Saturday, 6 March 2004

Digital Experiments

From visit to France in 2003, black+white darkroom prints were scanned and digitally re-worked as a means to learn some of the tools available. The works have been grouped into:
  • Monochrome Rework
  • Simple Tints and Tones
  • Hand Tints and Minor Effects
  • Major Effects

Monochrome Rework

Beaurainville Station
In the station picture the telephone cable in the top left corner was removed with the background eraser. Having gone white sky on the shot dodging it out in the enlarger would have been possible, but this would have complicated other dodge and burn steps. The essential 'antique' feel was achieved via a plug-in filter – this allowed both the colour cast and the blurred overlay to be applied in a single transformation.

Digitally edited pictures can quickly become ‘muddy’. The best approach is to experiment to find the required 'feel' and then to start over and to achieve that 'feel' in the minimum number of steps: The principal of minimum transformations. Of course, sometimes when starting over you find that the precise effect cannot be re-created – but that is irrelevant, providing the final image is both acceptable and reproducible. If the effect cannot be reproduced then the photographer is at the mercy of the tool, the end result is some abstract approximation to that which was (attempted to be) crafted. If other people’s software is used to edit the image, but those edits are not reproducible then a degree of the ‘artistic merit’ belongs to the creator of the software not the creator of the image.

Bologne TowerThe tower was handled identically, in approximately 1 hour (as opposed to 3 hours spent on picture 1). Because the starting images shared a common style and subject type it was pre-known that the final image would suit the treatment. Learning, and sticking with, a finite set of digital techniques not only reduces the image creation time (to something manageable) but also allows the photographer, not the software, to claim ownership over the result: The principal of developing aesthetic style.

The group picture was simply retouched, with many dust speckles spotted out. At a zoom scale much greater than that at which the image is intended to be viewed the clone stamp tool was used with the sample point a fraction outside of the brush area. The spotting was done with single ‘dabs’ and never with brush strokes. The proximity of the sample point to the brush head means that great control can be exerted in picking precisely the right de-spotting tone (i.e. from neighbouring pixels). The de-spotting process took around 30 minutes and should be the start point for all digital manipulations, i.e. before other effects are layered in – since any new layers from selections must not propagate dust speckles (Start with a clean base-layer) and it is only with the starting layer that we can guarantee the tonal selections will match the rest of the image (i.e. prior to any tonal or colour balance manipulations).

The final image was very challenging due to the heavy background detail, and brought all of the above methods into play. The subject was lit with strong side lighting, placed inches from a wall, and sealed in a glass fronted room – there was no way to deal with the wall at time of shooting. It was removed with the background eraser tool – attenuating the rigging in the process. Creating a layer copy of it and blending that layer using ‘Multiply’ blend mode restored the rigging. This seems to go against the principal of minimum transformations, to take away and then add back in, however there was no choice. By minimising all other transformations there is room in the image data-quality to ‘get away’ with this tricky manipulation.

Simple Tints and Tones

 The purpose of tinting and toning black and white images is not to make-up for the film’s inability to capture colours, but rather to complete the photographers interpretation of the subject. In the Beaurainville fields I wanted a strong panoramic effect, by creating an unusually wide shot. By capturing some detail in the sky on the horizon but letting most of the sky-part of the frame ‘white-out’ I was able to create the desired shape. But then the whiteness of sky meant that the picture ‘bled’ into its background. A frame and mount can fix that, but I do not always frame my pictures. A border in the print would also have worked, but I didn’t want to make the picture feel artificially constrained, so colour in the sky was called for. A very simple magic-wand selection was made along the horizon and the picture thus split into a ‘sky’ layer and a ‘land’ layer. Separate curves-adjustment layers were linked with each to provide the colour casts. It is exceptionally easy to split-tone a shot like this. The power of adjustment layers lies in the fact that they impact the image quality only once, on final rendering, it is possible to return to the adjustment layer settings and to experiment with the effect without degrading the image, irrespective of how many times the parameters are tweaked.
our replacement techniques (over-painting) have to be right first time, adjustment layers do not.

The ferns were even easier, the work was simplified by virtue of the fact that the original image supported the technique to be applied. The small patch of sky was printed totally white, so that within Photoshop it could be selected by a ‘colour range’ selection set to ‘pure white’ only (and in fact, within a rough-cut polygonal selection area that was applied first). The selection was then inverted (i.e. selecting everything but the sky) and a new layer generated. A gradient fill layer was inserted behind the ‘ferns’ layer so created. The fill angle was set so that the whitest part of the sky would coincide with the brightest patch of ferns to the rear, the scaling of the gradient was also set to bring the white-ish part of the sky to that point also.

The church window was the easiest effect of all. A simple radial gradient fill layer was set behind the image and the ‘blend if’ attribute of the window-layer modified to ‘do not blend if this layer is black’. Often this mode of blending is undesirable because leaks occur through the layer in unexpected places, leading to the nastiest of digital artefacts. Once again, work during the analogue stage  help to enable the final effect, processing and printing for high-contrast ensured that the containing wall and window leading were a true black so that the leak-through could be precisely set.

The tower used another plug-in, Digital Film Tool’s 55mm Split tone. The limitations of fill layer bleeds finally led me down this path, although I believe that heavily feathered split layers with curve adjustments could achieve the same. What is important is developing predictable, reproducible techniques. In the same way that polarising filters on-camera is not ‘cheating’, neither is using a selection of high-quality Photoshop plug-ins.

All of the foregoing gives rise to the next digital workflow principal: Ideally the end result is planned from the point of exposure, for the analogue preparation can support the end result.

Hand Tintsand Minor Effects

The real-world window that gave rise to this picture presented two main problems: I was not tall enough to shoot it without converging the verticals; The colouration was too vivid and variable for isolation of any subject. The entire base-layer was adjusted using the edit->transform tool. This is the first example of using Photoshop to ‘fix’ a ‘dodgy’ image. Note that the potential fix was anticipated whilst shooting. This is why the central panels (containing the queen/warrior figure) were not cropped more tightly – space was required for the adjustment. Less than anticipated has been lost and I could have cropped the final image tighter, but I didn’t so that the comparison with the original would be more evident. The colouration was added by over-painting; since each painted area was small I knew the risk of performing multiple transitions on a single pixel would be small. The paint mode was ‘Colour’ and a graphics table with stylus was used to draw-in the effect.

  Having  used the split-tone plug-in for the earlier Basilica shot the same method was used here for the corner2 and aisle3 shots. The colours used are identical in all three shots. The next Photoshop principal being Plug-ins provide preset-save options in order to support the principal of developing aesthetic style, so use them. For the aisle shot I also over-painted the stained-glass windows as per picture 1. For the corner shot I found that there was an unexpected distracting highlight at the centre. Here another plug-in (Mystical Light) was used to add a single light-source beam-cast which not only tones-down the distraction but is also angled to meet up with the natural highlights on the floor.


The gate is a much more complex split-tone, there is no linear boundary between the two desired tones. I considered using magic-wand to precisely define the gate (or in fact a path selection would have worked well), but I did not want to simply colour the picture in, I wanted a toning effect with some degree of bleed. I also noted that the tree-trunks, which should be brown not green, would benefit from picking-up the rust-brown toning of the gate. So a deliberately rough (and feathered) selection was made by adding multiple marquee-tool square selections to subtract portions of the greater gate-square. Mostly the bleed works well, possibly less so at the top-left of the gate, but I still believe that a very accurate selection would have rendered a less ‘believable’ result. The intent is not to recreate some reality, but rather to add mood. Digital manipulations work best when enhancing, rather than ‘correcting’.

However, the next section takes digital manipulations into the realm of ‘creating new realities’ where the intent is neither to enhance nor correct what has been caught, but rather to construct a new graphic image. Here the digital manipulations predominate rather than the original source materials…

Major Effects

These images are designed as graphic statements composed from photographic elements, rather than representational photographic images, and as such a much freer reign is afforded. They are the result of experimenting with the source materials and manipulation methods available, rather than the execution of a pre-planned workflow. Much of the foregoing has concentrated upon the need to pre-plan in order to maximise the final image quality whilst attaining the desired result. Image quality cannot be sacrificed for the sake of it, and having experimented it still makes sense to rebuild the final desired image from scratch with the minimum number of steps. However, a great advantage of the digital workflow is that ‘undo’ is only ever a keystroke away and so experimentation is greatly facilitated. I noticed whilst de-spotting some of the earlier pictures (a process taking maybe half an hour) that the convenience of the digital workflow has a big impact on what can be achieved. The difficulty of de-spotting a 35mm negative, or of recovering from mistakes, is so great that it is really only something done in dire emergencies; not so for the digital workflow. So the final operating principal has to be: Master the techniques; develop a strict, workable, repeatable aesthetic skill; But
take time out to experiment, be prepared to throw away the rules and any vestiges of reality – at least, on occasion

There is little point in deconstructing the execution method for these images, so rather I shall list the principals raised throughout:
  • The principal of minimum transformations
  • The principal of developing aesthetic style
  • Start with a clean base-layer
  • Ideally the end result is planned from the point of exposure, for the analogue preparation can support the end result
  • Plug-ins provide preset-save options in order to support the principal of developing aesthetic style, so use them
  • Digital manipulations work best when enhancing, rather than ‘correcting’
  • Master the techniques; develop a strict, workable, repeatable aesthetic skill; But take time out to experiment, be prepared to throw away the rules and any vestiges of reality – at least, on occasion