Digital Darkroom

The first few years of the 21st century have brought new equipment to the photographer which is rapidly making the chemical-based darkroom obsolete. Using Adobe Photoshop CS, in conjunction with digital scanners and professional ink-jet printers brings great power to the photographer.

Planetography offers two choices for prints: digitally produced or Ilfochrome. A digitally produced image is one that has been taken on film, scanned, adjusted, and printed on a professional ink-jet printer. An Ilfochrome print has been printed using an enlarger with the original film to produce a print processed in chemicals.

Image Manipulation

Planetography follows strict rules regarding the kind of manipulation we perform on digital images. We are strongly against manipulating images to add or remove elements. For example, we do not add a moon or remove a person from a photograph. The kinds of actions that we do perform are found in the table below.

Manipulation Description
Cropping We do not always create images from the full-frame photographs we take. There are often times when an image can be made more effective by removing distracting elements from the image. Especially in the case of the medium format equipment, where zoom lenses are not used, it is not always possible to create an image on the film that is exactly what Lance sees. But even in the case of the 35mm system that Windflower uses, there are cases where cropping is essential.
Setting white and black points Images that are scanned from photographic prints must have their white and black points set to use the full tonal range available on the computer and printer. In addition to setting the white and black points, a correction to the midpoint may also be necessary. Setting the white and blank points is somewhat analogous to changing the exposure time, developer time, and paper choice when printing with an enlarger.
Curve adjustments Curve adjustments are a powerful mechanism to perform dodging and burning on an image, but in a much more targeted manner. Shadow and highlight detail can be made to stand out better. (Photoshop also has other mechanisms for dodging and burning, including the Dodge and Burn tool and other layer manipulation using variable opacity). The best thing about curve adjustments is that they are completely reproducible, unlike dodging, burning, silver masks, etc. used in the traditional darkroom.
Color correction Color correction, also carried out by the Curves tool, allows us to color shift an image. In the traditional darkroom, color shifting would be done with filters in the enlarger head. We perform color correction for a number of reasons. First a scan of an image may introduce a color shift which needs to be corrected. For example, in our older Microtek ScanMaker 4 scanner, our skies get a nasty cyan tinge to them and tend to "blow out" the blue. We need to correct this to get back to the blue that is on the slide.
We also perform color correction if the original film image has a color cast. Film is not a perfect medium, and corrections are necessary under some conditions. Photographs shot in the daytime in a shadowed forest setting tend to have a blue or cyan cast from the scattered skylight. Long exposures of a sunset shot on Fuji Velvia shift heavily to the red and get too saturated. UV light at high altitudes can introduce a blue shift. Other conditions can introduce unnatural color casts onto the image on the film.
Many of these problems can be corrected. Our goal is to reproduce not what is on the slide, but what we saw, which is, of course, a subjective process.
Unsharp masking Unsharp masking is the process of making edges sharper in a digital photograph. When an image is scanned or manipulated, softening of the image, compared to the original film, is introduced. The effect can be quite pronounced on some images. When Unsharp masking is applied carefully, it can restore the sharpness and edges to the digital image. Unsharp masking has to be applied very carefully, as an artificial harshness can be introduced into the image.
High-bit Editing High bit editing is not another form of digital manipulation, but the mode in which the manipulation is done. The latest version of Adobe Photoshop CS allows for comprehensive editing on 48-bit images (16 bits per channel), especially through adjustment layers. This means than images can be modified without possible loss of data due to the stretching or squeezing of the image data, as happens through curve adjustments. The loss of critical data in 24-bit images can lead to posterization, where banding appears in the digital image. Planetography maintains all of our master images for digital printing in 16-bit mode until the final conversion to CMYK is done and the image is sent directly to the printer.

Digital Cameras

The newest generation of digital cameras, such as the Canon 11 and 16 megapixel models and the Foveon-based cameras, have finally brought technology to the marketplace which is as good or better than 35mm cameras. Using a digital camera (or camera back in the case of medium format) provides another leap in functionality and quality with a long term reduction in overall costs.

Planetography continues to evaluate digital equipment, and plans to migrate to digital cameras when the time is right. The costs of migration of the medium format systems we have is still quite high, but we expect prices to come down in the next few years. Migration of the 35mm camera systems may be imminent.

Digital Scanner

Planetography uses the Nikon Coolscan 9000 scanner to capture images from film. This scanner, released in 2004, represents the top end of scanning, and approaches or meets the capabilities of drum scanners. It can capture the full tonal range of most slides with faithful color rendering, and has minimal noise in the dark or dense areas of slides. It also has good capabilities working with color negative films.

Digital Printer

Planetography uses the Epson Stylus Pro 7600 and Epson Pro 9800 printers for its digital prints. These printer, which utilizes Epsons Ultrachome inks, produces images with excellent color in all lighting conditions, great neutrals, and no banding or other typical digital artifacts. The larger 9800 printer is capable of making prints up to 44 inches wide.

Darkroom Process

Our current process for either a digitally printed or traditionally printed image is as follows:

Digital Traditional
Capture photograph on film Capture photograph on film
Scan image from film Film image to lab for printing
Manipulate in Photoshop Silver masks, dodging, burning, different development times.
Print image to printer from computer Lab prints image using enlarger
Print sent to you Print sent to you

Digital versus Traditional Prints

The advantages of a digital print are 1) the reduced cost of production, 2) the availability of powerful tools available in the digital darkroom, and 3) the repeatability of producing a print. Making prints using the digital process is much less costly than using a professional lab or maintaining one yourself. The digital tools available make it possible to correct problems that occurred in capturing the original image. And, the process is repeatable, not relying on a lab technician to produce the same results again and again for each print.