Sunday, October 17, 2010

Workflow: Retouching and printing

The process differs for each person. There are no two workflows that are identical. While each portion of the process is critical, I'm going to just focus on just the backend portion of my workflow here.

I had some friends over yesterday. Upon showing them my "workspace" they remarked how "professional" it looked. I don't know what gave it away. Perhaps it was the converted formal dining room table? Or maybe it was the mismatched CFL bulbs from the rest of the house? In all seriousness however, the irony behind what I do is that most of it is done in an "office".

And not behind the camera.

If I spend 5 hours shooting, I can easily spend 15 hours retouching. That's down from 40 hours retouching because I'm more efficient these days. Plus I shoot better models so I don't need to retouch as much. It still means I'm behind the Eizo a lot more than I am behind the Hasselblad.

The digital darkroom is paramount to my workflow. I often upgrade my darkroom with either new equipment or new tools. The obvious upgrades are hardware upgrades.
Improvements to infrastructure as I call it. Then there are the subtle improvements that come in the form of new techniques; often the result of endless hours of researching or endless hours of experimentation. Either way, I end up with new "tools" to work with in the darkroom.

I can't imagine not having this portion of the process. It's as much a part of photography as the initial capture. It would be ridiculous for us to compare out-of-the-box pictures. It would be like saying, "let's compare high school GPAs". No one gives a shit. The only people that care about out-of-the-box results are the ones that have no skill retouching (like those who peaked in high-school). It's the only playing field they can compete on. Sadly, these dinosaurs fall to the wayside when their work is compared to the refined work coming from photographers that take advantage of the full-workflow which includes retouching. No editor is going to accept an unfinished product; which is exactly what an unretouched image is.

But I digress. The point is not for me to harp on retouching but rather to glorify the rest of the process. Lately for me, my backend process has included printing.

Yes, printing today is different from printing during film days. Back in the heyday of film, processing and printing went hand-in-hand (and yet the same dinosaurs balk at Photoshop today). There was really no other way to see your results other than processing your negatives and printing your those images. Today, printing digital images is a rather neutered process in comparison to old-school printing because Photoshop bears the brunt of the post-processing burden. Printing has become the bastard child of the photography workflow, now commonly outsourced some hourly worker at Costco or worse, a Kodak photo kiosk at Rite-Aid.

Digital has not only killed film, it's really done a number on printing.

Now, am I saying we should all go back to printing in the darkroom? Don't be silly. This is evolution. The point is not to go backwards but rather, forwards. In the past couple weeks since acquiring the 9500 Mark II, I've rediscovered the joy of having the actual finished product in my hands. To have and to hold, through richer or poorer... seriously though, having something tangible in my hands that I can pass around to others is an experience that has no substitute. Printing completes the workflow.

Now I know printing from an ink-jet is an extremely synthetic experience when compared to darkroom printing. Hell, darkroom printing was about the smell of the chemicals, being alone for a long time, and often not really knowing what you were going to get. Yes, it was a much more organic experience in every sense of the word. Digital printing is much more mechanized, allows us to achieve repeatable results, and arguably more "soulless" in that respect. The prints aren't really photographs but rather, "digigraphs" as I've heard argued before by the old-timers. There's something real and gritty about the process of developing prints in a darkroom that will never be duplicated in a digital darkroom.

That being said, digital images are more advanced and can arguably look better than darkroom images because of the tools and the flexibility afforded to us by technology. Regardless of whether or not this is true, printing provides us an analog medium that takes us back to our roots. Our roots of not only photography but of simply being a human being. Rooted in the physical world. Bonded by memories. Memories forged by that which is tangible. There's something absolutely therapeutic about printing. For these reasons alone I believe it's paramount to print your images.


  1. How refreshing!!!! you've written exactly what I think when talking about retouching.
    Regarding the printing, even if it isn't as "the good old times" (I've never done it by the way) I always get chills when I print a photo for my portfolio and I start seeing it bit by bit while the printer is doing its work. When I see the finished print its always better than seeing it in my monitor...


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