By John Lehet

Here's some thoughts on a low-tech post-processing trick, maybe cheaper than any Photoshop book on LAB or sharpening, and quicker to implement than the time it takes to read a book. It addresses the problematic difference between an office and a darkroom, and how we see a print as we work on it. Beyond our calibrations and technical tricks and all our Photoshop chops, we need to use our eyes and our gut sense of what works. We need to do it in good light. You may say, "Duh!" But read on.

John Lehet, Waterlily Leaf

In the old days I'd spend hours in the dark working on a print. Sometimes a print would take more than a single full-day darkroom session. Ugh. I'd mess with my chemistry, turn out the lights, draw the pre-planned, evolving dodge-burn sequence on the back of the paper, expose it, take it through all the trays, and then the magic moment—turn on the light! I'd put the new print on the back of a tray or in an empty one and blow dry it for dry-down, and then the second magic moment; I'd turn on my evaluation light. I learned about using an evaluation light from John Sexton when I studied fine printing with him in '82 at the Maine Workshop. At the time he was working as Ansel Adams' technical assistant, so most of the techniques we were learning came from the master's master. He said to clamp a reflective light with a very bright bulb 3 feet from the print. It was there at the workshop, and I came home and did it at home too.

My darkroom was a utilitarian space, and all about dark and light. Clamping an ugly, utilitarian reflector lamp the designated 3 feet from the print was an easy and natural thing to do. I screwed a block of wood to the wall, and the clamp-light clamped right onto it. After I started doing this, I could see much more easily if a print was on target. I could see into the shadow areas, see if there was detail there and if the blacks I wanted were solid. I could see if the textures with highlights were holding detail. Of course before a print went from Work Print to Final Print status I'd carry the WP around the house and look at it in different light to see how it worked. To be a good print, it has to work in a variety of lighting conditions, not just some perfect ideal. But the perfect ideal light was really really important to see exactly what I had created. The new print in the good light: it was a clear moment.

Now in the digital darkroom, which is more often than not actually something like an office, we stare into a light bulb—LCD, CRT, or in my case both—for some time in our processing of the image. Sometimes for hours. The pixels glow. We do what we do, and then we click print and wait not-so-long. What I get is to me always a bit odd at that moment: a piece of paper that's reflecting light rather than emitting it. I often work with test strips, as I did in the darkroom, and what I hold in my hand in my dim office seems frail and weak and small next to the big, bright image glowing beside it. This is as often as not a muddling moment. Things are less clear than ever.

Next to the monitor(s) is an important place; I need to see how true the color and tonal values are compared to my on-screen work. Then I take it out on my porch and around the house; I do what I've always done—look at the print in different lights.

The print is of course a different thing than the glowing monitor. It has to live or die with its own reflective properties. We have to let go of the glowing pixels and move into the real world. Those of us who do this know that a glowing monitor and a reflecting print rarely hit us in the same way, and it's rather an odd thing. Partly we have to use our intuition on-screen to think about the pixels as a future print. I find I often have to go back to the on-screen version and change it—so it's less optimal on screen and better as a print. The difference between monitor and print is another post. My point here is that to start to make these decisions the old-style light might be more than a little helpful.

And to me, as someone selling prints that I represent online, the matter is more than academic. I want my print to have the same kind of impact and look and feel as the image represented in pixels.

After some years of doing this digitally I'm still evolving, and that doesn't just mean trying to keep up with the technology. It means I'm constantly trying to understand the subtleties of every step along the way as the technical sand shifts quickly under my feet. And I'm thinking that the for-me most awkward step, from pixels to paper, could use a bit of old fashioned bright light on it. I haven't yet screwed a block of wood to the wall of my office and clamped something ugly onto it. I need to do something. New Years' Resolution.

Posted by: JOHN LEHET


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