Editing vs. Processing in the Digital Darkroom
Digital processing is a broad category that includes a plethora of methods and tools. In the early stages of developing my workflow, I learned that some methods are corrective, while others could be used to create. This distinction became increasingly important as my processing evolved and became more complicated. In order to create a flow and add structure to my process, I divided my methods into two distinct categories: editing and processing. Each stage contributes to the final image in a powerful way, and this separation creates harmony to my workflow as well as clearing the path to an uninterrupted creative experience.
Image editing begins before I even import my photographs into the digital darkroom. The goal for editing is to create the best possible canvas to apply my color processing onto – to clean the photographs of any distracting impurities, which will allow me to focus strictly on the creative aspect of my processing.
I view editing as being corrective in nature – to take the raw materials of the captured scene from my camera (the negative) and refine them into the best possible foundation that I can create upon. Methods such as white balance adjustments, exposure correcting, panoramic stitching, clone stamping, and dust and spot removal would fall under the editing category. This workflow has taught me to separate my processing for a more streamlined approach – to clean, then create – as opposed to switching back and forth from corrective mode to creative mode.
The most powerful part of my editing phase is exposure blending, which repairs any damaged area by combining different exposures to recover the complete tonal range. In the screenshot below, I’m removing halos which can sometimes occur during the blending process – this is one example of priming the canvas for my color processing.
It’s important to note that the work needed for exposure blending begins in the field, not in the darkroom. As I began to develop and refine my darkroom techniques, it became clear that the digital workflow influences the entire creative process rather than being compartmentalized to the computer. When I’m in the field, I will often look at the landscape with processing in mind, and will make conscious choices with my camera techniques based on what I plan on performing later with my software.
At the end of the editing phase, I have cultivated an ideal base to build my image upon, making it easier to apply my color and tonal shifts in a more vivid way. In other words, the photo is primed and ready for me to materialize the experience I had in the field.
The processing of a photo always comes after the editing, and is where I can create freely without interruptions. At this point, my photo is much like an unfinished painting – the canvas has been primed and the underpainting has been applied, but the soul of the image hasn’t been infused yet. The visual story I want to tell has only been partially created, and my unique experience and connection has yet to be transferred.
Color shifts, dodging & burning, and tonal adjustments are examples of the processing phase. These adjustments can also be destructive to a photograph if applied carelessly, which I discuss in The Art of Color Processing.
This categorization allows me to focus more intently on the creative aspect of the digital darkroom as I’ve already done my corrective edits beforehand. Performing edits throughout the creative process – and especially at the end of it – can alter my vision for the photograph and cause unnecessary detours to bring my workflow back on track, which can ultimately change the outcome.
For example, trying to correct for lens distortion or straighten the horizon line after I have already applied my processing will completely alter the flow of my carefully applied shifts and adjustments. Depending on the new crop and composition, I could inadvertently change the power of my focal points and affect the overall balance, forcing me to either reprocess or settle with the altered result.
The image below has many adjustment layers applied to it – as well as a custom vignette which highlights strong focal points to create a flow across my frame. If I decided to change my exposure or warp for lens distortion at this point, the new base image would greatly affect my adjustment layers which were created for a different scene.
One goal of the editing phase is to obtain the most amount of data possible, which will give me more creative freedom. For example, processing an image that has the correct exposure – meaning that there are no blown highlights or blocked shadows – will give my photo a solid foundation, and allow me to broaden my creative limitations without damaging the image in the process. So while editing and processing have completely separate workflows, they still influence each other in a profound way.
My editing gives me the cleanest image possible before the processing stage – to create a blank canvas and remove any impurities that detract from my scene. This is quite different than my processing workflow, which is fluid in nature and led by my unstructured inspiration. By separating the editing methods from the processing, it allows me to satisfy my desire to be methodical and disciplined – to purify and enhance in a step-by-step manner while removing any distractions for my creative processing.
The Darkroom Perspective
The digital darkroom has become a monumental part to both my creative and corrective workflows. Knowing the versatility of these techniques has also influenced the choices I make in the field, instilling me with the advantage of foresight. After I began to truly explore the limitless possibilities of Adobe® Photoshop, I noticed myself looking at my environment with a new perspective. Scenes that I would have previously disregarded due to uninteresting light or stagnant elements now draw my attention as I analyze them more critically with the ability to visualize the creative possibilities. With the unique perspective given to me by my processing experiences, I’m now encouraged to look at landscapes longer, explore new vantage points, and pursue a variety of creative methods with my camera.