Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Process - Analog to Digital (and back again)

I have been asked to explain the process I use when making my images so I hope that the following will be of interest to some.

As I mentioned in the last post my images are produced as toned silver gelatin prints in limited editions of eight and sixteen. They are hand-made in a traditional 'wet' darkroom using an enlarger and photographic paper developed and then bleached and toned using chemical solutions.

As we become more conscious of the damage we are doing to our environment, traditional darkrooms may become even rarer than they are already as more laws are being passed to protect our water supplies and prevent noxious chemicals from polluting them. One printer in London that I have used in the past can no longer bleach and tone prints as it is now illegal to allow the chemicals he would use to enter the water system in his area. Interestingly, this stricture does not apply to all parts of the metropolis and other darkrooms can still use the solutions that are prohibited elsewhere.

I chose to limit my editions to eight prints as it is the size of the edition that Duschamps made of his 'Urinal'. When encouraged by a gallery to produce a larger edition, I chose a multiple of eight, ie sixteen.

When collecting the elements that I need to compose an image I shoot on colour transparency material because it is much more scanner friendly than negative material which is designed to be projected onto photographic paper and has a coarser composition which shows up all too readily as granularity in high resolution drum scans.

Normally I will shoot on a Bronica SQA 6x6 camera but I do occasionally drop down to 35mm and sometimes I have used 4'x5' and even 8"x10". More often than not I will use a standard lens though if space is very tight I will occasionally employ a wide-angle lens though I prefer, in these instances, to photograph my subject into two, three or four sections with a standard lens and then strip the pieces together in the computer.

For scanning I use a Howtek D4500 drum scanner which produces beautiful scans albeit slowly. I float the transparency in oil for optimum results. The Howtek has a feature allows the operator to manually focus the scanner's 'eye' on any part of the transparency that he chooses with microscopic precision. I, for example, when scanning a face always make sure that the eyes are the primary point of focus.

Once all the elements have been digitized then the compositing begins. The assumption is often made that I am using Adobe's PhotoShop but I have never used it. Ten years ago when I decided to invest in digital technology PhotoShop was less than impressive. I am sure that it has improved greatly in the intervening years.

I use a piece of software called Imaginator, made by Dicomed. The story goes that the Imaginator software designers enlisted the advice of working photographers during the design stages which would account for its ease of use for 'old school' photographers such as myself. The terms used in the menus are those I am familiar with and there are no distracting windows. The image is displayed on a simple black background and icons automatically disappear when not being used.

What separated Imaginator from its competitors years ago was its ability to offer infinite 'undos'; not 'undos' selected from a 'drop-down' history menu but limitless 'undos' applied subtly and in real time by the simple use of a digitizer's erase button. These 'undos' are also pressure sensitive which allows even greater control by the human operator over the will of the software design.

You might be interested to know that my work was seen by some 'Adobe Evangelists' (they do actually exist, if only in America) a few years' ago who could tell that it had not been made using PhotoShop. Make of that what you will.

When finished, the RGB greyscale file is then written/exposed to black and white negative material (usually T-Max) using a film recorder/writer which is essentially the scanning process in reverse.

This negative is processed in the usual way of any piece of exposed film and from the resulting negative the prints are made. It might be worth mentioning that digital negatives are often better than those made in a camera because of the controls that imaging software offers. One obvious advantage is the 'sharpening' filter which, used with discretion, produces a crisp negative result that contributes enormously to print quality.

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