Friday, June 1, 2018

Digital Flow

In my previous remarks I pointed out that it is possible, even easy, with a digital workflow, to fall into a pattern of crowd-pleasing.

This, I am coming to think, might be a more general problem. I see people saying things like "color? Or black-and-white?" and they throw up some picture with a black and white conversion of it for comment. Others weigh in, invariably about 50:50 color versus black-and-white, with the usual inane blur of trivial suggestions. Take this as a proxy for myriad similar conundrums.

Not that I am some film zealot, but if you shot a roll if Tri-X or TMax "back in the day" you pretty much had one choice, which was black and white prints. After a while, even if nobody pointed it out, you'd notice some things, at some level. Perhaps not even consciously. You might notice, for instance, that without some care in framing the thing in the foreground would get visually muddled up with stuff in the background. You might start to place tonally light subjects against dark backgrounds, and vice versa, or some other things.

In these modern, degenerate, times, you have more choices. You can try color, say. Maybe the subject is red, and the background is green. In black and white the foreground and background are an indecipherable muddle, in color they're distinct. You can't put your finger on it, because you just got your camera, but you like the color one better.

I suspect, rather strongly, that the vast flexibility of the digital workflow presents myriad opportunities like this one to do what we might think of as the opposite of learning. Because you can so often bang away on the sliders until it "looks good" and because even if you can't, you can simply move on to the next frame in a fraction of a second, you can avoid learning anything. I am constantly surprised by how unclear many people are about what the sliders even do.

The slower and far more limited processes of film made us stop and think. You were far less likely to simply try some random thing, because even if you had the negative mounted and the chemistry mixed, you're still looking at a commitment of several minutes to try your idea out on a single test print. It paid you to think for a moment. Now you can grab the slider and start moving it before you even consciously decide to.

I am, by the way, intimately familiar with this dynamic because my biggest failing in the darkroom is that I don't sit and think about the print enough after it comes out of the fixer.

Now, you certainly don't have to be a dope and simply mash sliders. When I go to work on some picture, I generally have a very clear idea of what I want, and I just do that. I am time constrained, and have no interest is simply milling about in folders full of pictures tinkering with them at random. There are loads of people, though, who seem to find precisely this to be a jolly way to spend an afternoon.


  1. I’m surprised black and white is still a thing, to be honest. And I’m saying that as someone who only shoots for black and white. Someone who discovered my weird predilection for monotone ask me recently “So…. why do you just make black and white pictures…?”, rather like he was asking “So… dumpster diving… to save money, or is it a philosophy thing?”

    These days you have to be a certain age to remember black and white films and T.V., or a niche art film lover, or just arty in general. Very few people deliberately set out to make a black and white photo. Usually, if they do put a black and white picture up on their feed, it’s because they remembered the advice they read somewhere that said “before you toss it because you don’t like the colours, try it in black and white!”.

    To your point though, I learned vastly more about black and white photography when I stopped using black and white film and switched to digital. With digital, I can make more pictures, make more mistakes, learn more quickly from those mistakes, and try again so much faster than I could when I was processing sheets of film in an open tray. The key, in my opinion, is the deliberate part: I’m specifically shooting for black and white. It’s not that I can magically “see in black and white”. I’ve simply figured out when it’s the colour that is making the picture; I don’t take those if my goal is black and white.

    1. Sounds good to me! I think one really has to narrow oneself down quite a lot in the land of digital, because the field is so wildly broad.

  2. I don't know how you learned to process your digital files, but "simply milling about in folders full of pictures tinkering with them at random" is pretty much how I did it.

    Of course, one photographer's trial-and-error methodology can be visually indistinguishable from another photographer's playing around randomly, at least initially. But over time, the differing effectiveness of these two approaches becomes readily apparent.

    That's because a photographer who employs the former approach uses their cumulative experience to achieve slightly better results each time they process a photo, whereas a photographer who employs the latter approach never seems to make any progress and their mediocre results eventually reflect this.

    IMO, so long as a photographer pays attention and learns from both their mistakes and successes, tinkering with photos at random isn't necessarily a bad way to hone one's chops.

    After all, practice does make perfect!

    1. Well, basically I just tried to find the tools that I learned in the darkroom ;) Then I discovered the curves tool, and to use it gently. I may have done some milling around when I had more time?