Musings on Photography


Posted in digital printing by Paul Butzi on March 20, 2008

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.

6 Responses

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  1. Dave Kosiur said, on March 20, 2008 at 11:20 am

    I agree that editing photos in Photoshop (or Lightroom) doesn’t have to be be very involved. Setting levels and a curve (as Adjustment Layers) for a image often seems to be just about all that’s needed for many images. In fact, doing these adjustments in ACR obviates any involved processing in Photoshop.

    A bit of sharpening helps, too, but I assume you’re doing that as you prepare for printing. Do you use any “capture sharpening”, either in ACR or Photoshop?

  2. Colin Griffiths said, on March 20, 2008 at 12:56 pm

    You are spot on. I find that if my layer pallet starts to get full of complicated masks and adjustments I’ve usually got myself in a convoluted spirol. It’s then time to ditch them all and start again. I have to remind myself “keep it simple stupid!” Less is more.

  3. Christoph Hammann said, on March 21, 2008 at 1:12 am

    Same procedure here. I think all we’re doing with that first curves layer is imitating the characteristic curve of the photo paper.

  4. Frank Armstrong said, on March 21, 2008 at 7:26 am

    Amen, Brother! Curves is where it’s at. But I find it the hardest of all the basic image adjustments to teach. And I see that as a direct results of lack of “film” training. If you have any inkling of what a H&D curve is/was…..well you get my point.


  5. Niels said, on March 21, 2008 at 9:57 am

    I also agree that curves process is one of the first with the first global and then local approach to creating images.

    For some of my photos that might be take-to-print type images and especially those taken outdoors with strong contrast, I like to insert 2 versions of the RAW file as smart-object layers. This gives me the flexibility to fine-tune through the use of masks, Exposure, Colour/Sat, Hue for different scene effects later on, after I am in the editing process. It is a memory hog, as each layer is the size of the RAW file but I do enjoy the new editable features it provides.

    At times I like to change the temperature of either the lighter or darker parts of an image and I am not locked-in by base Photoshop layer the original RAW settings and noise problems with correcting later on.

    Niels Henriksen

  6. Doug Stockdale said, on March 21, 2008 at 10:35 am

    I will also agree that my second adjustment layer (after the inital sharpening layer) is a curves layer with PSCS3, which also takes care of any needed level changes. That brings in most of the global print adjustments that I need with one adjustment layer. Then it is time to look and decide what and if local adjustment tweaks (layers) are needed. Most times, not.

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