3. Follow the lessons of the unsung lab masters
Modern artisanal processing learns from the brilliant darkroom printers who worked on negatives intensely, locally and thoughtfully
When film ruled, professionals who didn’t care to take on the task of printing their own images almost always had a special relationship with a master printer. Top printing labs in London, New York, Paris and other cities with a thriving photo industry were unique places, known in the industry but hardly at all outside.
A recent interview in GUP Magazine with Pablo Inirio, a master printer for Magnum Photos in New York, gave a fascinating insight into the backstage care and attention that could go into a fine print. Ansel Adams’ often-quoted musical analogy with ‘performance’ was right on the button. The clock was running, literally, and the darkroom exposure was indeed a complicated and highly skilled performance, with many predefined areas within the image given special attention. Some areas were held back (dodging), while others were given more light (burning or printing in).
There are good lessons to be learned from this approach to processing, and the fundamental one is to treat every scene as an assembly of component parts. In an ideal world, each part – subject or tonal area – deserves your attention to ensure its tone, colour, contrast, detail, smoothness and so on are perfected. RAW processing pretty well enables that ideal world. You can now do it all – if you care to take the trouble. Thought of this way, it’s surely obvious that global processing controls can take you only part of the way.
In this scene, children from a school in the hill country of Gujarat, India were taking a morning water break, and I settled on this girl. As is typical in India, the shared cup didn’t touch her lips, so this gave me the opportunity to get a clear shot of sparkling water, which is a valuable commodity there. The camera viewpoint, wide-angle lens, framing and timing were all as you’d expect, and the job of the processing was to focus attention on the water. The exposure was good, the key tone being the girl’s face, so not much was needed in the basic overall settings: I dialled Exposure down a fraction, slightly increased my habitual triangle of Shadows, and decreased Highlights and raised Contrast to recover the flattening effect that these two sliders create.
I treated everything else locally. I lowered the bright, slightly overexposed background and adjusted the sweater to make the blue even, to keep the viewer’s eye more focused on the water and lips. Next, I decreased the brighter reflections on the upper part of the metal beaker, again evening out the tones. I then took down the upper cheekbones and eye area to match the cheeks, and increased contrast to emphasise the eye. Finally, I raised the contrast in the water itself, by pulling the black and white points apart, and added a judicious touch of Clarity (a well over-used tool, but here, for once, I thought it useful).
In my street close-up in Cartagena, Colombia (pictured right), shot with a 500mm lens, I wanted definite primary colours, as the old mirror lens I used here tends to desaturate colours. I was attracted especially to the bright refraction through the man’s thick spectacles, which was the reason I positioned myself exactly there.
Mid-morning water break at an Indian school, with processing dedicated to heightening attention on the precious liquid as the girl drinks it from a metal beaker
6. Radial filter to boost contrast in the water
5. Radial filter to boost contrast in the eye
2. Local brush to darken the bright background
1. Overall base settings to improve tones
4. Radial filter to rein in the beaker highlights
3. Radial filter and brush to lighten the sweater