A Viewfinder Darkly

Photography tips and tutorials

Are Digital Prints Real Photographs

April 11 2007

by Phil Northeast

Digital processing techniques trace their roots to film darkroom practices. Manipulation of photographs is not new.

film carton

Film in a box

Some purists have expressed disdain for prints from digital images. They suggest that the reliance on software tools instead of direct physical involvement in the printing process makes digital prints less of an expression of real photography.

In a 2001 article, Luminous Landscape featured Christopher Burkett’s preference for traditional printing, “Veracity is at the heart of why I print my work by hand onto conventional photographic materials. My images must be trustworthy if they are to be believable.”

However, many of the basic software manipulation tools come from and do similar things to traditional film processing carried out in the darkroom. How trustworthy are the old methods when Michael Freeman suggests, “Printing offers very creative opportunities for print manipulation” (Freeman 106)?

Digital photography and the convenience of manipulating images in Photoshop is a hallmark of modern photography. This carryover of techniques and terms to digital photography from common darkroom practices suggests that print manipulation in the chemical based darkroom is a normal part of the photographic process.

negative strips

Strips of film negatives that store the images for prining

For example, cropping photographs is a basic technique common to both the chemical and digital darkrooms and involves selecting only part of the original image for final printing.

Of course, the basic tasks such as fine tuning exposure and color correction are an integral part of the printing process. The contrast of a print can be significantly altered by choice of paper in black and white printing and the exposure time of the paper will determine image brightness in printing from both color and black-and-white negatives. Color enlargers have provision for a range of color filters to fine tune the color balance of resulting prints instead of printing the color straight from the negative.

There are advanced techniques of image manipulation in the chemical photograph printing process, such as two techniques for altering the brightness of selected areas of an image. They are dodge, that lightens areas of images, and burn, that darkens areas of images. These work during printing by giving selected areas of the print more exposure time, making them darker than they were on the negative. Of course, areas not selected become comparatively lighter.

sd cards

Memory cards store digital images

Sensor dust is a current issue in digital photography, but in the printing process dust on the negative can cause spots on prints. For high quality prints it is common to hand retouch the print to make the spot blend in, like the digital clone tool.

The technique of arranging negatives in layers in the enlarger to print a combined image is another simple darkroom trick. One common use is to combine a stock shot of the moon with another shot to give an instant moonlight scene. The negatives are stacked in layers, hence the name of the technique and this carries over to the digital technique of combining images.

The major difference between the two image processing regimes is that more photographers have ready access to a digital darkroom.

Freeman, Michael. The New 35mm Handbook. Second Edition. Surry Hills: RD Press, 2000.
originally published by suite101.com


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