I think my darkroom credentials are pretty solid: I have been making traditional black-and-white prints to the highest standards that I am capable of producing from my large-format negatives for more than 25 years. I taught darkroom workshops for many years, demonstrating the numerous techniques and processes I have learned that enable me to get the look and feel I desire in my work.
Yet some years ago, when a friend showed me some early digital prints, they impressed me greatly with their crisp detail and resolution, qualities that I have always valued highly in my work. He also showed me how well he controlled tonalities and contrast throughout his image using his Photoshop workflow. I realized I did not have nearly the same degree of control in the darkroom, and began to seriously research the evolving black-and- white digital printing process. For some time, however, the more I learned, the unhappier I was with the results I could expect. The archival aspects of the early inksets and media were too poor for me to feel comfortable selling images using them, and grays often lacked neutrality. However, the introduction of Epson’s archival pigmented inkset and Color- Byte’s ImagePrint RIP software removed these roadblocks.
So several years ago I began investigating the process of scanning negatives and printing these digital files using an inkjet printer. My chief learning method was to take existing negatives and darkroom prints that I already was very satisfied with and try to duplicate them digitally. Just as a properly exposed and developed negative is the critical step to a darkoom print, I found a correctly exposed scan crucial to a good digital print. Therefore, my first hurdle was to learn how to make a proper scan without losing detail in either highlight or shadow. I learned to read and evaluate the histogram of a scan to ensure it contained all the information necessary to interpret that scan in a way consistent with my vision.
I also found that the more skilled one is in interpreting negatives in the darkroom, and the more grounded one is in sensitometry, the easier it is to transition to the digital process. Because I was familiar with the characteristic film curve and what it told me, the ability to manipulate a Photoshop Curves adjustment layer was a natural next level of control for me. In fact, a Curves adjustment layer is by far my most valuable digital tool, and I use it both globally and with a local selection. The ability to selectively adjust parts of the curve by locking down portions of it and changing either the highlight or shadow portion alone is very valuable.