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Photoshop Exercise – Printing 'Fernshadow'

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

By the third day of my intensive, week-long class in Photoshop, I thought the fact that I felt whipped and oh-so-eye-tired was due to my being the oldest person in the computer lab.

My 15-year-old seatmate set me straight – as did the muscular fisherman/diver from Campobello who sat behind us.

Everyone was feeling the strain of full days of staring at a computer screen. But it was a good kind of tired – the kind you feel when you are learning something new and have a hard time doing anything else.

For me, this was first-time and total immersion: a Photoshop workshop at the University of Maine at Machias, taught by photographer/artist Leslie Bowman. My fellow classmates were an interesting and diverse lot, ranging in age from 15 (my seatmate) to 57-year-old me, and everyone seemed to have his or her own agenda.

This was the first time that Leslie, an assistant professor of art at UMM, had taught a Photoshop class and she was anxious to offer something for everyone. And, as it happened, almost everyone in the class had his or her own very different goals for using what arguably is the best technology available for digitally editing, altering or printing photographs.

And by the end of the week each of us had managed at varying levels to do what we came to do:

Some (mostly the younger people) wanted to create other-worldly, even bizarre, images, incorporating clip art, their own scanned photographs, or even, in one case, body art. [The student who managed to scan the huge tattoo on his back. Don't ask.]

Another student, a young mother whose husband was in the military, wanted only to put together a collage of color family snapshots and printed greetings, to send to her husband overseas.

Still another student, an established painter whose work is carried in several prominent galleries, was hoping to use Photoshop to move her work in a different direction, creating what amounted to templates for future paintings.

My buddy Cleland, the Campobello fisherman, made it his goal to restore two battered black and white family pictures and blend them together to create a trans-generational tableau.

Meanwhile Karen, a dancer/choreographer working with a local theater group, spent the entire week putting together an elaborate, photo-filled poster touting the group's production of the musical "Annie."

As for myself, my goals were perhaps less ambitious, but just as important to me: I wanted to see whether I could use Photoshop as a "dry" darkroom to create a beautiful print from a scanned negative. I wasn't looking for the bizarre or the elaborate. I wanted to see how the digital darkroom compared with my own not-inconsiderable skills in the wet one.

As I worked over my negative, I remembered nearly a decade ago listening to Michael Furman, a well-known commercial photographer from Philadelphia, talk about his love of photographing classic and top-of-the line automobiles – a specialty that has put him in the top rank of car shooters. The examples he showed to a group of my colleagues one evening – especially his stunning images in black and white – made me say to myself: now here is a guy who knows his way around the darkroom.

And Michael did – and does. But even back then he was touting the benefits of digital technology, though he insisted to us that evening: "I can't even program my VCR."

What stuck with me most that night – even more than the great photographs Michael showed – was his insistence that digital technology, used correctly, could draw much more visual "information" out of a traditional, silver-based slide or negative than could be gotten through conventional darkroom techniques. Where in the wet darkroom, you had maybe eight to ten grades of contrast to choose from, Michael declared, with digital you might have dozens. Though many commercial photographers, Michael included, have gravitated more to digital when actually taking pictures, the ability of programs like Photoshop to get the most out of "traditional" materials is a strong argument for film fans like me not to abandon a medium that has served so well for so long.

That's what led me to try to digitally print "Fernshadow," one of my favorite black and white nature images from Maine. I had made the picture last summer at a beautiful outdoor garden near Jonesport – a happy accident, really, for which I can thank sunlight and my Leica M6. As my wife Judy and Leslie Bowman (both great gardeners as well as artists) explored one part of this vast place, I found myself among some trees. I happened to look down at a group of ferns that were growing nearby and noticed that every so often, a large perfect fern frond would be blown right in between the sunlight and a smooth round rock on the ground, creating a tack sharp black shadow. It was a wonderful, naturally occurring, positive-negative image that emerged only when the fern was blown into exactly the right position.

I set myself over the rock and focused my Leica, waiting for the wind to blow. I shot eleven frames. The keeper, it turned out, was my second shot.

I never printed this negative myself, but my custom lab in Washington did make a first rate series of 4x6's that gave me a pretty good idea how a final print should look. That 4x6 became my reference print when I brought my negative to Photoshop class.

Because I was conducting an experiment, I first tried scanning the 4x6 proof on a flatbed scanner, then printing it straight, since the 4x6 already was a good print. Then, using a Nikon film scanner, I scanned the 35mm negative and, though using Photoshop to move the process along, did nothing to change the values recorded in the scan. The resulting print was, in effect, unmanipulated.

Though the "print of the print" – the scanned 4x6 – was good, I was unhappy with what I perceived to be less sharpness than in the unmanipulated print from the scanned negative.

When I finally started to use the tools I had been given over the previous days, I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised. Looking at the positive image from the scanned negative on my computer screen I first punched up the contrast to a level I thought was pleasing, marveling at how I immediately could see the effect I was getting – and not have to wait for test strips to emerge from the developer.

It was the burning-in tool, however, that really tickled me. If you look at the sunlit frond at the center top of the picture [the one that is actually casting a shadow] note the subtle yet significant difference in detail between the unmanipulated frame and the manipulated one. I was able to do this burning-in subtly and surgically, getting an effect it likely would have taken several prints to achieve in my basement darkroom.

Not only that, but Photoshop's layering tools let me work on different parts of the image, or undo some effect, without having to go back to square one.

[Note: Those of you who have been doing this for years, keep your sniggering to yourself. I'm new at this, OK?]

The final print I made, on watercolor paper, was gorgeous. Prints on digital photo paper were mediocre at best. In fact, my only criticism of this whole process is that, so far anyway, I haven't seen any digital photo paper that can rival, say, a gloriously retro, fiber-based, Bergger #3, for heft, sheen – sheer photographness.

But I suspect that will come. And when it does, will I then abandon my own wet darkroom?

Not likely.

I really do love it down there, in my dark, wet – computer-free – sanctuary.

And, believe it or not, there's less eye strain.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

©Karen Varian
In the right hands, Photoshop can help produce a poster that looks as if it came out of the Sunday NY Times entertainment section. Actually, this gorgeous work was done by dancer/choreographer Karen Varian for a Machias, Maine local theater production.

©Frank Van Riper
The first 'unmanipulated' version of my Fernshadow photo is flat, with washed- out highlights...

©Frank Van Riper
...but the keeper version looks great, after I punched up the contrast and burned in detail using Photoshop. And not a wet darkroom in sight.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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