Going Digital
A Photographic LightRoom

(Above) After. (Below) Before.
Photos © 1999, Darryl Nicholas, All Rights Reserved

My wife, Faye, and I started our "mom and pop" photographic studio in the early 1980s. We did it all. We shot weddings, kids, models, dogs, and the occasional commercial job. One friend called it the "brides, brats, and bimbos" business! Our basic bread-and-butter work, however, was weddings. We shot over 60 weddings in one year when we were at the height of our wedding shooting activities.

As our business grew, we raised our prices and became more selective about the clients we would accept. In the beginning I did all of our lab work in-house. I became allergic to the color chemicals and started having headaches and skin rashes unless I was very careful. As we became busier, we started sending out some of the lab work. We then used our in-house lab capabilities to reprint the pictures that the outside lab messed up, forgot to print, or printed wrong.

Over the years, Faye watched me struggle with wet-dye retouching of things like eyeglass glare, closed eyes, dust spots, and pimples. Yes, I could retouch all of those things, but it was time consuming and the results were not always as good as I would have liked them to have been.

Finally, about five years ago, Faye came to me and said that she thought she would like to learn how to do digital retouching and restoration. We talked about it, and a few weeks later I started building our first PC computer from scratch. I had been a computer hobbyist since the late '70s when the Atari computer was the hot thing to have. Later, when Commodore introduced the Amiga computer in the early '80s I bought one and started publishing a monthly newsletter on it in which I offered darkroom technical help to other photographers.
We soon had our first Pentium-based computer up and running under Windows 95. That was the easy part. The hard part was learning how to use it to do the digital things that we wanted to do. Faye sat down with the Adobe Photoshop tutorial and started studying. I started reading everything that I could find about PC computers and their operating systems.

We both took workshops on how to use Adobe's Photoshop. I took special workshops offered by Microsoft in the technology of their operating systems.

Today, Faye has a successful retouching and restoration business that is all hers. Our once busy photography studio has turned into a busier digital imaging studio. I custom-build computer workstations for other photographers and then teach them how to use the equipment. All of our clients receive three years of free technical support from us when they buy their computer from us.

Of course, there's nothing very remarkable about receiving free technical support from the company that sells you your computer. What I offer, however, is my lifetime of photographic knowledge combined with my computer technical support. When a client calls me and tells me that his pictures are coming out 5cc too magenta, not only do I know what magenta means, I know which buttons to press to solve the problem.

I remember several years ago having the occasion of calling a tech support person to ask for help in getting my monitor calibrated with my ink jet printer. When I explained the problem, I was told not to worry about it, because "the printer" would fix that before the job was sent to press. When I explained that "the printer" was on the desk next to the computer, the tech support person almost hung up on me. You see, the tech support person thought that a "printer" was a company on the other side of town that would take my electronic file and print thousands of copies on a lithographic press. The idea that someone would actually expect an ink jet printer to produce a saleable product was just not included in the 30-day training that they had received from their company before becoming a telephone tech support person.

Well, things have gotten a little better since then. But, even today, you've got to look pretty hard to find help with photographic related computer problems.

For example, few computer gurus know that ink jet printers have advanced so much that they now can produce pictures that are the equal of the finest dye sublimation prints at a fraction of the cost. Even fewer gurus know that archival ink, which is stable for 50-75 years, is now available for ink jet printers.

Recently, our local volunteer fire company approached us and asked if we would help them create a poster that they could sell as a fundraiser. They brought in five slides and two color negatives and wanted them made into a poster. Faye put it all together, and produced the poster on Page 164. A local lithographic company then printed several thousand copies for the fire company.

Another client recently brought in an old black and white print of a hydroelectric power dam that had been hand-tinted. The print was 26x38" and had been rolled up and stored away for many years. Now, they wanted it restored so they could hang it in the lobby of the hydroelectric power company. Usually, when Faye is asked to retouch photos, the client wants electric wires taken out of the image. However, this client, being a power company, wanted to be able to see the electric wires! Retouching the sky was easy compared to restoring those thin little electric wires as shown below.

Besides using our digital equipment to restore old photos, we frequently are asked to save new photos. For example, when slides or negatives have been damaged in automatic processing equipment, or when an error was made in the exposure on the camera.

We still use C-41 film and shoot over a thousand preschool children every year. Unfortunately, not every picture is a keeper!

A few weeks ago, the mother of one of the preschool children asked us if we could retouch the picture of her son because he had a bad bruise on his cheek. When the picture came back from the out-lab that we use, we saw that not only did the child have a bad bruise, he also had held his mouth crooked at the moment the camera flash fired. With our computer equipment, it was an easy task to not only remove the bruise, but to straighten out his smile as well.

In a wet darkroom, there is little that I can do about a poorly exposed slide or color negative without doing some pretty complex, costly, and time-consuming masking techniques. How many of you have almost given up on trying to get good shadow detail in a direct R-print of your favorite slide? How many of you have almost given up on getting a lab to make good quality internegatives?

With my digital darkroom (or lightroom as one of my clients calls it), I can easily adjust the contrast, color saturation, density, and color balance--all independently of each other. I can raise the contrast in the highlights while lowering the contrast in the shadows--without endless trial and error test printing. I can increase the color saturation without increasing the contrast. In a wet darkroom it is impossible to dodge or burn-in on a color print without causing a shift in the color balance from the reciprocity failure of the print's emulsion. However, with the computer it is actually easy to burn-in or dodge without any color balance shift whatsoever.

If the negative is a little soft focused, it is possible to sharpen parts of the image a little to help with the problem. For example, with a portrait, by simply making the eyes a little sharper, it gives the illusion that the entire picture is a little sharper. And when you want a soft, misty, look, that can also be done on the computer. Did you forget to use the star filter on the wedding shot at the alter? No, problem, add the effect later with the computer. Do you have a great scenic shot that would have been even better if you had gotten up early enough to have shot it at sunrise? No problem. Sleep late tomorrow, and when you get up, add the sunrise in with the computer.

Is your favorite photo a little dull and lifeless because you shot it on a cloudy, overcast day? Put some snap back in it! The computer can make the sun shine again.

Did you take a great shot while on vacation, only to notice an unwelcome tourist showing up in the background of the print? The problem is easily solved with a digital darkroom. Are you a stock photographer who has lost hundreds of precious slides because the company you sent them to went out of business and never returned them? If you had first scanned them onto CD-ROM disks, you'd now be able to replace them. Have you had trouble using your grain focuser with your enlarger lately because your eyesight isn't what it used to be? No problem. There is no grain focuser in a digital darkroom!

How about all of those slides you have that are stored away and are slowly being eaten up with fungus while their color fades? No problem. Scan them into the computer, re-adjust the color balance to correct for the fading, and store them on CD-ROM disks. The digital images will not ever fade, and the fungus damage can be fixed anytime you want to sit down and do it.

We still shoot with our regular cameras and use our regular films. But, once the picture is captured, we send the film to an out-lab, or if we want it done right--the first time--we print the film in-house with our digital darkroom. You can, too. If you can learn all about f/stops and shutter speeds, you can also learn all about hard drives and floppy disks. They are just different tools for allowing you to do what you do best--create great photographs.

If you'd like help or more information, write to me care of Shutterbug or send me e-mail at: editorial@shutterbug.net.