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March 10, 2014

The digital darkroom and the cautionary tale of the boiling frog

Tom Till wrote an honest and interesting article in Outdoor Photography, about his past over indulgences with saturation in post-production.

The cautionary tale of overcooking images stuck out for me, aside from his honesty, as I find that it's very easy to tip from compensating for the camera's depiction of colour into the realms of the hyper-real.

Joe Cornish has used the phrase ‘sharp’ when referring to digital images, which nicely sums up the lack of soft tonal transitions that characterise some digital images (electronic or print) where contrast, and saturation have been pushed to the limits in the digital darkroom in efforts to mimic nature's pallette and colour rich film stocks like Velvia.

Is this a flaw in our workflow? Digital itself? Or our personal aestethic?

The Desensitising Nature of the Beast

Our digital workflow contributes to this, as there’s no one unified place where post-processing takes place. Rather it’s fragmentary, often split over several applications.

The net result of this is it's easier to loose a clear sense of the before and after.

By the time we have Photoshop open we have already introduced global changes to the source file -- through a RAW converter; Lightroom or Camera Raw. Our reference point, the initial capture, is closed, our focus switching to the digital darkroom tasks at hand.

A Cautionary Tale of The Boiling Frog

Own senses have a role to play as well.

An 18th Century experiment on senses placed a frog is placed in boiling water, where it will jump out immediately to save itself. However, when in cold water slowly heated to boiling it will fail to sense the graduated temperature change and get cooked to death. In short, senses can lose their ability to perceive and react to a significant changes when they occur gradually over time.

In post we introduce many incremental changes, globally and locally, and whilst individually these adjustments might not be massive, their combined sum total can introduce massive shifts from the original; the result being those hyper over-saturated colours.

Without continual ongoing cross-checking between the PSD and our RAW file it’s easy to lose perspective of our ‘before’ relative to the developing ‘now’ and get caught in a cycle of adjustment on adjustment on adjustment.

Finish. Stop. Reverse.

To counter this recently I’ve started to revert and review all adjustments sequentially before I commit to save the final version for output, assessing each layer adjustment to judge it’s contribution to the final print and my intended goal in the digital darkroom.

To create myself a quick before and after reference I find the snapshot function in Photoshop’s history palette comes in handy. To create a quick before and after;

- save image (with all adjustment layers active)
- go to the history palette > snapshot icon > create snapshot 1
- go back to your layers palette
- switch off all adjustment layers
- go back to the history palette > snapshot icon > create snapshot 2

Toggling between these 2 snapshots provides easy comparison of any heavyhandedness between the developed image (snapshot 1) and a pre-Photoshopped image (snapshot 2).

After reviewing the global differences in the before and after, I individually switch on each adjustment layer to view each adjustments impact and contribution (for good or ill) and make any tweaks as needed.

Importing RAW files as Smart Objects is also useful here as if on reviewing the base layer you decide the RAW is at fault, a double click to that layer will re-open the ACR RAW editor for you to edit at will. On clicking done, changes in ACR will reflect immediately in your Photoshop doc.

Read Tom Till's initial post here

Paul Marsden. All Rights Reserved.



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