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The Digital Darkroom Mindset

The Digital Darkroom Mindset

The question I’m most frequently asked these days about my work is: “Did you Photoshop this?” For most people, ‘Photoshop’ is a generic term for what’s actually a suite of programs and applications that allow photographers to manipulate almost everything about a shot they’ve taken. If they want to, that is.

There’s at least a hint of suspicion in the question itself, though. I think it’s pretty obviously there because of the widespread use of deceitfully manipulated ‘news’ shots, ‘reality’ shots, especially on the net. For most people, that deceitful quality that can be in a shot is summed up by one word ‘Photoshopped’; it stands for way more than the program of that name for most people.
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But their very suspicion signals that most of us think there’s such a thing as a more or less true-to-life shot out there to be taken in the first place. And this kind of realism in a shot – again for most of us – means more or less that it should correspond with what we think our eyes would see if we were looking at something exactly the way the photographer looked at it.

Here’s the problem, though. All shots are manipulated, digital or not. Manipulated to try to reconstruct and develop a shot from a piece of film made into a print. Manipulated as digital data on a screen and printed or uploaded. Manipulated to try to get exactly what the photographer saw onto a print or screen. Or manipulated to change almost entirely what the photographer saw into something further. And everything in between. But manipulated, always.

Working with film was, and is, done in a darkroom, as most people still know. Still? Yes. But most photographers now work from raw digital data stored, at first, in their cameras. This is the data that’s just sitting there from the instant the shutter clicks.

In my case, once the data is downloaded onto a computer, and then put up onto a computer screen, I’m ready to start developing the shot that’s there. No darkroom involved. Seen a darkroom lately? Neither have I. Soon, the very word ‘darkroom’ will lose its connection to any actual room. In most ways, it already has.

There are now programs like Luminar that, with one click, can pull a sky from one shot and drop it into another, take out a dog and drop in a cat, drop in a house, take out a car, and so on. There are features like AI editing that use algorithms to allow the photographer simply to move sliders back and forth, choosing from a list of edit options, to actually create an image on a computer screen from the downloaded raw data that was stored first in a camera.

And yes, Photoshop can comprehensively change images stored as raw data, make composites from that data and perform every conceivable kind of digital manipulation of that data. And then put it into printable form. And then make the print. Those are the bare bones of what a digital darkroom can do. In the hands of skilled Photoshop specialists, stunning images are being created with these tools from raw data downloaded from a camera. 

My own digital darkroom, for example, is a high-resolution computer screen powered by a computer onto which I’ve downloaded the raw digital data that was captured when I clicked the shutter of my camera to take the shot I’m going to work on. Photoshop, with Lightroom and Adobe Bridge, may come into play as I develop the shot. They may come into play a little or a lot. I try to use them to make shots that reflect, literally reflect, what I remember seeing when I was looking through the viewfinder at the time I clicked the shutter.

But the hint of suspicion in that question “Is it Photoshopped?” still hasn’t been laid to rest. For me, that question is answered by drawing a line to distinguish photographic art from digital art. It will have to be a dotted line, since the only certain thing about it is that it’s provisional, wherever it’s to be drawn. Open for the widest possible discussion and argument.

It’s a parallel discussion to the one that took place amongst painters for a couple of decades, heatedly, at the beginning of the 20th century. When does a painting become a collage become a sculpture? Picasso gave this next century a way to frame that question. But he could never answer it. Nor could his contemporaries. Nor can we. Yet, at least.

Today’s version of the question is perhaps something like this: When does a photograph become digital art? The borderline between them shifts minute-by-minute as the tools improve for both photography and for digital art. Obviously, I can’t answer the question definitively. No one can.

For one thing, reversing the terms doesn’t work. So perhaps one answer lies there. Digital art cannot become a photograph. Like everyone in all the plastic arts – in the widest sense – I’m unsure where the boundary between them lies, as I’ve said. Nor can I rank either any one of them above any other aesthetically, as a superior art form. That is, I’m aware of the ongoing discussions among critics and scholars about where the boundaries lie. And about why they lie there and not somewhere else. But I’m sure that one being better than another as art forms – forms of art, no more, no less – isn’t part of the equation.

But as a photographer first and foremost, almost all my working hours are spent trying to practice my craft, to improve or to better handle and understand the workings of the tools of my craft. And then, of course, to shooting in the wondrous landscapes I am so wondrously able to live within.

What I can map, though, is my own personal position in the midst of this confusion and ambiguity about boundaries. I use all of the tools at my disposal to arrive at a photographic print that reflects what I see, or have seen, as directly and accurately as I can. If arriving as close as I can to that ideal means using my tools sparingly, that’s what I try to do. If it means using them full on for hours of painstaking work on detail, that’s what I try to do. And every gradation between those limits.

Finally, the attitude I have when I go into the natural world to shoot is more important, in my work, than any other consideration. My faith leads me every day, moment by moment, into the overwhelming wonder, the splendour, that is present everywhere, if we look long enough and hard enough and with our eyes open.