About This Digital iDarkroom Primer

This Primer on the new digital darkroom is provided on this blog to arm new DSLR photographers with the fundamental knowledge needed to become familiar with the evolving digital technologies and be able to apply them to their emerging interest in the photographic art. To read this Primer in logical order, please begin with the oldest post and read to the most current. Click HERE for Table of Contents.

Along the way, you'll find, photography tips, photography techniques and an ample dose of solid photo basics to help you feel comfortable in your digital darkroom.

A sister site, Hub's Camera, covers the fundamental mechanics of using your new DSLR camera. Then visit Hub's Photography Tips for basic but essential tips on all things photographic. Links to both of these sites can be found in the right-hand column of this page. Happy shooting!

"Hub's iDarkroom" is a non-commercial, educational service of Hubbard Camera LLC.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Part 10 - Your iDarkroom Environment

Traditional film-based darkrooms were built to a set of guidelines that provided a physical environment most conducive to performing critical printmaking. The iDarkroom is no different.

As with traditional "wet" darkrooms, our perception of the important elements that make up our images including color, densities, contrast and sharpness are impacted by the very working environment we create when constructing our digital darkroom. This post will discuss how to set up your iDarkoom to minimize external influences that can "trick" your eye and cause disappointing print results.

The overriding objective is to create an area for your workstation and print viewing that is both neutral and representative of the conditions in which your prints will be viewed.

Starting with the room itself, bright colors are OUT. If you visit a traditional professional lab or a newly constructed iDarkroom at a professional imaging service, you are most likely to see white or gray walls with neutral colored flooring. The idea is to introduce NO color that can influence your eye's perception of an image. The walls in my iDarkroom are painted a light gray and the carpeting is a deep shade of gray.

Of course, you'll need light in your iDarkroom. This is a whole other can of worms. Photography is all about light. Working against us is the most amazing photographic device ever conceived -- our eyes. Our eye/mind combination has the exceptional capability to automatically perform color balancing based on the prominent light source. However, in the world of photography, we must be ever mindful of the color of the prevailing light. We often see this color reality on those occasions when a typical household tungsten lamp is turned on in the daytime.

Here's one of those times. Our eyes see the daylight through the window and instantaneously synch all colors in relation to this "known" value. As a result, the light from the tungsten lamp that appears to be white at night is revealed to actually contain much more yellow and red than daylight.

I'm sure you've been in an indoor situation that was lit primarily with standard fluorescent bulbs. You might have noticed that the resulting pictures had a green cast. While you were at the event, everything appeared normal. But your eyes had corrected for the color shift from daylight while your camera told you the "truth". The light is green. So different light sources have their own color characteristics (make up of light frequencies). These differences are expressed in degrees Kelvin. Here are a few examples:
  • The flame from a candle is measured as 1850 to 1930 degrees Kelvin (very yellow).
  • A typical sunset falls into the range of 2,000 to 3,000 degrees Kelvin (still yellow).
  • A household tungsten lamp ranges from 2,500 to 2,900 degrees Kelvin (see picture above).
  • Direct noon sunlight (5,000 to 5,400 Kelvin).
  • Normal daylight-- sun and sky combination (5,500 to 6,500 Kelvin).
  • Outdoor shade areas (7,000 to 8,000 Kelvin) - very blue in color.
This Kelvin temperature reality greatly impacts your choice of iDarkroom lighting since you will be viewing finished prints under that predominant light.

The picture above illustrates the impact of different "white" light sources when viewing a print. This image of a black and white print was taken in the same location as the first picture above. Our eyes know the light source through the window is daylight and have adjusted accordingly. As a result, the right side of the black and white picture is strongly influenced by the light of the tungsten lamp and has a noticeable yellow/red cast. The left side of the picture is being primarily illuminated by the outside daylight and we perceive this part of the black and white print as true black and white.

It's impossible to know all the light sources your prints may be viewed under once they leave your iDarkroom. And you certainly can't afford to make dozens of prints that are color corrected to every possible viewing condition. That's why professionals generally settle on "daylight" as their standard. In the dozens of traditional and digital photographic labs that I have designed and constructed, I have always installed lighting that was balanced to natural daylight. You can too.

My iDarkoom general room lighting is provided by several daylight balanced, 23 watt (equivalent to 100W tungsten) fluorescent bulbs that I purchased at my local Home Depot.

A trip to your local hardware or lighting store is all it takes. Today's highly-publicized fluorescent replacement bulbs can be bought in several flavors. One of those versions is daylight. Expressed in terms of Kelvin degrees, these new bulbs can be found that emit light in the 5,000 degree to 6,000 degree range -- that's daylight. Perfect. At the same time, you gain several non-photographic but important advantages:
  • the bulbs are relatively inexpensive (about $4.00 for a 100 watt equivalent bulb)
  • they generate much less heat
  • they require much less energy to reduce electrical costs
  • they have a life expectancy greater than their tungsten brothers.
Good news all around. My lighting arrangement shields most of the room light from striking my computer monitor screens directly.

How about the workstation area? I apply the same neutral rules. Nothing flashy (colorwise). My furniture is gray and black. The computer counter is a light gray color. And my monitor slides under the workstation's upper bookcases to shield the screen from excessive room light.

One of my digital workstations. This particular workstation contains my trusty iMac, a second monitor to expand my virtual work area, a Wacom tablet for critical Photoshop work and -- of course -- my iTunes controller under the monitor on the right. (Imaging and music just seem to go together.)

I continue the quest for perfect neutrality on my computer monitors. You won't find any psychedelic backgrounds on my monitors' desktops. That would only drive me and my eyes crazy. Instead, as soon as I install any monitor, I first change the background color to -- you guessed it --- a solid middle gray.

The perfect digital imaging canvas -- my desktop

Keep the entire iDarkroom as clean as possible. You'll thank me later.

The one final area of vital importance is your own health. Our perception of colors, densities, etc. are dramatically altered according to our own physical condition. Colors are typically perceived differently early in the morning versus late at night. If you're tired or ill, perception is again affected.

So, stay healthy and have fun with your new craft.

If you have any questions or comments, you know where to find me.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Part 9 - Photoshop "Print" Walk Through

The question I am probably most often asked by those setting up their first iDarkroom is: "Could you walk me through the steps for making a print in Photoshop?" This post will cover a typical printing session. However, because of the various versions of Adobe's Photoshop that are being used, the two computer platforms and their operating systems (Mac, PC, OS X, XP, Vista, etc.), and the numerous printers that readers could be using, I cannot cover all of the possibilities. So for this walk through I am using the following:
Although Photoshop is nearly identical on both platforms and the B9180 printing routine is similar to other manufacturers' printers, there are subtle differences. So, the information, screen images and example provided here must be viewed with your specific printing environment in mind and adjusted accordingly.

Shown below is the main Photoshop window displaying the image that will be printed in this walk through:

The following steps are used to send this image to the printer:

1. From the "File" menu, select "Print".

Notice that Photoshop CS3 has eliminated the "Print with Preview" option from the file menu. All printing tasks now take place from the "Print" selection. (For owners of HP's B9180 printer, the HP Pro Print plug-in does not work with Photoshop CS3)

2. Here’s Photoshop CS3’s main “Print” screen.

Below the preview image on this screen is a quick control for changing the orientation of the picture to either vertical or horizontal.

In the “Printer” pull down menu (top of center column) select your printer (in this case the B9180).

“Position” (middle of center column) can be used to customize the location of the image on the printed page. In this example, I've elected to "center" the picture on the page.

Check “Scale to Fit Media” if you want Photoshop to fill the page with your image. This selection is not checked in this example because the print is already sized by the photographer (10x6.6 in.) (Future posts will provide detailed information on sizing images and interpolation issues.)

3. Clicking on the “Page Setup...” button (located in the center column below the "Copies" entry box) in the main print screen above produces this sub-menu to confirm the printer and paper size selection (in this case US Letter size paper will be used). I could also have selected "Borderless 8.5x11 in." to produce a print that covers the entire page and eliminate borders. Double check the "Format for:" box to ensure your printer is selected. The "Orientation" box gives you another opportunity to orientate your image (vertical or horizontal). Finally, the "Scale" entry box on this menu allows you to determine a percentage enlargement. 100% is full size image. Less than 100% reduces the size of the image on the printed page while numbers greater than 100 will enlarge the printed image. (I generally use the sizing boxes on the main print menu to set any scaling options.)

4. After clicking on OK in the Page Setup menu above you are returned to the main print screen.

Notice that the Document Profile being used here is Adobe RGB (1998). This is the color space that was originally set in the camera's menu and subsequently used by Photoshop.

In the “Color Handling” pull down menu select “Photoshop Manages Colors”. This selection tells Photoshop to use the “Printer Profile” we specify in the next step to control the color conversion from Adobe RGB to the profile of the paper being used. Notice the top selection is "Printer Manages Colors". Today's printer manufacturers have developed print drivers with the capability to perform their own profile conversion. Although these drivers are becoming better and better, I normally allow Photoshop to manage the color conversion.

5. Now you need to tell Photoshop which ICC Profile to use by identifying the paper you are using in the “Printer Profile” pull down menu.

In this example, HP Advanced Photo Paper Glossy is being used. When the print instructions are being generated, Photoshop will seek out the ICC profile for this particular paper selection and apply it to the image being printed. Notice that every paper recommended for this printer is listed in this menu. It's apparent that each paper has its own unique printing characteristics that require their own ICC profile.

Some of the paper selections on this menu have been provided by the printer manufacturer and were placed on your computer when you installed the printer's driver software. Other 3rd party papers have been added to this menu. Most 3rd party paper manufacturers' websites provide ICC profiles for their papers to work with your printer. These profiles can be downloaded and added to Photoshop's collection of papers for your printer.

It's not unusual for professional photographers to decide that it's best to create ICC paper profiles specific to their iDarkroom environment. In this case, they use paper profiling equipment and software from companies like X-Rite to generate these unique ICC profiles.

6. Select “Perceptual” from the “Rendering Intent” pull down menu. This is the selection most often used for photographs to produce "natural" colors. Rendering Intent tells Photoshop exactly how colors that are “outside” the printer's gamut are to be brought into the gamut and positioned relative to “in” gamut colors.

7. After selecting the "Rendering Intent", click on the "Print" button (shown on the lower right in the image above). Clicking on the Print button will produce this pop up menu overlaying the main print window.

From the center pull down menu select "Paper: Type/Quality". From the options presented choose: the paper you are using, "Best" for Quality, and -- in the case of the B9180 - choose the paper source. Either "Main tray" or "Specialty Media Tray".

NOW, CLICK ON THE "PRINT" BUTTON. Your printer should start churning out that award-winning print.

Wasn't that easy? Actually, these steps become second nature after a few printing sessions and only take a few moments to complete.

Again, remember this example was specific to HP's B9180 printer. Epson and Canon printing steps are nearly identical but contain some subtle differences. Most companies attempt to help you through the process of making your "first" print with additional educational materials on their website. Here is the link to the listing of these materials on the Epson website. Canon has a similar list of support and instructional materials. Also, Epson, HP and Canon specific blogs are filled with customer experiences for nearly every printer made by these companies. These blogs can provide a wealth of tips for image making from your particular printer.

In any case, these iDarkroom printing steps are much easier, more convenient and safer than constructing a darkroom, mixing chemicals, developing film, drying film, using an enlarger, developing the wet print and drying the print required in traditional film-based photography.

Finally, understanding the steps in this walk through will serve you well regardless of the image editing software or the computer platform you are using. The process is similar for all programs and platforms.

If you have questions or comments, you know where to find me.

Part 8 - Inkjet Printers - Dye vs. Pigment Ink

Just when you think it's safe to go to your photo store and speak "printer-ese", another term and another decision shakes your confidence. Do I buy a printer that uses "dye-based" inks or "pigment-based" inks?

The choice you make does have a significant impact on your image making. Like everything else in photography, there are trade-offs to consider. This post is intended to explain the basic differences between these two ink types and make it easier for you to make your printer purchase.


Dye-based inks have been around in the inkjet printer marketplace since the beginning. The dyes used to produce this ink are derived from vegetable matter that contains the desired color, or they are produced synthetically in the lab. Just as Indians would produce paints from the extracts of plants to add color to fabric, so do modern color scientists develop dyes used to manufacture their inkjet inks.

Dye ink has a clear cut set of advantages:
  • The size of the color particle is very small and easily dissolved in solution.
  • The particle size is small enough to penetrate any printing paper.
  • The colors are generally numerous, bright and colorful to provide a broad color range.
  • Because these dyes are absorbed into the printing paper, they provide excellent glossy prints.

Dye inks also have a list of photographic disadvantages:
  • Prints made with dye inks have a shorter life expectancy.
  • Bleeding is a concern (bleeding occurs as a drop of dye ink falls on a piece of paper and begins to expand in size or spread out as the drop is absorbed into the paper).
  • Dye inks are NOT water resistant (much like watercolors in the painting world).

But for many years, dye inks have been the industry standard and have been a major contributor in raising digital photography to an art form.

Pigment inks have been a serious alternative to dye inks for nearly a decade now. Unlike dye inks, pigment inks are derived from ground up minerals. The resulting sizes of the pigment particles are 50 to 250 times larger than dye particles. Although relatively new to the inkjet scene, pigment inks/paints have been used for centuries in the world of art.

As you probably have guessed, there is a list of advantages that pigment inks bring to the photographic table:
  • Pigment inks are very stable and resistant to fading.
  • Pigment ink's resistance to water and moisture is superior.
  • Pigment inks can also produce exceptional black and white prints.

Unlike dye inks, pigment inks are NOT absorbed into the paper. Pigment droplets remain on the paper's surface:

The most significant disadvantages of pigment inks are:
  • The large pigment particle size is hard to maintain in solution (pigments want to settle out of solution).
  • Because the pigment droplets remain on the surface of the paper, it is hard to produce a high-gloss print and the effect known as metamerism is visible on these papers. (Metamerism will be covered in a future post.)
  • Although rapidly improving, the color gamut of pigment inks is smaller than dye inks.

The problem with maintaining these particles in solution is best seen when you compare the relative sizes of dye and pigment particles:

The dye ink particle on the left is small enough (averaging about 2 nanometers in size) to dissolve in the ink's carrier solution (and remain in solution) while the larger pigment particle is difficult to hold in suspension and tends to settle and clump together. It's this clumping and settling that produces the clogging of nozzles that's so frequently discussed on blogs and forums. The big three printer manufacturers, Epson, HP and Canon, have all worked diligently on producing ways of reducing this clumping and clogging tendency on their printers by encapsulating the pigment particles.

Today the situation is much improved. Although head clogging hasn't been eliminated, by carefully following the manufacturer's maintenance suggestions this problem and the associated expense of cleaning (or replacing) printheads can be greatly reduced. As a general "Hub" rule: Pigment printers work most consistently with minimal maintenance issues when used regularly. Working the printer helps keep the pigments in suspension and greatly reduces the probability of excessive settling/clumping.

So, which is best?

There is no single answer for this question. The answer is best found in your requirements. If a large color gamut or high-gloss prints are your primary objectives, then dye inks are an excellent choice.

If long life, permanence and water/humidity resistance are your biggest concerns, then pigment inks are the clear winner. Pigment prints (kept in a photographically safe environment) will have a life expectancy of 4 or 5 times that of dye prints. Current testing done by the Wilhelm Imaging Research organization shows some pigment inks have a 250+ year archival life. To learn more about the specific life expectancy results for any printer you might be considering, check out the test results on the Wilhelm website. It's this long life characteristic that drives many fine art and professional photographers to select pigment ink printers for the prints they sell to make a living.

Note: There's much debate over the validity of print life expectancy testing. Since these tests must be conducted in a lab using accelerated testing methods, some experts dispute the results. However, there is some historic precedence for concluding that prints produced using pigment inks will enjoy an extremely long life. After all, the works of Rembrandt and Leonardo da Vinci were made using pigment-based paints, and they seem to be doing just fine.

Epson, Hewlett Packard and Canon offer dye-based and pigment-based photo printers. Most camera stores will even make sample prints from your digital files to compare results. In this way, you can see the results of dye and pigment inks as well as the capability of different printers. Of course, ask other photographers for their opinion. (We all have opinions on this subject.) Personally, I use three different printers in my iDarkroom. They are all pigment printers.

There is no debate among photographers that ink and paper cost too much. As a life long photographer, I don't see these costs as much more than I experienced with my own traditional "wet" darkroom. (To provide the best images for my customers, I consistently used the best chemistry and paper on the market.) It's part of the cost of doing business.

There are also several manufacturers making their own versions of the manufacturers' original inks for considerably less. Some even sell their inks in bulk ink systems to save the user even more per milliliter. I have seen many tests that indicate these inks do not exhibit the life expectancy or color gamut of the original manufacturers' inks. (I'll probably get lots of email about this.) However, the choice is personal. Only you can decide if any of these 3rd party products are the right choice for your quality needs and financial situation.

For the moment, decide if dye or pigment inks work best for you. And begin your own printer research. If you haven't already guessed, you cannot buy a single printer that uses both dye and pigment inks. It's an "either or" situation. Once you've decided the type of ink you want to use, you will automatically be limited to a line of printers (from each manufacturer) that can accept the ink you've selected. So any printer decision begins with making an ink selection.

Current Epson 2880, HP B9180 and Canon Pro9500 are today's contenders for "top of the printer pack" in the 13"x19" pigment printer class.

Hope this discussion gives you the basic information needed to select your next printer. If you have any questions or comments, you know where to find me.

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