One of the great benefits for people like myself who change styles frequently, or at least at some point may change styles for a while, is shooting raw. It’s just something that pre-digital photographers couldn’t do, or at least couldn’t do well. It was possible to shoot color and print on special b&w paper (as an example) but you just couldn’t get the same results as if you had shot with your favorite b&w film.
Another benefit of working in digital, is that the tools keep changing. So long as you began with a raw image, the chances are good that as you go along you’ll find a newly developed tool that again – has one aim – to give the photographer more control over the final image.
Of course, this is also a possible downside to the digital experience. When we were shooting fine-art b&w, the common technique as espoused by the man – Ansel – was to pre-visualize your final print, and to expose and develop to try and make that final image a possibility.
You would typically use a spot meter, and measure the extremes of the scene: the highlights, and the shadows, and a few other things like the middle tones, and then you’d put your Zone thinking cap on, and think about what you want to achieve; whether the negative tones needed to be compressed or expanded. In other words, if the tonal range was too wide and you couldn’t get it all on the negative if you exposed for the middle tones, then you might decide to bring the highlights down and the shadows up during the film processing.
Again, when you got to the actual darkroom phase. Commonly you’d make test prints, and then a working print, and eventually a final print where you’d do a sort of ballet with your hands or cut outs to dodge and burn various areas. You would need to keep careful notes, with little stick-like figures to remind you about which areas need more or less exposure; and what your time was, and what ratio of water to developer you used, and whether you might have bleached an area or how much toning you did.
If it was a complicated print, you might not be able to completely duplicate two prints. You tended to do one print several times, so that you’d work in batches so you could remember exactly how to expose the prints.
And then you come to the digital print world, and it is the exact opposite. First off, given that you are working with a nicely calibrated system, with the same output and same inks, profiles and papers – you really can do prints that are virtually the same. That is one obvious benefit.
However, in real life, at least for me – I don’t work with batches at a time, and in fact prints that were shot years ago, that you’ve been printing digitally for many years – other options become available, or strike you as your printing the 30th print.
The digital workflow, for the artist, is actually closer to the painters experience than to the old photographers darkroom. Assuming that the artist is learning new techniques, or even that he/she is changing emotionally, or artistically through the years – that print that you’ve done 30 times may suddenly present new possibilities. Whether it’s the HDR thing that happened to me, or even if you are still using the same tools – it is so easy with contemporary tools to tweak some area of the image, change the contrast in one area – or sharpen something — the list is virtually endless – that you find yourself making printing changes to the 31st print.
These changes can be subtle, or drastic. For some people, this freedom is something that you shouldn’t mess with too much. You had an idea when you originally shot the print, and the idea is to try to stick with the original vision. For the tinkerers – it’s just the opposite. You look at the same starting point – and have ideas about how the original idea can be presented more effectively. There really is no right or wrong for this type of artist. Just change.
This is all by way of saying that what interests me now, is redoing older prints that were all originally presented as b&w images – and using hdr to do a color rendition, or a different take on the b&w rendition.
I’m often asked – but don’t you miss shooting film. Not at all. Not only don’t I miss it, but the longer I work with digital output, the more opportunities present themselves. Sometimes by accident. Sometimes after a lot of careful planning. In other words – there really are no “final prints” anymore. There are variations on a theme.
It’s not that one rendition is better than the previous one. As I say, I don’t feel any obligation to stick with the original print. They are just variations on a theme, which is common in the music world. Think of it as the cadenza at the end of a classical piece of music where the musicians are encouraged to improvise. The same technique has come down through the ages to become improvisation in jazz. Play the melody so the audience knows where you are starting – and then close your eyes and run with it.