The Merits of Photography 101, Part 2

Just as a brief recap, I enrolled myself in a black and white film photography course this fall, and am currently loving it because all meaningful deadlines are far enough away that panic and stress are not tangibly proximate yet.

People keep asking me: “Film photography? Really? Why? What’s the point? Everything is digital these days.” That is true, but only to a certain extent. It is true that the “digital darkroom” or “lightroom” has changed much about how a photographer’s workflow is designed, but most of the digital tools are still built upon analog darkroom techniques, and learning the art and science of film printing has greatly enhanced my effectiveness in choosing and using the tools available in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Controlling exposure both globally and locally is one great example. I don’t think I have ever made a “straight print” in 101 yet (that’s where there are no modifications by dodging/burning). Almost always, at least some part of the frame needs to be either lightened or darkened, and often there are three or more parts that need modification. In the darkroom, you quickly learn that, not only are such modifications acceptable, but they are actually the norm; they are necessary in almost all cases.

I have found that there are people out there whose perception of digital image manipulation is that it is somehow cheating. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is proof that they have no knowledge of what goes into making images. There was a time when I myself really tried to minimize the manipulations I did. But printing by hand has quickly made me comfortable with a far wider array of manipulations that the digital photographer has available.

I have started using curves way more, rather than just levels; and I have started using masked curved layers to localize the effect, not unlike changing the enlarger’s filter when burning in an area on a print. I have started using dodging and burning far more on my digital work, and this is good, because in general, I find digital exposures to have a far greater need for processing than film negatives. The healing brush has become my friend. The number of layers in my digital files is expanding, and the finished images are looking better.

Part of this comes just from experience with the digital tools, but I think most of it comes from learning, through film and paper, how to assess an image, be detail-oriented to the point of being self-annoying, and solving the problems the negative presents. Today’s point-and-click, print-at-home photography has led many to believe that all photography is straight out of camera, and that manipulation is something extra, not something integral. Actually, the negative, whether film or digital, is a midpoint in a process; it is not the final object, but rather a medium used to create a final product, and that is as true with digital files as it is with film. Film photographers have a number of decisions to make: what film speed to use; what film to use (because they look different); whether to push or pull film; how to develop the film; what paper to print on; what filter or paper grade to use for the print; how to expose the print; how to develop the print. It is a long series of decisions, all of which have their equivalent manipulations in the digital domain. Without development and manipulation of some sort, an image is unfinished.

If you are a serious photographer, you have probably been asked, “Is this picture Photoshopped?” and there will have been a hint of derision the voice, as if to say, “This shot might be way better than anything I’ve ever done, but at least I haven’t done anything to my pictures.” Sigh. One of the reasons a photographer’s images are better is that they do have something done to them. Learning print photography has taught me to be much more hands-on with manipulations analog and digital, and I think my photography is the better for it.

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2 comments

  1. I’ve certainly been asked that question – “Is is photoshopped?” I finally figured out that most people really mean “has the image been substantially altered?” and reply accordingly.

    I agree with you – traditional film photography is a great foundation when working on digital images. Things make more sense – it’s as if printing negatives the old fashioned way trains your eye to edit in a way that digital doesn’t. I can’t say I miss the costs of film and photo paper though 🙂


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