Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Tyranny of the Digital Darkroom

I swear I've seen this observation before, but it is not a common lament and it should be.

Do you recall a time when you could drop a couple rolls off, and get a couple contact sheets? Then you'd mark the contract sheet up with a red pen. Draw some lines. Talk to the guy a bit. Then a couple days later you'd have prints. Remember?

Even then some people would tell you that if you were serious of course you needed to do your own darkroom work, but tons of people ignored those people. Many superb photographers didn't process or print. They shot.

These days we're all slaves in the digital darkroom. You can either take what the camera gives you, or you can do the work yourself.

There just doesn't seem to be a business in doing the darkroom work any more. It's "so easy" we're reluctant to pay for it. We shoot too damn many frames for anything like a contact sheet to be useful anyways. The attraction of screwing around on the computer is pretty universal, so we barely notice that we've become dumb beasts of burden, schlepping Adobe's software.

It lets us disguise our Facebook habit, our twitter habit, our instagram habit.

Next time you're "processing images" make a note of how much time you spend not processing images. Are you processing images now? You are not. You are screwing around on the internet reading some dumb blog. Imagine if you could have a guy doing all that. Imagine that you're out in the street, at a cafe, asleep under a tree, while your pictures are being magically turned in to prints by a guy who's better at it than you, and astonishingly cheap.

There's no going back, of course.


  1. That is not only photography. We use to have people to type text for us, type set books (for the ones writing books), etc... Now we do all that on the computer.

    Except that the reason we changed is because the guy printing the pictures (or typing, etc...) was NOT cheap and did a lousy job. I remember bringing film in to be printed and fuzzy small prints, inaccurate color balance, and damaged negative. Theoretically, one could have had a better job at a pro lab, except that these charged horrendous prices and would not serve amateurs or if they did, did not gave them the same amount of attention as they gave to their regular, prestigious customers.

    We tend to remember the past with rose tinted glasses.

    1. I'm sure that results varied, and I am sure your story is absolutely true.

      That said, one of the best photos I ever took was handled by a pro lab and my sister has the print (the negative, alas, is lost). The print is excellent.

      My father had probably 100 cibachromes made that remain in the family, and they are also excellent. I am pretty sure we still have the transparencies as well and they were unharmed.

      Cheap? Expensive? I dunno. How much is your time worth? Certainly it was worth it to find the right lab and develop a relationship.

      The point is that there's no lab to find any more, no relationship to develop. We're stuck doing it ourselves regardless of whether the options are good or bad, cheap or expensive. There's really just the one choice.

    2. Of course there are labs still to be found. There are less of them and they have become more expensive, but they have not disappeared.

      I don't like to cite Ken Rockwell, but I remember that you live in the USA (I don't) and he has a collection of references for your country:

      This is for color, but I am sure that there are also B&W labs in every major US city.

    3. We're wandering off point here.

      Yes there are plenty of film labs. Yes there are digital print services. I'm not terribly bright, but I'm not completely ignorant.

      What seems to be lacking is the digital equivalent of the contact sheet, the red pen, and a guy who makes your print for you.

      I think Ctein actually does this. But I'm pretty sure he doesn't start from an SD card, there is a presumption that you've done some of the post. And he's a rare, high end, bespoke service.

      He is not and never was the guy in the local lab pulling custom prints.

    4. Now I understand better.

      It is a simple question of economics. You will find labs to print digital files for you. How do you think exhibition prints are made?

      You will not find people ready to go through the boatload of files that digital photographers usually produce to find the best ones. That would be too expensive.

      You can connect your camera to a small photo printer and have contact prints printed. Heck, there are even printers which directly accept SD cards and print contact sheets.

      You could hire an assistant to do the job of printing contact sheets, get your selection, process and print the individual files. I know pro photographers who work like that.

      I am still not convinced but what you wrote. I think that what you describe is less common, hence more expensive, but still exists. I also think that what we got for a reasonable fee 30 years ago was not a master print from our contact print, but standard work. You would get about the same quality by sending your jpeg file to any online print service. They do a fairly good default optimisation.

    5. Yes, I think it is generally uneconomical.

      Like so many things, we think that because we can do it ourselves, we ought to save that money. So quite a lot of people do, with drives demand down to non-viable levels. It's a theory, anyways.

      Also, we shoot too damn much, so we can't just flip through a couple sheets of contacts.

  2. I dunno, perhaps there still is an untapped market for this kind of service. Upload the raw file, or even JPEG, to someone's website and you get back a large JPEG or TIFF that's ready to use. Such a business could employ skilled people wherever in the world, connected by the Internet and FTP ( file transfer protocol) software.

    There could be a user interface to the website that asks the important questions, what's the final output format, what's the style desired (monochrome, HDR, highly saturated colors, etc.), then they do the work.

    1. You could, and there probably are offshore shops that will do it? I know I can outsource retouching work.

      Not sure I can really buy the conversation, though. The one where I explain what I'm looking for, and then a guy with better skills than mine, and some good judgement of his own, turns that into a good print. For, I dunno, $50 in today's dollars. Maybe $100.

      That was a nice middle ground, where I think a lot of people worked. Given that a lab in Middletown, CT, could offer "custom printing" services, I assume they were doing decent business in a not very big city.

  3. For the last 10 years or so, a local pro near where I live also had a custom print service. I would bring in a RAW file along with a jpeg that was pretty close to what I wanted (my camera's jpegs are aligned with my color sense). I would sit with the pro's photoshop guy/printer for 10-15 minutes and fine tune the file, run a proof copy, then if all was well, print the file. More that 10-15 minutes was extra. Total cost to me $45.00 for a 16" x 20" print. This was well worth it as I only printed when I had a show or a sale from my website. This guy knew far more about photoshop/tweaking files than I will ever learn and within a few sessions together, he totally grasped my vision and aesthetic, so I knew he could do what I wanted. An hour or less of my time and I'd walk out with a great print.

    I think this is what you were talking about in your opening paragraph. Alas, he was terminated for not pulling his weight.

    1. That is pretty much exactly it, yep. Basically, I appreciated being able to buy, I dunno, 30 minutes of an expert's time on top of a basic print service. I suppose the local shop might be willing to do for me what your chap did? I shall investigate.

      It's not *ubiquitous* and *common* at this point, but I shall be well pleased to find out that it's at least still available if you poke around.

  4. If what you suggest is a service that you want then send me a bunch of similar images, tell me the sort of image you are after, and for a negotiable fee I'll choose the best, post-process it/them and send you the result. For a further $100 I'll produce an archival quality A3+ print.