The Digital Journalist
Nuts & Bolts
August 2007

by Bill Pierce

I used to soup film and print negs; I had a darkroom. Today, I am told, I have a digital workflow. That kind of creeps me out.

Folks e-mail me asking, "What is your workflow?" Until recently, I didn't realize I had a workflow. I thought I took pictures. Then I realized, I not only had a workflow, I had a lot of workflows - almost a different workflow for every one that I worked for. Some folks wanted JPEGS e-mailed to them. Some wanted a lot of JPEGS put on a CD and mailed to them. Some folks wanted big TIFFS on a CD. And some wanted prints. And, of course, everybody wanted a different file size. Some wanted tonal corrections; some wanted no corrections. Some wanted sharpening; some wanted no sharpening.

The big mistake I have made was not finding out what the client wanted - even at times when the client themselves didn't know what they wanted. There are a lot more options than the film days when you only proofed and selected images, made prints and, in some cases, sent the prints to the engravers. And it was even simpler in those days if you shot slides. The proofing stage got eliminated.

In the digital world, it's imperative that you sit down with the client, list the choices and find out what they want.

The only person you don't have to do this with is yourself. You can pretty much do whatever you want when you make prints for your walls, your friends, galleries, museums. You may make the wrong choices in terms of selling yourself and impressing others. But, that's not always such a bad thing.

The one thing that does eliminate some of your choices in the digital workflow is money.

In the film days, some choices didn't cost much. You could play with different developers, films and papers - and it didn't cost much. Unfortunately, sadly, trying out different software for the digital darkroom can be expensive. (And there is no question that newer image processing software is improving, providing more control and, sometimes, is just plain fun.)

The large, more expensive pieces of equipment in the wet darkroom were often a lifetime investment. I have an old enlarger that has served me well for decades. The manufacturer stopped making it in the Nineties. I originally paid about $3,000 for it and added a few dollars buying lenses, etc. It's still going strong. I have no doubt that it will outlast me. Recently I saw that one of its twin brothers hit the used market for $12,000.

Most of the big-ticket items in my now rarely used wet darkroom will outlast me. And there are days when I have no doubt that they are in better shape than I am.

But I will upgrade my software as different versions appear. And the big computer and the big inkjet printer in my digital darkroom will be replaced relatively rapidly. They won't be replaced with the very next model, but it won't be too long until the ease of use and the increase in quality is such that I will have to justify an expense that the rest of my family feels is unwarranted. (That's the real downside of being a freelancer who has a home office.)

Of course, none of this answers readers' real questions, which promoted this column and which essentially boil down to "what do you use?"

I process most of my raw images in a program called Capture One Pro from Phase One, the folks who make the excellent medium-format digital backs. Obviously it started out as a program to process raw images from their backs. But they added the ability to process images from a variety of digital cameras with proprietary raw files. I like the interface. I like the color that is produced in the resulting JPEG and TIFF files. I like the fact that, having set up the values I want in the image, I can then convert that single raw file into JPEGS and TIFFS of all sizes, place those values on other raw files and have all the conversions made in the background while I continue to use the program on other images.

For those raw files that it doesn't handle (and it handles most professional-grade cameras), I convert in Photoshop.

The conversion of all files to a black-and-white mode is done in Photoshop even though that could be done in Capture One Pro. By using Channel Mixer or the Photoshop add-on Convert to BW Pro from the Imaging Factory I am able to exercise more control and replicate certain film and filter effects.

Nor do I sharpen the images in Capture One Pro. I use Photokit Sharpener, a program by Bruce Fraser that allows me to do a general, overall sharpening based on the source of the image, local sharpening and a final sharpening determined by the final output (JPEG screen size, inkjet print size, etc.).

Users of Photoshop CS3 will probably not want Convert to BW Pro or Capture One Pro. Black-and-white conversion options in CS3 are extensive. And the sharpening program in CS3 has contributions that Bruce Fraser made before his death.

Why Photoshop when there are so many imaging programs? Two reasons: (1) It is good with small, local adjustments - the digital equivalent of dodging, burning and bleaching. (2) It seems I've been using Photoshop in one form or another for years. I recently came across an old laptop that had lain hidden in my office clutter for years. There, on its desktop, was Photoshop 3. Now that's ancient history.

But, knowing what image processing programs I use does no one any good. It's not like the old days when you could say to a Tri-X user, "Why don't you try some HP5?" or say to a D-76 user, "Why don't you try some Rodinal?" And they could come up with a useful comparison relatively economically and quickly.

Different image processing programs use different terminology and different ways of controlling the same effects. Consequently, the learning curves on imaging programs are fairly long. (It's not only that D-76 and Rodinal don't cost much, it doesn't take long to see the differences between them.) So how do you decide what to purchase? You talk to a friend, hopefully an intelligent one, who has used the program for some while. Or you buy the product at a camera store that not only knows you and the way you work, but has a staff that is knowledgeable about the different programs and will take the time to explain the differences. Best of all, do both.

I wonder if Edward Weston thought Amidol and Azo were part of a wet workflow?

© Bill Pierce
Contributing Writer