The digital darkroom, the cautionary tale of the boiling frog

If there is a line in the digital darkroom between enhancement and over-cooked, supersaturation then it’s a fine one. Photoshop certainly has no warning line before you cross that aesthetic line from enhancement into the land of super-contrast hyper-saturated colour.

But why do we do it? Is Photoshop’s raw addictive power seducing photographer’s? Is it a flaw in digital workflow? Or our own personal aesthetics?

Desensitising Nature of the Workflow Beast

It’s common for digital workflow be fragmentary, often split over several applications -- RAW converter; Lightroom or Camera Raw rather than taking place in one unified place. By the time we have Photoshop open we have already introduced global changes to the source file Our reference point, the initial capture, is closed, our focus switching to the digital darkroom tasks at hand.

The net result of this is it's easier to loose a clear sense of the before and after.

A Cautionary Tale of The Boiling Frog

Even our own senses can betray us.

Place a frog in boiling water, it will jump out immediately, but place it in cool water, gradually heating it to boiling and it will not sense the temperature change and get cooked to death. As this rather macabre 18th Century experiment shows, our senses lose their ability to perceive and react to a significant changes when these occur slowly over time.

In the digital darkroom we introduce many changes and whilst individually these adjustments might not be massive, their combined sum total can introduce huge shifts from our original. Without continual ongoing cross-checking between the PSD and our RAW file it’s easy to lose perspective of our ‘before’ relative to the developing ‘now’ and get caught in a cycle of adjustment on adjustment on adjustment.

Finish. Stop. Reverse.

To prevent going across the tipping point, recently I’ve begun retrospectively reviewing and assessing each layer adjustment to judge its contribution to the final print and my intended goal in the digital darkroom.

To create a quick before and after the snapshot function in Photoshop’s history palette comes in very handy;

  1. Save image (with all adjustment layers active)
  2. Go to the history palette > snapshot icon > create snapshot 1
  3. Go back to your layers palette
  4. Switch off all adjustment layers
  5. Go back to the history palette > snapshot icon > create snapshot 2

Toggling between these 2 snapshots provides easy evaluation of any heavy handedness between the developed image (snapshot 1) and a pre-Photoshopped image (snapshot 2).

After reviewing the global differences in the before and after, I individually switch on each adjustment layer to view each adjustments impact and contribution (for good or ill) and make any tweaks as needed.

Importing RAW files as Smart Objects is also useful here as if on reviewing the base layer you decide the RAW is at fault, a double click to that layer will re-open the ACR editor for you to edit at will. On clicking done, changes in ACR will reflect immediately in your Photoshop doc.

Paul Marsden.

All Rights Reserved.