6 Essential Digital Darkroom Skills

A lot of very talented photographers come to a screaming halt around here when we start talking ‘digital darkroom’. It scares the life right out of them but it’s just not necessary.

At first glance it can be pretty overwhelming if you’re wanting to start supplying commercial quality digital images to professional photo buyers … it’s a serious step-up from downloading new images from your camera to your computer and doing a few minor fixes … but when you break it down to basics, it’s not so bad!

Even better, there are hundreds of digital masters out there on the internet who are happy to share their knowledge and experience for anyone prepared to go looking. The trick is knowing what to look for …

So here’s a short guide to the digital darkroom fundamentals that evey serious photographer should aim to get their head around …

I will stress up front, I am not an expert on any of this. I’ve had no formal training on any of this and I’m totally colour blind!  I’ve simply learned enough to get by. Accordingly, these are simply my ‘personal’ recommendations for anyone trying to do the same!

1. Colour Space:

Not such a big deal really. sRGB for web publishing, RGB or CMYK for print publishing. It’s a simple process to convert, so just check your software documentation and try it before someone asks.

2. Colour Management:

This is important, but don’t let the 300+ page books scare you. It is simply a process of setting up your imaging equipment (camera, computer monitor, printer etc) and standardizing your workflow to get consistent colour results.

Here’s an excellent (short) introduction & explanation to colour management:
Color Management Primer

There is plenty more information out there if you need it, but this should cover most of it, and your Photo Editor software’s website (ie. www.Adobe.com for most people) should fill in any gaps.

3. Resolution:

This is generally the number of dots (pixels) per inch … dpi … so higher dpi means more dots, which is more detail packed into the same area, which produces a better quality image.

300 dpi is the standard for high end print uses, 150dpi does the job for lower end printing & posters. And most digital sceeen still only display100dpi or less.

So when preparing images for screen display — ie web use — 100 dpi is ample. For print use, generally set the dpi to 300 unless a buyer requests something different.

Here’s a fairly detailed explanation of the math if you’re up for it … Photo Resolution Explained

4. Print Sizes:

The article above explains this in (a lot) of detail … but the short version is as follows …

For any image: Print Size = Pixel Dimensions / Print Resolution

So if you have an image that is 4800 pixels wide and 3600 pixels high, at 300dpi it can make a 16″ x 12″ print reproduction. ie 4800/300 wide, 3600/300 high.

Looking at it from the other direction …

If a buyer needs to print an image 6″x4″ they will need a 300 dpi digital image that’s 1800 pixels (6 x 300dpi) by 1200 pixels (4 x 300dpi).

One final example, at OzImages we suggest — as a minimum — any image you submit to the stock photo library should be suitable to be printed at high resolution to a full page ie. 10″ x 8″  …

So the digital file should be (10 x 300 pixels) by (8 x 300pixels)
… which is 3000px x 2400px

I think a lot of the confusion comes from the camera manufacturers constant talk about ‘megapixels’ … forget that … that’s purely for marketing purposes!

For commercial purposes, the file your camera can produce and what buyers can do with it is much more important!

5. File Formats:

These days this is a lot more simple than it used to be but again the camera manufacturers don’t make it any easier. These days there are only really 3 file formats you need to know …

RAW …this is a capture format that the high-end digital cameras all use. As the name suggests, this one captures ‘everything’ and RAW should be used whenever possible.

The downside is the images need to be ‘converted’ before you can edit them and they can be significantly larger files, but for most serious photographers that’s a small price to pay for the extra quality and filesize. (Repeat after me … memory cards are cheap!)

TIF / TIFF … this is a non-compresed format that has become the defacto standard for the industry. This should be the minimum at which you capture images style=”font-

You do your editing and corrections in this format, and your master files and backups should be saved in this format as well. In most cases, when a buyer needs an image for print reproduction, they will ask for a TIFF file.

JPG / JPEG … this is a compressed format designed to reduce the size of the image file. It usually does that at a cost … by reducing the amount of iamge information saved, which will always have an impact on quality of the image.

Camera manufacturers often use high quality JPG by default so the memory cards will hold more photos. Most serious & professional photographers have little use for it. You should NEVER capture as jpg … buy more memory cards instead!

Buyers needing images for web use or low-end print uses may ask for JPGs … in those cases always use the highest possible quality setting, which will equate to the least amount of compression.

6. Corrections:

Some buyers will prefer an untouched original, while others want you to do all the work, so the first rule is, always check with the buyer and find out their preference. If the buyers sounds at all unsure, get them to check with their printer! If they do want a corrected image, make sure you check what work they want done.

Here are a few tasks you should be familiar with … you should definitely perform these tasks on your web previews, but leave your hig-res images alone until a buyer requests it!

Cleaning & Dust Removal … this is usually required. Enlarge the image to 400% and use the Clone tool to remove spots, blemished and artifacts.

Sharpening … there is a real art to this and many buyers will prefer you don’tattempt it. If you do, the Unsharp Mask will usually produce a better result, but experiment first on different images. Here’s an Advanced Sharpeting Tutorial to help hone your skills.

Basic Colour Adjustments … this is usually done by ‘Adjusting the Curves’. As someone who’s totally colour blind I, try to avoid this as much as possible by constantly re-setting my camera’s white point! You should have a basic understanding of this though so you can make corrections when required: Adjusting Colour Curves

Brightness & Contrast Adjustments … this is easily done by ‘Setting Black, Grey and White Points on the ‘Historgram’. Here’s a good tutorial on that … Adjusting The Histogram

7. Photo Editor Software

A final stumbling block for a lot of photographers wanting to sell photography onlines is the belief they need to spend a small fortune on ‘professional’ software like Photoshop. That might have been the case 5-10 years ago, but these days there are some excellent low-cost and free alternatives available. Here are some of my favourites …

Serif Photo Editor Plus: This is a full-featured photo editor that has all the important functions of Photoshop without the price tag. I have an earlier version than this but I found it a lot easier and faster to learn to use, and this latest looks even better!

GIMP: This is an open source (ie free) equivalent of Photoshop. In it’s early days there were issues with installation and documentaton but they are long gone now. It’s become extremely popular and there’s no shortage of experts prepared to share their knoweldge via tutorials and videos.

Photo Editor X: This is a GIMP based application package with an extensive library of video tutorials, covering all the major functions of the software. We’ve had some excellent feedback on the videos from a number of photographers now, so if you lack confidence and like to learn by watching, be sure to check it out.

Well that’s about it. I hope you found something useful in that lot.

Of course it should go without saying, these days the digital darkroom is an essential part of the photographic process. So you need to be prepared to do whatever it takes to master it. There’s no point capturing perfect images if you can’t get them out of the camera!

So I hope you’ll look at this as a starting point, explore the resources listed, and go looking for more information as required. YouTube is a fantastic resource with hundreds of great how-to videos … once you kow what you’re looking for!

If you prefer more formal training, for a couple of years now, we have also been recommending this Digital Photography eCourse … we’ve had some great feedback and witnessed some incredible ‘turnarounds’ … highly recommended!