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The Digital Darkroom: Has Going Digital Killed Photography’s Artistry?

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It’s not news that photography has changed dramatically over the past century. What was once an arduous process involving chemicals and clothespins has been completely digitalized, and in many cases automated. Anyone with a smartphone can call themselves a photographer; but does that mean the artistry has fizzled? Not in the least.

I like to say that questioning artistry in the digital darkroom is like questioning a chef’s ability to transform raw ingredients into a great dish. It’s not the tools that count as much as the mastery of the chef and, of course, the excellence of the final product.

Chefs and photographers are more alike than you’d think in this regard, as is the evolution of their craft. Even when armed with a KitchenAid Mixer, your average home cook is unlikely to whip up a gourmet dinner. It’s the same with photography: you need skill, instinct, and creativity to create a stunning photo, whether your darkroom is actual or digital.

The shoot: shopping for inspiration

A photo shoot is a lot like a shopping excursion a chef might take to buy ingredients. What you shop for, like what you shoot, must be carefully planned and chosen dependent on what you will do to in the kitchen—or in a photographer’s case, post-production.

Most grocery store patrons don’t have the training to innovate in the kitchen, and many go without a clue as to what they are making for dinner. Their dish may still be delicious, for what it’s worth; similarly, anyone can take a pretty good picture with their phone or digital camera. But when cooking or taking photos is your business, the stakes are higher. Your product needs to stand out (and likely, monetize). Your ingredients must be quality, and you have to think ahead about preparation.

Knowing your equipment, your space, your model, your light, your textures, and your vision is all critical when it comes to photography. It’s these raw elements that you can manipulate in the digital darkroom, so choose them wisely.

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The photograph: all the right ingredients

As with making a great meal, making a photograph starts with the taking of the picture. You’ve completed your shoot, and now you’re checking out with all the ingredients you need to make your vision come to life. You may come home with dozens of items, but you’ll still have to decide which to use and which to save for later.

In the hands of a great chef, ingredients are turned into something magical and greater than just the sum of the parts. In the hands of a great photographer, the raw ingredients of the shoot can be turned into something special in the digital darkroom.

Choosing a photo or set of photos from a shoot is like choosing which ingredients to prepare a meal. In a traditional darkroom, you would study your thumbnails to decide which ones were worth enlarging; today, you can analyze each and every shot if up close if you want to. Regardless, a critical eye is needed to choose which images to begin with, edit, and ultimately publish.

The digital darkroom: mixing things up in post

Now is where the real fun begins. Traditionally, photographers take their raw images into the darkroom, where they can brighten them, darken them, and alter them in various ways to influence the final product. Today, the digital darkroom (characterized by tools like Photoshop) are far more common.

Take the dodge tool for example. In a darkroom, you’d use a wire with black tape to increase the amount of light that reaches certain portions of your image. You can also trace areas, as you would with Photoshop, to darken specific portions much like you would with Photoshop’s select and burn tools.

Below is an example of Photoshop’s dodge/burn tool with before and after screenshots of Natalie Dormer:

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All of this takes more time than it would in a digital darkroom, but saving time doesn’t negate creativity. It requires a lot of knowledge, technique, and effort, in the same way cooking does even with the addition of devices like pressure cookers and immersion blenders. Technology has changed the game for chefs just as digital cameras and darkrooms have for photographers.

Thanks to technology, professionals of all stripes now have the ability to create even greater art. The same goes for the everyday person that wants to learn a new craft. The result is ultimately more artistry across the board, even if there are poorly-filtered Instagrams and burnt cookies along the way.

It’s true that there may be some technique and patience lost in the transition from darkroom to digital—but in my opinion, even more has been gained. As long as photography continues to illicit emotion (and food to excite the taste buds) you can rest assured that technology has not erased artistry. It has enhanced it and democratized it, and for that we should all be grateful.


About the author: Kurt Iswarienko is a Malibu, CA-based celebrity portrait and commercial photographer. To see more of his work, check out his website or give him a follow on Facebook and Instagram.

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