In defense of the digital darkroom

While browsing online photo communities, I occasionally see comments from those who look upon “Photoshopped” images with great disdain. I’m not referring to those who simply prefer film photography to digital(a valid, if debatable point of view), but rather those who see post-production via Photoshop – and sometimes digital photography itself – as a bastardization of the “pure” art form of film photography and traditional print-making.

I would respectfully disagree.

“Manipulating” images has always been a part of the photographic process, long before Photoshop or computers ever existed. No less a figure than Ansel Adams spent hour upon hour in his darkroom, employing every technique at his disposal to produce a print that reflected the image he had in his mind’s eye at the time he triggered the shutter. I say “mind’s eye” because Adams, like most great photographers, was not interested in merely recording with his camera what he saw through the viewfinder. He intended the final print to be his artistic interpretation of what he saw through the viewfinder. That final print often bore little resemblance to the raw negative that first emerged from his camera.

In a sense, one might say that the very act of taking a photo is itself a form of manipulation. We choose what to show our audience by how we frame a scene. We decide whether to use a wide angle or telephoto lens. Maybe we choose a large aperture, in order to isolate our subject by softening the background, or a smaller aperture, for greater depth of field. We set the exposure, which determines how tones are rendered… perhaps we set the exposure to intentionally render certain tones lighter or darker than they appear to the naked eye, in order to evoke or accentuate a certain mood. We’re manipulating the image a hundred different ways, before the image ever leaves the camera. It’s part of the artistic process. (As a side note, even if we wanted to record exactly what we saw through the viewfinder without altering it in any way, it wouldn’t be possible. Neither film nor digital cameras can capture the dynamic range that the human eye can. ) If we’re shooting film, then we manipulate the image through our choice of film, as each type varies in contrast, grain, and the way it renders colors. If we’re shooting digital, in the form of jpegs(instead of the preferred RAW files), then we’re allowing the camera to also manipulate the image, without any input from us whatsoever – the least desirable form of manipulation, and one that we should all avoid in my opinion.

In the past, when the manipulation moved from camera to darkroom – in the form of dodging, burning, and other various types of darkroom “slight of hand” – photographers were using a sort of analog Photoshop. Why should today’s photographers be denied the same freedom of creativity, simply because manipulation has moved from the darkroom to the digital world?

Photoshop is just a tool, no different in a sense than traditional darkroom tools. The photographer is still the one in charge… still making the creative decisions. The tools may have changed, but the task, and the goal remains the same; create an aesthetically pleasing, emotionally evocative image.

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