The first time I saw a photograph of the Bright Angel Canyon (a tributary to the Grand Canyon) was probably in one of the many books by Ansel Adams. After my first trip to the Grand Canyon I returned several times to the same location, with increasingly sophisticated camera gear, in an attempt to learn how the great master of The Camera, The Negative, and The Print worked on his œuvre.
At some point I recall standing there, draped in a dark cloth and with my Stetson, behind my Sinar P2 8×10 inch camera loaded with B&W film, a 600mm lens and a red filter, waiting for the shadows to creep up to just about “the right” point before triggering the shutter via a traditional cable release…
Today, I’m reasonably confident that I can achieve a substantially identical photograph with a modern high-resolution digital camera and a suite of software tools to serve as my “digital darkroom.” In this short article I’ll try to recreate the essential steps of my photographic journey for educational purposes. For reference, the following images where created with a Nikon D810 camera with 36 Megapixels, a Nikon 70-200 mm zoom lens set to 70 mm, a circular polarizer, and then post-processed in DxO Photolab 3 and Adobe Photoshop CS6.
The process starts with shooting in RAW Image Format which colloquially may be referred to as “digital negative.” However, strictly speaking, this is not quite accurate because using RAW image format is as if we get to capture the light before it even hits the film. In other words, I get to choose if I should have used daylight or tungsten color film or even B&W film after the fact—all from the comfort of my living room.
Looking at the unprocessed RAW pixels (or unoptimized pixels in Photolab) for the first time could come as a bit of a disappointment. This may explain why I had my first digital camera automatically convert the RAW pixels to JPEG format according to my chosen camera settings. Doing so is not entirely unlike shooting slide film: If you get the composition and the exposure “just right” you get rewarded instantly, else repeat the shot with different framing and/or exposure should the shooting situation allow. Here are the unprocessed RAW pixels:
To my knowledge, placing the shadows at just about “the right” point can’t be easily replaced by any kind of post-processing of the pixels, hence a bit of patient waiting is called for. Alternatively, I could have had the camera trigger the shutter at regular intervals as if preparing for a time-lapse video and then pick my favorite. Here is how I tried to make a relatively flat image look more three-dimensional:
RAW Pixels, version with more shadows
Optimizing the RAW pixels in Photolab permits to select a plethora of parameters to guide the RAW conversion, amongst others
Photolab Customized RAW Conversion
Ansel Adams likely made his photograph with an 8×10 inch camera hence I used Photoshop’s Crop Tool to crop the converted pixels to 4×5 (8×10) aspect ratio. While cropping obviously can’t let me change the original composition in an arbitrary way it lets me reduce the composition to reflect aspect ratios that my camera does not support and particularly to emphasize the essential part of the photograph. Here is my take on the adage “less is more:”
Photoshop Cropped to emulate the aspect ratio of an 8×10 inch camera
Ansel Adams used mostly Black & White film hence I used Photoshop to add a New Adjustment Layer for a non-destructive Black & White conversion of the cropped pixels. The resulting Default conversion is likely akin to completely desaturating the colors during the RAW conversion:
Photoshop Black & White Layer (Default)
Ansel Adams often used a red filter to create bold and dramatic effects. Luckily, Photoshop’s Black & White Layer lets me choose a conversion parameter other than Default, such as a Yellow Filter, a Red Filter, or a High Contrast Red Filter. Since layers really are non-destructive I got to experiment and settled for a High Contrast Red Filter:
Photoshop Black & White Layer (High Contrast Red Filter)
At this point I wanted to add yet a little more drama but without affecting the dark shadows nor the brightest highlights hence I started experimenting with other adjustment layers. Eventually I settled for a Levels layer to reduce the midtones. I don’t know to what degree the high contrast red filter—along with the levels layer—emulate the limited dynamic range of photographic paper in the “analog darkroom” but the results worked for me:
Photoshop Black & White Layer (High Contrast Red Filter) and Levels Layer
There are really only two original shots involved in this photographic journey, the first two sets of RAW pixels, the rest is done in the “digital darkroom.” Following is a summary of the above process in the form of a small gallery:
It took me a surprisingly long time to realize similarities between today’s digital workflow and the analog chemistry of developing film and making prints. I never actively engaged in these chemical processes but assumed whatever was needed to be done in the “analog darkroom” was done to overcome the limitations of analog photography. Yet creative manipulations such as dodging and burning during the printing process have long been used to great creative effect in the “analog darkroom.”
Photoshop has tools like the Dodge Tool and the Burn Tool with the terminology seemingly inherited from the “analog darkroom:” dodging blocks the light between the analog negative and the photographic paper to brighten parts of the print by underexposing it while burning lets the light pass freely and hence darkens parts of the print by overexposing it. The “analog darkroom” used a “real negative” after all: dodge the light and the photographic paper remains white, burn the light and the print turns dark—a bit confusing at first but it can be learned.
Digital photography offers a lot more control over the creative process of making a photograph—as opposed to taking a picture—than analog photography did. It does away with the hazards and the waywardness of the chemistry and replaces it by the repeatability and reproducibility of software tools—but the increasing sophistication of these tools comes with its own learning curve and calls for practice. I for one can appreciate the journey to never stop learning and the pleasure to have made another photograph as a result.