Image-Processing Options

In this issue we explore the myriad options for organizing, processing, and creating new visions from your digital image files. As with many things photographic, digital processing often stirs debate about the “purity” of the image, about what is real and what is “fake” when you begin to alter the image information. Indeed, some film photographers dismiss the entire digital side as being a sham, claiming that silver halide is the only “pure” form of photography. Having processed and printed my fair share of film images I have to wonder what was so pure about it, but in some ways the point is well taken that digital allows you to manipulate images in ways that film photographers could never imagine.

Does this malleability mean that there’s some inherent flaw in digital, something that makes it less than a true form of photography? Is the image at the time of capture somehow sacrosanct? (Some take it so far as to insist that you cannot crop what you first saw in the viewfinder.) Is the moment of recording how the image should look when it finally appears in print? The problem with that argument is that following that logic means that printmakers like Eugene Smith and Ansel Adams would be drummed out of the corps.

While that debate is ongoing, I for one think it is a distraction from exploring a medium that is a hybrid between the image and information, one that allows you to express thoughts and emotions in ways that can be very much like film photography, or that can be so different that the medium and the reproduction method verges into other mediums and processes.

What these processing programs offer is a way into a creative world that only highly trained photographic printmakers could explore. True, some are push-button solutions that make creative effects almost too accessible, removing the “process” from processing and I think diminishing the experience. “Cookie-cutter” effects are pretty easy to spot these days, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t form a foundation for further exploration, a reinforcement for the creative impulse, and an encouragement that photography is indeed an expressive medium that can be enjoyed by all.

That’s why many plug-ins are just that—building blocks that allow you to move in and out of your “main” processing program, and that offer options within every effect. Or, their effects are placed in your layer stack so that you can play with opacity and other variations as you work. Some of these plug-ins augment the main workhorses, while others offer a niche solution that goes one better than the host.

Our reviews of programs in this issue only scratch the surface of the many available and even the incredible capabilities each affords. We offer a look inside them to not only give you an idea of what each might do for your work but also to marvel at how far digital image processing has come from the “early days” of massively steep learning curves and limited computer storage and processing power. I think we take a lot for granted these days when it comes to our processing programs, and even digital imaging in general. Sometimes you just have to sit back and consider the amazing creative capability this whole system of imaging affords, and simply enjoy what we can do with our images today.

There’s no question that the whole idea of “processing” has changed, from dealing with a strict mix of chemicals acting upon a fixed emulsion mix to being able to manipulate images on a pixel-by-pixel basis and creating image effects that even the most trained darkroom technician could only see in his or her dreams.