The Digital Darkroom: Image Capture is Only the Beginning

The much more truthful final image of storm clouds brewing over Kickapoo Prairie, after opening up the shadows using Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop CS6.

The much more truthful final photograph of storm clouds brewing over Kickapoo Prairie, after using Adobe Camera Raw & Photoshop CS6 to restore shadows, colors, and depth to the originally captured image.
See the originally captured image below.

Like it or not, capturing the image with your camera is only the beginning. Digital darkroom work is needed to best convey the truth of your experience.

That’s because, straight out of your camera, digital images are inherently flat, lacking the sparkle of life and the fidelity of the experience. If you recorded the image correctly with your camera, it only takes a couple of minutes to restore the life and the truth using image editing software like Photoshop or Photoshop Elements. And, when you do, your pictures will look so much better, that you’ll never show an uncorrected photo ever again.

If you think that the pure image, captured by film or by sensor is the truth, let’s be real. It’s just not fair to expect your camera to communicate, in just one shot and two dimensions, your rich 3-dimensional human experience. There are many reasons for this.

For one, your brain records many frames, acting more like a video camera than a still camera. Furthermore, your eyes constantly auto-focus and adjust for the light, combining multiply corrected “frames” into a single memory. Perceptually speaking, whenever you put your attention on a subject, you completely ignore the foreground and the background. A picture, however, brings fore and aft into the same plane of focus. For all these reasons, and more, simple to advanced digital darkroom tools and techniques are required to more accurately reflect your reality.

Kickapoo Prairie, as originally and unrealistically captured using a Nikon D800E camera in an effort to gather as much information as I could by exposing for the bright sun and sky.

This is an image Kickapoo Prairie, as it was originally and unrealistically captured using a Nikon D800E camera, in an effort to record as much information as possible by exposing for the bright sun and sky. This photo illustrates a more extreme example, but every single picture that comes out of your camera will benefit from some digital editing.

Digital editing techniques, such as controlling local and overall contrast, are very easy to do. Bringing out the color is also important, but care should be taken not to embellish the truth or to enter the realm of “Photoshopping.” People who say that Photoshop makes photographs untruthful have it backwards. If you’re not using Photoshop, your pictures are less truthful than they could be. Simply using Photoshop does not mean that you’re “Photoshopping.”

Removing a distracting bright spot in the background of, say, a portrait of a little girl is also a simple editing task and perfectly legitimate, too, since nobody on the scene looking at the girl’s face ever noticed that the background existed. Of course, the photographer should have caught it, which is why the best photographers get it right in the field. But, this is the real world and it’s impossible to be perfect. Just remember, if you capture the best image possible, you’ll not only end up with a superior picture, you’ll save yourself a lot of work trying to fix it on your computer later on.

The photographs shown here illustrate a more extreme example, where the final photo little resembles the captured image. But, every image, bar none, will benefit from the use of digital darkroom techniques, though it may not seem apparent at first glance.

The above photograph of Kickapoo Prairie in Riverdale, Illinois was made during the late afternoon, as storm clouds brewed and winds blew at 25 mph. If it weren’t for the wind, I may have been able to make two exposures and combine them into one well-exposed image (using layers in Photoshop), one exposure that perfectly exposes the land and another that perfectly exposes the sky. But, because the wind was jostling the subject matter, two exposures would never align, making the task impossible. Therefore, only one image was possible, and I chose the one that exposed for the sun and the sky because that would have produced the fastest shutter speed. Granted, the land appears extremely dark in the capture, but the important thing was that the motion was stopped and all of the details were recorded (as I could see in the histogram). Digitally captured with the high dynamic range of the Nikon D800E, I was able to gather all of the necessary visual information into a single shot, then use Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop CS6 to open up the shadows, resurrect the color, and restore the third dimension and the feeling of depth.

While the prairie danced and the sun peaked in and out from behind the clouds, I was shooting as fast as the wind. With the camera secured on the tripod and the picture carefully composed, the light was changing too fast for me to check each image to see if I was getting what I wanted. I just kept shooting. Everything was a blur. Only later, after I loaded the images on the computer and reviewed them, did I realize that I this was probably my best picture of the summer.

Start out with a good, clean, image capture, one that exhibits excellent technique and composition, and one that gathers all of the information. If you do, completing the job in the digital darkroom will be much easier and, if done properly, will result in a final photo that conveys a look and feel that very closely resembles the original moment.

Learn more about my Photoshop Elements Essentials class, coming soon in January of 2014.

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