When I was printing in the wet darkroom, it was pretty rare that the final print (aka the ‘fine’ print, as opposed to the ‘work’ print) was more or less straight. In the beginning, in fact, each print was a pretty amazing set of adjustments as I sought to get the print to look ‘right’.
Then I developed a way to get really fine control of contrast when printing on VC paper. And it turned out that this one simple change made a major difference in how much work was required for each print. I developed an efficient way to get the base exposure and contrast exactly right, and the amount of work dropped off substantially. I still made a lot of local adjustments to exposure and contrast, but the number of those adjustments really dropped off.
And when I switched to digital printing, it seems like I took a bit of a setback on that score. I look at the photoshop files for my earliest digital printing efforts, and there are a lot of steps in there. I’m amazed, actually, that there were so many. Part of the problem was that I was taking my wet darkroom technique and translating it directly into the digital world. Lots of burning and dodging with soft light layers.
And now, it seems, I’ve hit a stage where much of the work gets done in the earliest phase – setting the overall curve. Each image now gets a curve layer that covers the entire image as a very first step, and I generally spend two or three minutes getting that curve just right for the majority of the image. And again, I’ve noticed that by investing the time in this step up front, I cut the amount of time it takes (and the number of layers needed) to finish the print substantially.
In fact, the curve tool (and masks on the curve layers) are probably my primary way of adjusting images. I have lots of fairly tweaked images that have quite a few curve layers adjusting different areas of the image.
I don’t know if this is common or not. There are lots of ways, in the digital world, to get to the same endpoint. But this setting of the overall curve as the very first step seems to have been the big step forward in my digital printing.