The Digital Processing Difference

I recently got back a roll of processed color negative film from a lab touting itself as “professional” and it reminded me why it’s difficult for me to go back to shooting film. It’s not that I don’t like the look of film, or that I don’t enjoy actually working with it; it’s that the prints were well below my expectations. I checked the negatives and they were well exposed, showing good density and no undue harshness. (In fact, I scanned them later and had little trouble getting the prints to look “right.”) No, my expectations were not met because I have become used to processing images myself, shooting raw and making adjustments to color balance, exposure, contrast, and color saturation. The prints were clearly the “opinion” of the lab as to how my pictures should look, one that I did not share. Shots made in the shade were too blue; contrast was somewhat harsh; and overall color was off and not what I intended when I made the exposure.

I am one of those folks who spent years working in a darkroom, honing my craft and getting just the look I desired. When digital came along I was an initial naysayer, which was probably the right stance, given the quality of images the cameras produced and the steep learning curve and gear changes I would have to make. But once I got my hands around the processing end of digital, and when digital image quality produced by cameras improved, I saw how I could gain control of my color work and add to the fine controls in black and white, and I became a convert. I soon saw that digital gave me the opportunity to achieve custom lab-quality images without having to constantly bring the film or individual negative or slide back to the lab for a second, or third, try to get it right.

To me the digital difference is just that—it gives many more of us the opportunity to customize our images and not rely on someone else’s opinion as to how our photos should look. Of course it’s not all a bed of roses—there are obstacles to overcome and there are flaws and foibles even in some of the simplest procedures. But our chosen medium should be one that affords us the best means of getting closer to whatever we want to express, be that in documentary or abstract fashion. It should put creative control back into our own hands and allow us to get right to the heart of the image without waiting for someone else to try to guess how we want it to look.

With that in mind we present our annual image-processing issue, incorporating a host of how-to articles and software reviews. While overwhelming your computer with every type of image-processing program under the sun will inevitably lead to confusion and an overburdened drive, we are sure that this issue will provide you with some tips and techniques and unique programs that will speak to the heart of the images you want to produce.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, all software is there to serve your creative ends and not lead you down someone else’s garden path. But the tools these programs provide have opened up many new avenues for photographers, including correcting some of digital imaging’s inherent flaws, and await your interpretation to create new images that only you can imagine. That’s the digital difference, one that makes all the changes the medium undergoes, and consternation it can cause, seem worthwhile.