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Backcountry Photography

Adventures in the Digital Darkroom

By Tamia Nelson

November 3, 2009Digital Darkroom

How do they do it? If you're like me, you've often asked yourself this simple question. The pros invariably take beautiful pictures. You'll find the evidence in every glossy outdoor magazine. But your shots never quite measure up, do they? I know mine don't. At the end of the day — or the end of a trip, for that matter — when I compare my photos with the vibrant images lodged in my mind's eye, the photos almost always come off second best. But I don't let this worry me. I know a little secret. The pros often experience the same letdown when they first see their proofs. And the difference between them and us? Easy. They don't just shrug their shoulders and settle for what came in the box (or out of the fixing bath). Instead, they head back to the darkroom to put things right.

What's that? You say you don't have a darkroom? Well, neither do I. But then I don't own a film camera anymore, either. I do have a computer, however, and if you're reading this, chances are pretty good that you do, too. So relax. In the age of digital photography, this is all we need to go head‑to‑head with the pros. That and some inexpensive software. Plus a little know‑how. Interested? Good. Then come along with me into…

The Digital Darkroom

Of course, no darkroom tricks can make an out‑and‑out stinker of a shot come up smelling like the proverbial rose. You have to start off on the right foot by taking the best photos you can. (I hope that my earlier "Backcountry Photography" articles have helped you do just that.) But no matter how careful you are in framing and exposing your shots, you'll probably discover a few things in each one that could be better. This isn't necessarily your fault, by the way. The perfect camera hasn't been invented yet. And digital technology, while constantly evolving and improving, is still in its infancy.

Luckily, help is at hand. Image‑editing software can make almost any good photo into a great photo, working small miracles in only a few minutes, miracles that used to take long hours in the darkroom. Purists may shrink from manipulating images, I suppose, but you'll find few such purists among the pros. They know how much depends on darkroom magic. Nor is digital post‑processing "cheating" in any meaningful sense of that much‑abused word. Not unless you put something into an image that wasn't there to begin with, that is — and then pretend you didn't. (Or take something important out, of course.) Did Crasher the ground squirrel really pop up in front of my ammo‑can–cum–camera‑case just as I pressed the shutter release, as the photo below suggests? What do you think? Right! I didn't really imagine I'd get away with that one, particularly as I didn't work too hard to soften Crasher's image in order to make him blend in better with the rest of the scene.

Crasher Crashes the Party hspace=

On the other hand, if you think the following portrait of a contented chipmunk caught in the act of washing his face is too engaging to be real, and if you therefore conclude that I've been playing games with his expression, you'd be wrong. That winsome smile is entirely his own doing. I just snapped the shutter.

Time for a Bath

Well, that's not quite all that I did. The color in the original image simply didn't measure up to what I saw when I framed the shot. I could have grumbled and let it go, but why? I had the tools I needed to bring the objective image and the subjective reality closer together. It only took slight tweaks to tonal balance, contrast, and color saturation. In so doing, I didn't add anything to the shot. I just restored what had been lost in the process of capturing the original image. I could have done the same thing with film, though in that case I'd have been manipulating silver salts and color dyes rather than digital code. Take it from me — code is much easier to work with, not to mention both cleaner and safer.

Which brings us to the heart of the digital darkroom: image‑editing software. Adobe Photoshop is the gold standard here. So tenacious is its grip on the popular imagination that "photoshopping" is now all but synonymous with image manipulation. But Photoshop's acknowleged versatility and power don't come cheap, and that's bad news for those of us who can't quite stretch to gold. Still, there are plenty of less costly alternatives, and some of them have a price tag that's mighty hard to beat — free. In fact, you may not have to look any further than the box your camera came in. Chances are that you'll find a DVD with photo‑editing software right there. My advice, as always, is to experiment. Take some photos and give the camera's editing software a try. It might well be all you'll need. Or not. For the record, I rely most heavily on two complementary programs, neither of which "came in the box": Gimp, a free cross‑platform graphics editor, and GraphicConverter, an editing and file‑conversion program that's as inexpensive as it is capable.


OK. Got your darkroom software? Good. Now let's see how to address some of the most common tasks that paddling shutterbugs are likely to encounter, namely…

  • Bringing sloping horizons down to earth
  • Optimizing brightness and contrast
  • Improving color saturation
  • Modifying white, black, and gray levels

The screenshots that I use to illustrate this article are from GraphicConverter, but if you use some other program don't worry. A little time spent reading the documentation (online, PDF, or hard copy) for your software should answer any questions you might have. The key functions will be labeled "Rotate," "Trim," "Scale," "Brightness," "Contrast," "Saturation," and "Levels," or something so close to these as to be immediately obvious. Once you've found where the critical functions reside, you're ready to roll.

Before we get down to work, though, here's the First Commandment of image editing. Would‑be darkroom wizards ignore it at their peril!


I'm sure you see why this is so important. Everyone who edits photos makes mistakes, and folks who are just starting out make the most mistakes of all. If you err while you're editing the original of an image, and if you then fail to catch (and correct) your blunder in time, you're simply out of luck. On the other hand, you can edit a copy of the original image with impunity. If things go wrong, just consign the failed experiment to the Trash. Then make another copy and try again. 'Nuff said? I hope so. Let's…

Go to Work on a Photo

The horizon is an important element in any scenic shot. And except on the steepest stretches of the steepest rivers, horizons are straight and level. But boats pitch up and down. Not to mention rolling from side to side. So any paddler who shoots photos while she's on the water can count herself very fortunate indeed if the horizon lines don't slant uphill a good part of the time. This problem can even bedevil you when you're shooting from shore. Consider this picture of an impressive stack of driftwood stranded high above The River by past years' floodwaters:

Steep Drop

As the vertiginous angle of the far shoreline attests, I was giving more attention to the tricky business of keeping my balance on a slab of steeply sloping bedrock than I was to the orientation of the horizon. Despite appearances, though, The River is flowing from right to left here, and the far shore really was on the level. Job One, then? Bring the horizon down to earth, so to speak. And that's what I did, making use of GraphicConverter's Rotate function:


Mission accomplished. Of course this leaves me with a lot of white space in the corners. That won't do, either, so I cropped the photo to square things up:

All Square

The yellow box defines the crop line. The Trim command does the rest. And the result? Here it is…

Fit and Trim

Now all that remains is to eliminate the unnecessarily broad new margin — I use a function called "Smart Trim" in GraphicConverter for this — and then resize the image for publication using the Scale panel.

Cut to Measure

I began with a maximum‑resolution copy of the original photo, roughly 3000 pixels wide by 2000 pixels high. After Rotating and Trimming, I then resized (Scaled) the image down to fit the width of this column. The order of operations is important here. If I'd resized before cropping, the final image would have ended up much smaller than the 550‑pixel width I wanted. I'd then have had to enlarge the image to fill the alloted space. This would not have been a good idea. It's always better to edit an image down to size than to blow it up, since enlarging an image usually degrades quality. The upshot? Crop (or Trim) first, then Scale the cropped image down to size — not the other way round.

Are we done? Almost. We've got the horizon looking right, and we've reduced the image to the desired size. But I'm still not happy with what I see. The late‑October sun was near the zenith when I composed the shot, and the comparatively strong light washed out both color and contrast. My brain — my "mind's eye" — compensated for this automatically, but my camera didn't. Now let's see if I can't get the photo to reveal what I saw on the day. I'll begin by altering Brightness and Contrast. Here's a screenshot showing how I did it:

Dimming the Lights

I dragged the Brightness slider to the left first, moving it from the default setting (0) to ‑18. This made the image darker and brought out the grain in the wood. Then I moved the Contrast slider to the right (+21), intensifying the light‑dark divide.

Contrasting Case

Next, I increased Saturation to +40, intensifying the colors:

Bring Out the Colors

So far, so good. If, however, I hadn't been happy with the result — and since Brightness, Contrast, and Saturation are all codependent variables, it's easy to get it wrong on the first try — I would have used the Reset button to return all settings to the neutral (0) position. Then I could have another go. But I liked what I saw, so I clicked the OK button, instead. Now just one more operation remained: setting the Levels. And that meant bringing up the Levels editor:

Seeking a Level

This allows you to adjust the tonal spectrum of the photo, as shown by the histogram, that jaggy squiggle just right of center in the screenshot. The pointers below the squiggle identify the black, white, and gray levels, which I've indicated (perhaps confusingly) with red, green, and yellow circles, respectively. The cropped and trimmed image that we're working on is shown on the left in the screenshot. It's reproduced in the Levels panel — much reduced in size and labeled "Picture" — where a tiny square identifies a sample area that's enlarged in the other two images on the right. The first of these — it's labeled "Before" — doesn't change. The second ("After") reflects any alterations you make in the Levels.

I began by moving the left‑hand (Black, or red‑circle) pointer to the right, deepening the shadows. Then I moved the right‑hand (White, or green‑circle) pointer to the left, brightening the highlights. The Gray pointer (yellow‑circle) in the histogram moves automatically in response to changes in Black and White. No further adjustment is required, though you can also make manual tweaks to the Grays if you wish. I didn't need to. I was pleased with the result. So I just clicked OK. Here's the final image:

Done and Dusted!

And here's the original again, complete with sloping shoreline:

Back Where We Started

Compare the two. Quite a difference, isn't there? Make no mistake, the final edited image comes much closer to what I saw on that late‑October day on The River. The riverbank isn't plunging down to the right, the grain and sinew in the stranded trunk stand out in clear relief, the pine needles are a rich orange‑brown drapery, and the far shore is deep in shadow. That's exactly how it looked to me on the day. Now you can see it as I did. And although I've had to edit the original image to bring it into agreement with the picture in my mind's eye, I've added nothing that wasn't there to begin with. I've only put back what the camera missed. I can't ask for more than that, and I don't.

Do your trip photos often disappoint? They do? Then you're in good company. Even professional photographers have their bad days. But you don't have to give up without a fight. Once upon a time, only the pros had the know‑how (and the cash) to rescue disappointing shots with the happy synthesis of alchemy and incantation peculiar to their craft. But times change. Today anyone can work the same miracle without leaving his desk. So why not spend a few minutes in the digital darkroom after your next trip? Look at it this way: The adventure doesn't have to end when you get home, does it?

Copyright © 2009 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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