Every day brings new posts from photographers who pride themselves on not doing anything to their images scanned from negative film, other than perhaps removing dust specs (dust is a common scanning hassle). In such posts, it sounds as if processing an image thanks to your computer was as big a “no-no” as manipulating it (which is off-limits in photojournalism and accepted to various degrees in other genres).
The supposed “purity” of unphoshopped scans has to do with the idea that there is value in staying “closer” to a variety of things, typically:
- the image as held on the negative film (never mind the fact that this “image” is, well, negative)
- your perception of a situation (because, luckily, your camera and lens are attuned to your brain and naturally interpret your state of mind, a delicate process mysteriously ruined by Photoshop, Lightroom and their likes)
- or, more simply, closer to “reality” (which, as everyone knows, often comes in black and white, as proven by the photos in this article)
For any or all of these reasons, we are told, there should be something wrong with Photoshop and, more generally, anything that allows you to “tamper” with the images coming straight out of your scanner.
Show me your image (not your neg)
I disagree with the approach to film photography in the digital age as described above, for a simple historical reason: if you ask people who print images in a darkroom in the “wet”, old fashioned way, you’ll notice that they work hard to produce a great print, not a print that merely avoids dust spots.
In fact, historically, some photographers reclaimed the printing process (originally often delegated to assistants) as part of the artistic creation. That non-mechanical part of the photographic process, they felt, established the status of photography as “art” (see Klaus Honnef in Art of the 20th Century, Vol. II, Taschen, p. 624). This is clearly apparent in a “pictorialist” approach to photography (see this link shared by Tim Rudman), but not limited to it: advocates of a “straight” or “pure” photography were often known as outstanding printers (think Edward Weston, for instance). No wonder: staying true to your perception, if that’s what you’re after, requires a careful handling of every step of the process to your image, even if this process includes “only” Steps 1 and 2 of the following steps:
- developing: chemical development of your film.
- processing/’printing’: inversion of your negative into a positive image, which is not a simple linear operation but actually a complex mapping out of tones according to curves which are determined in wet printing by the exposure and development of photographic paper and, in the digital realm, by algorithms plus any further curves and levels work you might deem necessary.
- retouching: removing spots, blemishes, etc.; this is accepted in many genres of photography (probably requested by your clients if you’re a wedding or portrait photographer, frowned upon if you’re a news photographer), but note that even in fashion photography there is a debate over whether that’s acceptable: Peter Lindbergh famously refused to retouch faces (although he did work with makeup artists and models who invest in their skin care, but that’s a different rant…).
- manipulation: cloning, erasing, compositing elements in the image, etc.; again, a big no-no in photojournalism and most documentary photography (see the Steve McCurry controversy), often accepted in other genres that are not committed to factuality.
Now, what does this “hard work” of traditional film photographers includes, even if we limit it to Steps 1 & 2?
At the very least, the choice of film and developer, the exposure index, the developer’s dilution, its temperature, development time but also agitation technique as well as the type of paper you print the image on (it can change the contrast and mood of the image dramatically), the exposure time of that paper in the enlarger, and that’s even without mentioning “local” work on parts of the image such as dodging and burning, etc., which you should know was standard practice for any photographer you ever admired.
For instance, have a look at this article on how Pablo Inirio works. Inirio is a master printer at Magnum Photo and the notes he keeps are what separates stellar prints from what comes straight out of the enlarger. The latter is pretty much in the same league as your untouched scan positive. Oh, unless you got your scan from the lab of course. In that case, don’t be naive: if the lab is good, you can bet your socks that someone who knows their job did everything they had to do (including applying filters and whatever curve and levels work was necessary) to deliver you an “image” that’s alive and kicking—not just a straight inversion of your negative. Why do they do that? Because that’s what pros do.
The important point is that as soon as you have a choice in the parameters discussed above—and you do have a choice in terms of film (and camera/lens) if you shoot yourself, you do have a choice in terms of developer if you develop yourself, you do have a choice in terms of parameters and further work if you scan yourself, you do have a choice in terms of paper and exposure times if you print yourself—then you are condemned to be free and decide what your output is going to be.
Now, you say, but in the digital world? Well, don’t forget that originally Photoshop was created to mimic darkroom techniques…
You are condemned to be free and decide what your output is going to be.
Now, you may decide:
- that you want your images to look as close to what you saw as possible. Note, though, that lately reality has a tendency to come in color (it might have been different before the 1950s, but I would not bet on it).
- or you may decide that you want your images to be closest to the straightest (or maybe most automated) inversion of the straightest (or most automated) scan of your negative. I’m not sure what the advantage of that is (apart from simplicity and some consistency, in the method if not in the output) but it is a valid choice and I try to respect it. Note that this is not the same choice as point 1, unless you’re especially lucky and you have the exact same vision of the world as several pounds of metal, plastic and electronic components stamped “Epson” or “Plustek” on the side. At any rate, it does make you dependent on your hardware’s and software’s defaults and limitations (I tend to prefer my own). It also means, strictly speaking, that once you have your neg in your hand, anybody could scan it and produce “your” image—it would make no difference. Do you really accept that approach to your work?
- or you may decide that you want your images to be a mix of how you interpret the situation and how you like your pictures to look (if you’re really, really lucky, it’s the same as 1 and 2 and you should run out to buy a lottery ticket), and you do what you want (or can, in my case) to get there.
I believe in, and advocate approach #3. All the choices (film, development, etc.) up to your inversion of the scan will help you get there. But it doesn’t stop there. ColorPerfect, which I use to do the inversion, has many options for just Black & White, and so do SilverFast and Vuescan. And if that’s not enough, then why not use Lightroom, Photoshop, or any other software that helps you produce the picture you want?
N.B. I know some photographers, Lomo shooters for instance, who are happy to let the scanner in auto mode and to leave the dust in the images because the “unpolished” and “imprecise” look of the colors, contrast, etc. (and perhaps even the imperfect mechanical intrusion) works well with the kind of vibe they were looking for in the first place—and that’s fine. But the idea that this “workflow” would be inherently superior, aesthetically and morally, to the alternative of processing your images as photographers have done since the dawn of photography, just doesn’t hold water.
In my case:
The picture I want is the digital equivalent of a beautiful print that does justice to the world, my experience of it, and my fantasizing about what it could be
(Full disclosure: it doesn’t work out every time.)
The idea that you could, and possibly should stay close to the image as contained on the film might be a result of the advent of digital photography, where the previewed raw output coming out of the camera and the final image are both “positives”. In fact you do find digital photographers who entertain the illusion that the image coming straight out of their camera is superior, morally and aesthetically, to any image you might derive from it through processing.
Film photographers in the past probably didn’t think in such terms, because the negative image held by the film and the print that you can achieve with it are essentially two different entities that cannot be directly compared (though they are, of course, related). You didn’t print in a certain way to stay as close as possible to the image of the negative (which doesn’t mean a thing anyway: it’s not a positive), you shot and developed in a certain way in order to get the negatives you wanted for the best possible prints.
Coming from digital photography, I often had to repeat to myself the following quote when I started shooting film:
“Overexposing doesn’t make your images brighter, it makes your negatives more dense” (Johnny Patience)
This quote may at first sound unrelated to the debate above, but the point it drives home is that negative and positive image are, for the most part, incommensurate: they lack the basis for a comparison on the same level (though they are indeed related generally speaking via non-linear functions which are replayed locally through dodging and burning). Negative and positive, in fact, are not directly comparable (it’s not the “before/after” of a digital image) because they appear at different steps of the process to your print, and for most intents and purposes (and setting aside artistic uses, see for instance Jim Goldberg), negatives have value for the physical or digital “print” they allow you to produce. Negatives are not the image, and trying to stay as close as possible to their positive inversion for its own sake is a rather vain pursuit. To put it in one sentence:
Let’s dare to produce images from our negs, not just scans
I would like to thank Tim Rudman, Tom Sebastiano and Scratonamo Smizzle for helpful comments, discussions and suggestions made when reading a previous version of this piece.