Digital Darkroom Notes | First Steps

Two weeks in Italy is a photographic dream come true – colorful, textural architecture, beautiful sunlight, gorgeous landscapes and coastal scenery. Several memory cards later, after the fun of exploring and photographing is done, the post-processing begins.

Without fail, it appears daunting at first, and over the years I’ve developed a few simple steps that will help with the digital darkroom workflow, making the overall project more manageable.

In my early Lightroom days, organizing photos was an afterthought, but as my archives grew it became imperative that initial sorting happen before editing began. It can be incredibly exciting to dive right into an edit, and occasionally I’ll allow myself the pleasure of a little preliminary editing of an image I’m particularly excited about, h, but for any larger project I try to stick to sorting first, editing after.

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With travel photography, creating collections based on accurate locations is an obvious choice, and in this case I am using a numbered structure to keep the collections in an accurate sequential order. Some of these collections will be refined further as I edit, and this flexibility is part of the beauty of using Lightroom to manage large collections of images.

My first pass through any batch, big or small, is simply to identify viable content and ‘flag’ it. This allows me to filter out the frames that are problematic and to quickly focus my editing attention on the frames that have the greatest potential. I have also flagged some frames that are merely for reference purposes – photos of signs, for example – as I will use those details to build accurate keywords and descriptions, and want those relevant frames to ‘float’ up through the editing process alongside the flagged images.

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Of 2347 total images captured in Italy, I have 1440 flagged. Around 50 of these are reference frames only. Another 100-150 are near-frames, which will require some editing and comparison before I can choose the best from those sequences. Another 50-100 images will be for personal use, shots of family mostly, and will not be included in the final edited batch uploaded to my website. So I am looking at a final edited total of roughly 1100 images, likely closer to 750, as I am constantly paring down my selections during the edit process, so that only the strongest images survive.

Now that these simple first few steps are complete, the work I have ahead of me doesn’t look quite so monumental. I can see that for some of the locations, the edits will be short and sweet, while others will require more time, and I can at-a-glance choose batches of photos for editing based on what kind of time I may have to spend in the digital darkroom on a particular day.

There are many tools and configurations offered by Lightroom and similar programs, to ease the process of organizing large batches of photos, and my workflow continues to evolve with experience. I have worked within the massive archives of other photographers, and managed digital assets in various commercial environments; I am always fascinated by the challenge of finding the organizational structure that best suits the ways in which different minds prefer to work. The biggest lesson over the years has been to pay attention to how my editing and end-use-requirements have changed, and to identify strategic ways of organizing my files, so that my workflow becomes entirely intuitive. What works for me may not work for others, but any approach to refining one’s own digital asset management can benefit from insight into how someone else has solved similar problems.

Now the real fun begins…

The best camera…

…is the one you have with you.  If you’ve been anywhere near the internet in the past several years, you’ve heard this phrase.  If you’re a photographer of any sort, from hobbyist to professional, you know without a doubt that it is true.

I’ve worked with SLRs since the age of seven, when my father entrusted me with a 35mm Minolta SLR body and a few lenses, providing an endless supply of black and white film for my early photography explorations.  I also had a Kodak point-and-shoot through which I must have run hundreds of rolls of color print film.  When it came time for me to start building my own SLR camera kit, it came in the form of an upgrade to an entry-level Nikon FM-10, which I still keep handy for those opportunities when a return to 35mm film for a few shots might be worthwhile.

With each camera, I learned very quickly to work with whatever equipment I had on hand.  Didn’t pack the right lens for the occasion?  I’d work with what I had thought to bring, and never regretted the lessons learned in those moments of artistic and technical problem-solving.

In the digital era, I once again found myself playing with the freedom and spontaneity of a newer Kodak point-and-shoot, while the bulk of my photographic work was created with a Nikon D80, which I managed to make effective in a wider-range of shooting circumstances than the manufacturers may have intended.  I worked with the D80 well past the reported limit of actuations, and as the image quality began to degrade, I knew my beloved DSLR body had helped me to build an extensive portfolio as I explored different shooting styles and challenges.

I have now made the ultimate upgrade, working with a Nikon D800, and the creative flexibility and power it provides has opened up new paths for me, through visual and technical experience.  It is an incredible piece of engineering, and I hope my photography will continue to evolve as I learn to make use of all that it offers.

What inspired this post, however, is a recent, smaller upgrade.  For nearly 4 years, I’ve carried around an iPod touch as my “pocket computer”.  I tend to be a late-adopter on principle, and did not see the need for an expensive data-hungry phone, when any wi-fi connection could connect me in an instant to the online world.  With the iPod, I started an instagram account and enjoyed the spontaneous world of snapshot sharing.  As the years have gone by, I have been keenly aware of how the quality of my low-resolution images compare to those made by newer smartphones and mobile devices.  Yet I continued to share my world and in-the-moment photos in low-resolution, because in many instances it was the only camera I had with me, and therefore it was the best camera for that moment.  I’ve now upgraded my phone, and while the camera can not compare to my DLSR, it offers me new creative opportunities as I share higher-quality images and may find myself even further inspired to capture those candid and intimate moments that every day has to offer.  Join me on the journey!

one truck, two treatments

Both of these photos were shot in the same hour, in the late summer heat of an early October afternoon. Sunlight filtered through the dusty rows of a seemingly endless walnut orchard, and this decaying old pick-up truck was interesting from every angle.

The first image was an early attempt at creative lighting and a found object, with off-camera flash and gels. I can think of so many other ways to play with this concept alone…might have to explore more of this kind of work. The second shot is the view I enjoyed from my tent in the orchard.

late afternoon

it’s a small world…

Perhaps it’s a result of having grown up a pilot’s daughter, but I have always adored the look of the world in miniature.  That we also had an N-gauge model train layout in the garage probably confirmed for me the surreal pleasure of a giant’s perspective across landscapes of small structures and tiny figures.

I know it is regarded by many as a fad mostly used by advertisers, but tilt-shift photography always satisfies that familiar childish joy of mine, because it allows our minds if only for a moment, to view the world as though it were made up of toys.

Beach scene, tilt-shift

Photography being a rather expensive endeavour, my dreams of a tilt-shift lens to fully explore this unusual perspective will have to wait.  Luckily there is the digital darkroom, and an online world full of photography tips and tilt-shift tricks.  Learning this new (and easy) workflow prompted me to attack my archives with something different in mind, and photos I might have passed over the first time have been given new life through the use of a different perspective.  I’m already thinking of the next scenes I’d like to try the tilt-shift effect on…