Using Photoshop with Restraint

“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” That’s an old saying, but it’s extremely relevant to manipulating digital images with Photoshop in today’s “digital darkrooms”.

Photoshop has become such a powerful and complex program that I doubt that anyone truly knows all its tricks. I would estimate, on the high end, that I might use 5% of its total capabilities.

Photoshop’s power can truly be a siren song, and it undoubtedly has played a major role in ruining many a good image (and many more bad ones). It’s human nature to want more saturation, more contrast, more clarity, more sharpness, and on and on.  It’s also now possible to make all these adjustments in truly complex and convoluted ways, all the way down to making changes on a pixel by pixel basis.

In my experience (in Photoshop and elsewhere in life), the more complicated things become, the more chances there are to screw them up. If I’m having trouble printing an image, the first thing I do is turn off all the adjustments I’ve done and go back to square one. Often, by simplifying things considerably, I end up where I really wanted to be in the first place.

I spent many years printing in a traditional darkroom, and follow the same basic approach when I print digitally. While the tools are different, the primary goal in black and white printing remains the same: taking the tonalities that existed in the original scene and translating them into the desired values by the use of filtering, global and local contrast control, and dodging and burning (lightening and darkening certain areas of a print). A quote from Ansel Adams, as relayed by John Sexton, applies nicely: “dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made when establishing tonal relationships.”

As in a traditional darkroom, it seems best to build up to a final print gradually. A final print shouldn’t be produced in one step. Print it, evaluate it, think about it – the process takes time.  Come back to it additional times and start over if necessary. It’s an evolutionary process. As in the darkroom, once you go too far, it is often hard to go backwards to what might be a more subtle, more delicate, and more appropriate print.

My aim is to present a final image that shows no sign that it has been manipulated in any way. Although each image has been carefully processed and printed, and may have many layers of adjustments, my goal is to make those adjustments invisible.  I try very hard not to let Photoshop get in my way.

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