Lately I’ve spending a fair bit of time learning how to develop digital photos. Like many folk I had assumed that once the images were loaded from the digital camera onto the computer, the photographic process was pretty much over. Then it was just a matter of choosing images and either mailing them, uploading them (e.g., to Flickr), or sending them off to a printer.

How wrong I was.

With film, images had to be developed, into negatives and then prints. The images that come straight off a digital camera (especially if you shoot in jpg format) are ready to go, in a sense.

But, developing with film was never just about rendering the image in a usable form. At the processing stage a lot could be done, to crop the image for better composition, to adjust the colour balance and compensate for the exposure, either across the whole image or in selective parts of the image. Chase Jarvis posted an image, on his blog, from photographer Richard Avedon with the instructions he gave to lab technician on how he wanted the image to be developed.

Moreover, each brand and type of film brought something to the final image, in terms of colours, grain and light balance. I think that’s part of why there is such a trend now towards Lomography and iPhone apps like Hipstamatic. There’s something about straight from the camera digital shots that can look very clean and clinical.

My workflow for developing images is pretty simple (perhaps appropriately so). I check white balance and overall exposure and adjust the light curve, fill light and recovery. Then I clean up any major dust marks and look for small enhancements in exposure (maybe adding more light to someone’s face, or dropping down the brightness of the background sky). I like to add some vignette to pictures (darkened corners), especially if they have been cropped.

One thing I try to avoid is aggressively boosting colours. Having grown up watching my father adjust televisions, I’ve learnt that hyped colours soon lose their appeal. A lot of photographs I see on the web from amatuer photographers have really aggressive colours that sometimes kill the interest (and dull the light and shade in the image).

Anyway, this is all a steep and challenging learning curve for me. There’s still plenty more to learn. Below are a few images that apply some of these ideas and concepts.

Click on photos to enlarge

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  • Toni - 26th April 2010

    You’re absolutely right about the need for post-capture processing of digital images. When I did my own processing and printing it was natural to enhance the images in the darkroom, and it seemed an obvious thing to do (and with such minimal effort too!) on the computer.

    The software I use (Irfanview) is much less sophisticated than lightroom or photoshop, so dodging and burning is out, but I do like having control of light, gamma, colour depth and contrast. We have 2 different cameras (a Sony and a Samsung) and the process for adjusting images is completely different for each camera to get the best out of the shot. Camera makers think very differently about how an image should be.

    I particularly liked the way Beijing Winter and Waterways benefited from the process you described. IMO Tree by a creek and 4th Hole needed something more *in this format* to make them stand out: I’ve certainly taken enough shots like TBACIAF that have been discarded because I can’t fnd a way to get impact into them. Maybe at a larger scale the textures come through to make the difference.

    I do miss seeing prints at 12X16, and if they can be on CIBAchrome so much the better.

  • jisampedro - 26th April 2010

    This is an interesting part after the photograph has been taken but also takes a bit of time, patience and knowledge to improve the pictures. I am really want to get into more photo processing but need to find time and learn from it, of course also, try try try.

    Nice job with your shots 😉 Maybe this helps me to dedicate a bit more time and then see the good results.

  • Fernando Gros - 29th April 2010

    Toni, the more I talk to people about photography the more it’s becoming clear to me that a lot of folk don’t do anything to their images. What’s interesting is that when I was a kid, even our local photo store would discuss some basic adjustments if you could a negative in for enlargement.

    Thanks for your comment on the photos. The set that 4th hole came from was from were really underwhelming. Flat green pictures taken when I didn’t really understand much about exposure.

    My next goal is get a better handle on printing images because, like you I miss prints.

  • Fernando Gros - 29th April 2010

    Javier, I’m going to write a follow-up to this post on basic processing. Even a little effort after the images are imported can make a big difference.

  • Kasey Sonderup - 30th November 2010

    Amazing article, I like your blog site, If possible update it even more often.

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In his Tokyo studio Fernando combines his life-long passions for art and technology. On the road, he is always looking to take the next wrong turn, just to see what kind of images and stories might unfold. A photographer & writer, with a background in music, Fernando has lived in Chile, Australia, the UK, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan. Read More.


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