With Flare

Photography and Fine Art Digital Printing for the Beauty of It


This article appeared in the Old Ottawa South commuity newspaper, OSCAR, in June, 2007 in the Arts cenrefold.

The Digital Darkroom

The Digital Darkroom

            In the last few years it has become possible, at the digital desktop, to create photographic prints that are, arguably, superior to traditional silver/platinum/palladium prints. Prior to Epson’s introduction of “Epson Archival” inks in 2000, inkjet printers were using ink with dye colours. Dyes fade so comparison to silver prints was in silver’s favor. The balance shifted with the introduction of pigment inks. To quote Henry Wilhelm, guru of print permanence, “Dyes fade: consider your upholstery. Pigments last: consider oil paintings.”

            Since 2000 things have only gotten better. The spray droplets have gotten smaller. The pigments have gotten brighter (dyes were always bright…when first applied) and certain problems with print appearance in different kinds of lighting have been resolved. Current pigment inks produce beautiful prints that will hold their colour for centuries.

            During the same period, digital capture through 35mm-size cameras has improved to the point where an image can be directly captured that will produce a print resolution on a 12 inch wide print that exceeds the un-aided resolution of the human eye. In other words, that 8x10 B&W print that I used to produce in my darkroom from 35mm film can be replaced by an 8x12 colour print of equivalent visual quality, produced with a digital single lens reflex D-SLR camera and an inkjet printer.

            In a parallel development, the beauty of B&W prints has been duplicated, using carbon pigment, in third-party ink systems that replace the multiple colour cartridges of fine inkjet printers with multiple dilutions of black, allowing for fully-toned B&W inkjet prints.

            These pigments go best with natural papers, cotton or cellulose fibre, producing richly textured prints that have the feel of watercolour art. Resin-coated paper can be used, and it is especially useful for proof printing, but the colour will not last as well on the artificial papers.

            A working digital darkroom is made up of a computer, with image software, and a printer. Image capture can be with a camera or scanner.

Quality prints demand pigment inks. Large prints require a wide-carriage printer. Quality images require a digital single lens reflex camera or high-quality scanner. Large prints require large image files that require large hard drives and faster computers to handle the image manipulation within a reasonable amount of time.

The standard in image software is PhotoShop. It has been developed to be the professional’s toolbox for all sorts of graphic work. In recent years it has been focused on the sorts of transformations that photographers need to do. It has the highest capability and the highest cost.

Two others that are worth a look are Picture Window Pro and Paint Shop Pro. Picture Window Pro was developed as digital darkroom software. As such it is different in its approach from any other such program that I’ve seen. It is quite powerful and affordable.

Paint Shop Pro is very affordable and does about 80% of what PhotoShop can do. I used it for about 10 years and only switched to PhotoShop when it became important for me to fully control colour output. PSP does not manage colour output but rather depends on the printer driver to do it. This has become less important in the last few years with the improvement in printer drivers and I would not hesitate to recommend Paint Shop Pro for most uses.

            The real value of the digital darkroom comes in the quality of prints and the joy of creation. My digital system is capable of much more than any wet darkroom I’ve been involved in. The learning curve, while steep, is all within a certain dimension. If you can enjoy wrapping your head around multi-layered pixel manipulation there’s almost nothing that isn’t possible. For instance, I’ve recently been reading  “Welcome To Oz” by Vincent Versace, a Hollywood photographer and early PhotoShop expert. He was aware of the spectacular density and enhanced tonal range that can be achieved in silver prints by double development so he experimented with PhotoShop’s toolset for eight years developing a process that produces equivalent images to the silver double development! It’s all about achieving a vision with layered pixel manipulation.

            I have been taking pictures my whole life. Since moving to OOS in 1998 I’ve been increasingly interested in “Wild In the City” subjects. The birds at the feeding area on the Rideau River across from Billings Bridge are endlessly fascinating. Since getting into the digital realm I’ve discovered the digital stitching of many images into one large image and I used that technique for shots in western USA and Canada last August. Some of the resulting panoramas print out to more than five feet long!

            If you’d like to see my take on what can be done in the digital darkroom you’re welcome to drop by The Green Door Vegetarian Restaurant, at 198 Main Street, between June 24th and July 22nd. I’ll have large panoramas, ethereal birds, local (OOS and Experimental Farm) garden vegetation & other odds and ends on display for the month. I’ll be hanging around on Sunday afternoons to talk with people. Let me know what you think. Bring your appetite!