by John Henshall
LIGHTING UP THE DARKROOM
Although digital photography still needs the skills of photographers - together with cameras, sets, backgrounds and lights - it no longer needs the darkroom. Digital photographers do it in daylight, not in darkrooms.
There's no denying the fact that darkrooms have been great places to bump into people and it's rather sad that digital imaging eliminates such an important social workplace. Staring at a computer screen all day - and, worse still, most of the night - just can't compare. But you can achieve more, creatively and commercially, in a Lightroom.
Once your new digital equipment is unpacked and hooked up - long before the cardboard boxes have been cleared away - you'll be eager to start using it to produce images to win you both the show and the dough. But maybe you only want to modify reality a little, or - dare I suggest it - even rescue yourself from a few near failures?
First a few words of warning, perhaps the best advice I can give you.
Digital imaging is not the easy route to instant photography that some would have you believe. It is very labour intensive. Dark-rimmed eyes are the norm and it's not the computer which makes the decisions, you do. But you can do nothing without a good image editing program, to tell the computer what to do.
Such software also asks the computer to display instant feedback in real time on the monitor screen, enabling you to make creative decisions. Sounds straightforward enough in today's computer age? OK, why not write your own program? Don't even think about it. The more you think about the 'person hours' which go into writing and refining image editing programs, the bigger bargains they become.
IMAGE EDITING SOFTWARE
A few years ago a program came along which was such a killer application that it forced me to make the change from PC to Apple Macintosh. That program was Adobe Photoshop.
What Photoshop could cajole a Mac to do was just unbelievable. Until then I was a DOS enthusiast, who couldn't understand the attraction or (in those days) premium of the Apple Macintosh. These days such change is unnecessary. The Digital Express is a through train so we don't have to change 'platforms'. (Computer, train, 'platforms' - get it? - clever stuff, eh?) Photoshop is now available for both Mac and Windows.
Photoshop is not the only image editing software on the market. Applications such as Live Picture and Macromedia xRes provide competition to keep everyone on their toes and prices down.
Live Picture was the first application to separate creative work from final processing, storing up all the little processing delays for one big one at the end. This makes it just as quick to work on a huge 400Mb image file as on a 4Mb image and makes a Macintosh fly like a high-end workstation. Live Picture uses its own internal image file format, IVUE, to do this. Photoshop cannot yet match this, or Live Picture's beautiful fluidity. But many Photoshop users find the learning of Live Picture a real jolt to their established way of working. Well, Live Picture was written by a Frenchman. Oh, and it only runs on the Macintosh. C'est la vie.
xRes began life as Fauve xRes and it was not until Macromedia took it over and made major changes in version two that Macromedia xRes came to the fore. Like Live Picture, xRes is designed to work well with big image files. Both have multiple levels of undo, in case you make mistakes. Photoshop has just one, so you have to go carefully. To Photoshop users the xRes toolbox looks very familiar, making change less daunting and adding natural texture painting tools and brush styles.
Like Live Picture, xRes features post-production processing, which means that you could be doing something more useful, such as enjoying an hour down at the pub, or dismantling the darkroom, while your computer completes the processing.
There are claims that Photoshop sells as many copies as all the other image editing software packages put together. It's probably true. Undoubtedly, Adobe Photoshop remains the industry leader and, anyway, you probably got a copy 'free' with your scanner. So we'll concentrate on Photoshop.
One of the great things about Photoshop is that it will work at your level of skill. No matter how little you know about Photoshop, the basics are easy. No matter how much you know, there will always be new tricks to discover.
Installing Photoshop is simple. The most convenient way is from CD-ROM, though it also comes on six floppy disks. Just follow the instructions.
HOW MUCH RAM?
I hate to RAM such a boring subject down your throat but it is an important trade-off between time and money.
When you open an image, Photoshop loads the data into the computer's RAM and reserves an additional equal amount of RAM in which to store an 'undo' version (in case you change your mind or make a mistake), plus the same amount again for computation of effects. This adds up to three times as much RAM as the size of the image. If you have allocated 10Mb of RAM to Photoshop, everything is fine if you are working on images up to 3.3Mb. For larger images, when it doesn't find enough RAM, Photoshop cleverly uses your hard drive as temporary storage or 'virtual memory'. Photoshop calls this a 'scratch disc'. Your computer's startup disc is used by default, though you can select another disc via the menu File>Preferences>Scratch Discs. "Great!" you say, "I don't need to buy loads of RAM." But you should. Writing and reading to and from a scratch disc takes time - much more than to and from RAM. We are professionals, so time is money. Don't hang around, buy more RAM.
Two years ago, 64Mb of RAM cost £2,000. Today it would cost £400. How much RAM you need depends on the size of images you will be handling. Prints 8x10 inches at 300 ppi need a 20.6Mb file, so you need 61.8Mb of RAM plus enough for the operating system and any other applications you may want to open at the same time - say 80Mb in total. If you want to work on 4x5 inch Base*64 Pro Photo-CD images at 72Mb each, the amount of RAM required jumps up to 216Mb - so round the total up to 256Mb. That would cost £1,600, so it might be more cost effective to buy xRes or Live Picture instead. They can handle large image files with much less RAM than Photoshop.
You have to tell Photoshop to use as much RAM as you have available. Using a Mac, click once on the Photoshop application icon and 'Get Info' from the Finder's File menu (Command+I). Enter the amount of memory you want Photoshop to use in the Preferred Size box. Then close the window. Using a PC, start Photoshop and choose File>Preferences>Memory. Make sure that the Memory Usage setting is 100%.
If you are a Mac user, while you have the Photoshop icon highlighted, press Command+M to make an alias of it. Drag this alias to the desktop, where it will be conveniently placed to drag and drop images onto - much quicker than going File>Open and then navigating to the image. Dragging and dropping an image file to the alias also launches the Photoshop application itself. I find such shortcuts essential.
LET'S START PHOTOSHOP
Opening an image in Photoshop brings up a screen like this. Note the mid-grey background to the desktop. If yours isn't, change it to a neutral tone now.
The icons at the bottom and right of my desktop are HoverBars, a shareware utility which can group the icons of regularly used applications for convenient access. The HoverBars float over whatever is on the desktop and can be moved so they don't get in the way, or toggled on and off completely by pressing Command+Esc.
At the top of the screen is the Photoshop menu bar, to the left the toolbox with a range of tools allowing you to select, paint, edit and view images. Below these are displays to show the foreground and background colours, switch to Quick Mask mode, and controls to change the Screen display modes.
Because the keyboard is not used for image editing there are really neat one-letter shortcuts to selecting these tools. Print out the shortcuts key and stick it on the top left bezel of your monitor. Over the weeks, months and years it will save you hours of time whizzing the cursor backward and forward to select the tools. There are many other shortcuts which I will share as they come up.
Photoshop displays the chosen image at the largest size possible, up to 1:1, while fitting it all on screen. Large images are scaled down by the amount shown in the image title bar, so that the full image can be seen. My Dordrecht image says '1:3'. This means that the image is so large that only every third pixel can be displayed on the screen. Pixel one is displayed, two and three not, four is displayed, five and six not, seven is displayed and so on. The pixels are still in the image, they're just not displayed. Missing out pixels can make the image look as though it has aliasing - 'the jaggies' on diagonal lines - and can fool you when evaluating such things as noise (digital's grain equivalent) and definition. Images are best evaluated and worked on by zooming in to 1:1 - one pixel displayed in one element of the screen. A shortcut to this is to double click the Zoom tool. The image will then overfill the screen and you will need to use the Hand tool to pan it around to see it all. To select the Hand tool temporarily, hold down the space bar. Then click and hold the mouse button while dragging the image around on screen. To see the whole image on screen again, double click the Hand tool.
THE PHOTOGRAPHIC TOOLS
Enough of the preliminaries, let's get down to some serious work.
My image of Dordrecht is a text-book example of perspective exaggeration using an ultra-wide lens, close-in. OK, I should always carry a view camera around on my holiday but, fortunately for my back, Photoshop allows me to control perspective later in the Lightroom. So I travel light and used an 18mm lens on 35mm for this shot. The film was transferred to Photo-CD and imported as a Base*4 file - 1024x1536 pixels or about 4.5Mb.
HOW TO CORRECT PERSPECTIVE
First select Image>Canvas Size from the Menu Bar. Up comes a dialogue box which gives the Current image Size (3.33x5.1 inches) and asks for the New Size required. In this case I guessed a size large enough to accommodate my intended adjustments: 6x6 inches. At the bottom of the dialogue box a noughts-and-crosses grid is labelled 'Placement'. Use this to indicate the placing of the image on the new canvas. In this case, select bottom centre and click OK. (To make thinks clearer on the printed page I chose to make the new canvas grey. By default it would be white.)
Next select the Marquee tool (M) and select the area of the original image. Then Image>Effect>Perspective. Now the 'crawling ants' of the selection turn to solid lines with small square boxes - 'handles' - at each corner. Click in one of the two handles at the top and drag upwards and outwards. After a couple of seconds a preview of the effect appears. When happy, click inside the selection to apply to the image, or outside to cancel.
We now have a rather strange shaped image. Select the Crop tool (C) and click/drag in the image. Use the handles to set the selection to the required crop. Click inside the selection.
'Sharpening' the image is a computer image processing trick which comes from satellite image processing. There is no darkroom version. Select Filter>Sharpen>Sharpen More. Too much? Undo by selecting Edit>Undo. Try Filter>Sharpen>Sharpen. The following shows a 1:1 section before and after sharpening - exaggerated to show the effect.
SELECT, COPY, PASTE
Double click the Zoom tool and take a one-to-one look at the results, using the Hand tool to pan around. One of the windows on the left has caught the sun and is burning out. The top of the window beneath it is similar but good. Use the Zoom tool to define a box around the good window. The area in the box immediately enlarges to fill the screen - so large that all the individual pixels can be seen. Select the Lasso tool (L) and click on one corner of the window. Holding down the Alt key, click in turn in the other three corners of the window. Using the Alt key makes the Lasso tool act like a rubber band, defining a line between the two points at the next click. Release the Alt key and the line automatically jumps back to the first corner, completing the selection.
Copy the selection using Edit>Copy (Command+C), then Paste the copied selection using Edit>Paste (Command+V). A copy of the selection is deposited, invisibly, right on top of the original selection. Select the Move tool (V) and drag the pasted selection to the bright window, aligning the top left corner of the windows.
What a pity, it doesn't fit. No problem. Select Image>Effect>Distort. A new set of handles appears around the pasted selection. Drag these handles out until the 'new' window neatly covers the old. Click inside the selection.
Hide the selection's crawling ants by selecting Select>Hide Edges (Command+H). This allows the effect to be studied (and, hopefully, admired) without intrusion. The pasted selection can still be moved if required - try nudging it, a pixel at a time, by pressing the arrow keys: left, right, up, down. Command+H toggles the ants on again if you want them.
Finally, and most importantly, select File>Save As and give the file a meaningful new name to distinguish it from the original. Job done.
Before - and - After
We have now completed our first job in the Lightroom. Next month we explore more of the basic techniques of image processing using Adobe Photoshop. But I expect you'll have bags under your eyes long before then.