exposure will always produce a poor quality print.

A high quality scan is vital, sounds obvious but do some experimenting to get the best results. Flatbed scanners do not auto focus like a film scanner and you may improve the sharpness of your scan but very slightly adjusting the height of the film holder. On Epson’s 750 this feature is built into the holder design, a better way is use one of the holders produced by Doug Fisher, his website www.betterscanning.com gives lots of advice and his 120 holder with anti-newton ring glass works wonders, you may need to put the negative in upside so the glass can flatten the negative. Scanning 35mm on a flatbed is not going to give you results you will be happy with. The problem is that the availability of new quality film scanners is now limited to Nikon. Which ever scanner you chose ensure it will need to scan at full 16 bit, therefore the Nikon ED 5000 has to be the choice. However if you search the second shops and eBay lookout for ‘Minolta’s Dimage 3 or 4, both produce excellent 16 bit scans and never received the praise they deserved. For those who have moved onto more recent operating systems, may find that drivers are not available. The solution lies in Vuescan which provides a driver for just about any old scanner with a modern computer. Most drivers will give an option about film type, if you are using black and white film try positive or slide film and then leave all the other controls alone, no sharpening or image adjustment. Scan directly into PhotoShop and this will give you a negative and coloured image, inverting and desaturating this will give you a file you can then work on. Don’t worry about using the latest version of Photoshop but it is useful to understand what each new release can do for us. Version 7 provided the healing brush, which is vital for the next stage, as few scans are totally clean. However older versions of PS may not run on the latest operating systems and it is certainly worth checking Adobe's website to check this.

Once your scan has been cleaned, you can start adjusting the tonal range of the image. Use adjustment layers to control the image and this is where having PhotoShop CS is useful as this version allows adjustment layers to be used on a 16 bit file. Selective control is best achieved by painting on the relative area on an adjustment layer to reduce the effect of the layer. The use of curves and levels will give you the control found in the darkroom. However a 16 bit file with 2 or 3 adjustment layers will create massive file sizes and even a powerful computer will struggle. The solution lies not in PhotoShop but by using Adobe’s Lightroom, especially as the latest version has the ability to selectively control the image. I now retouch the scan in PhotoShop and make an initial levels adjustment before saving the file and importing into Lightroom. Here it is quick and easy to adjust the image, but be careful with the sharpening. This is useful with 120 film but needs far more care with 35mm to avoid highlighting the film’s grain.

The Epson R2400 printer along with some of the latest papers, is capable of excellent results. I remained loyal to Epson and continue to use their inks but have moved over to using Harman glossy paper. For colour work and smaller test prints Ilford’s Galerie Smooth Pearl, which comes in a red box, works well. I have been satisfied with the colour profiles that can be downloaded free of charge from the company’s website. Ilford’s Gold Silk can also produce some excellent results but seems very prone to surface scratches and marks. The other advantage of the Epson R2400 is its driver which allows you to control the final print colour. The preset Warm is a good starting point but for many prints I use the fine adjustment feature and set this at 28 Horizontal and 40 Vertical.

At this point it may be worth discussing monitor calibration. It is possible to spend large amounts of money and time keeping your monitor in perfect calibration. However not until we actually hold a print in our hands can we truly assess the final images quality and producing small initial tests will allow this assessment to be made. That is not to ignore the issue of monitor calibration and using Adobe’s Gamma will get you very close, another similar option is Monaco’s EZ Color that comes with Epson’s 750 scanner, as is the Huey Pro that will calibrate two monitors. This latter task it completes very well.

This description takes longer to explain than I’d hoped and unfortunately reading some other resources will be useful but try not to get diverted from concentrating on using the camera correctly. Deciding where to stand and when to release the shutter are the key aspects to a successful photograph and the purchase of a good pair of shoes will do more for your photography than the latest digital gadget.

Suggested Further Reading

John Blakemore – Black & White Photography Workshop
Paul Hill – Approaching Photography
David Hurn – On Being a Photographer
Martin Evening – Lightroom 2 and Photoshop for Photographers
Doug Fisher – Better Scanning
Ed Hamrick - Vuescan