Digital Darkroom – Finding the Right Software

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Sapping the shutter is, in my view, only about 25% of the entire photographic process. The other 75% is handled in the proofing and post-processing stages. With film, this was an incredible setback as many of us do not have the space or resources to build a dark room. Those without access to a dark room were therefore missing out on three-quarters of the entire experience. Working with professional shops was a step in the right direction, but you still had to give up ultimate control. Color corrections, at the very least, were adjusted to yield what they felt was the ideal range. But they were not the creator of your work, and they did not have full comprehension of your vision. In a real-life example, I spent a great deal of time and effort antiquing a photograph in Photoshop only to have it readjusted by the technician. What a waste of time and energy.

The advent of digital cameras have done a great deal to make Photography a legitimate hobby for many people throughout the world. Not only is photography more readily shared across the internet, but all aspects of photography are now easy to attain for a relatively low cost. With film, hobbyists literally had to dedicate a room to their art. And while a can of black paint may give you a strong basis for a dark room, the cost of equipment necessary added up quickly. Now, a digital photographer only needs to dedicate some space on their hard drive.

In this article, I intend to introduce you to the Digital Darkroom by introducing some of the important software that you will need. I will focus on what you need in order to get your work done. As you know, there are often a number of different applications available to perform the same or similar tasks, so it usually comes down to preference. But I will try to outline some of the more common scenarios.

Importing
Importing software greatly depends on your camera. Very often, the software that comes with your camera is going to be the best. Especially if you are using RAW files — RAW is not standardized and many companies have their own proprietary format. If you’re shooting in JPEG or TIFF, you will most likely be able to use your management software, which I will touch on shortly.

Alternatively, your computer may have a slot for your camera’s storage medium, or you may be able to get an add-on peripheral for your computer so that it can read from your storage medium. This being the case, you don’t need to worry about special importing software — you can use your file manager to copy all of the files to your computer. Please note, however, that if you are shooting in RAW, you may still need to install the software that came with your camera in order to get the file support through windows or your preferred editing application.

Photo Management and Proofing
One weekend with your camera willprove that your file manager is not going to be useful for managing your photo library. Ideally, you want a program that allows you to preview your imges, perform some basic functions (rotate, view EXIF data, etc.). Additionally, you may want some tagging support to make for easier searching in the future, especially if you keep a stock library. Also, if you’re into photo manipulation and/or photo montages, you’ll want your source material organized so you don’t waste time trying to find what you need.

The actual software that you use for Photo Management is going to come down to preference. Google’s Picassa is a free software solution that’s popular for keeping your library organized, but many advanced photographers may find the interface a little limited. It is designed for the casual snap-shot consumer after all. Instead, many advanced photographers are opting for more costly proprietary software designed specifically for studios.

Before you go out looking for Photo Mangement software, take a look at what you already have. Seriously. Your camera manufacturer may have provided a pretty good management tool for you with your camera. Nikon’s ViewNX comes with many of their mid-level and upper-level cameras free of charge. If you find that limiting, but appreciate the interface, there are proprietary upgrades available from Nikon as well. Owners of a current version of Adobe Photoshop will find that they have a great management tool called Bridge. For the record, Bridge is the tool I prefer to use for photo management.

Finally, there are a lot of different photo management tools out there designed both for the consumer and for the professional. Some may exhibit an exorbitant price tag, but many that I’ve seen are well worth the cost, especially for the professional photographer.

Photo Editing
I saved the most important type of software for last. As a digital photographer, you will gain much more from purchasing a well rounded editing software than you will from purchasing a new lens. The bad news is that most of the best software available will cost you as much, if not more, than a lens. Adobe Photoshop continues to be the industry standard, and all other editing software will be compared to it. That said, in my experience, Photoshop really does offer the largest amount of control and the most systematic approach to editing. But it is expensive. Fortunately, there are several points of entry into the Photoshop world, and not all versions of the software are going to break the bank. Photoshop Elements ($99 USD) and the relatively new addition to the lineup, Photoshop Lightroom ($300 USD), are going to be valid options for many people. Lightroom is specially designed with the photographer in mind, and there are many aspects of it that may be preferable even to the full-featured version of Photoshop.

Another viable option is Corel’s Paint Shop Pro Photo X2 which is available for about $80 USD. It is a software that I’m not very familiar with, so I cannot attest to its strengths and weaknesses. But I have read that it is short on automation and is not so easy to use with RAW formats. It also doesn’t have many of the built-in photo management features that you get with Photoshop. Nevertheless, it is something worth considering as it is often ranked second only to Photoshop in most software reviews.

Even at their relatively low price-points, Photoshop and Paint Shop can still be considered expensive. Especially if you just bought yourself a $1300 camera, you may not have the money right away to purchase such software. The good news is that there is hope. You may want to opt for an alternative software known as Gimp. Gimp is an open-source software, and it is free for personal use. Don’t let the price tag fool you, however. Gimp is an incredibly powerful piece of software, but its interface may take some getting used to for regular users of the Photoshop model. It also doesn’t come with much in the way of photo management tools. But all that is moot considering you just got a powerful editing program for free.

Conclusion

Whatever software you decide upon, the last three-quarters of the photography experience is now well within your reach. Long gone are the days where the consumer and the professional suffer from such a skill gap. Digital Photography has allowed for such software to bring you, a hobbyist, much closer to the professional world. Granted, the learning curve is still incredibly steep, but isn’t it nice to know you won’t plateau because of your limitations in the dark room? Now the only limitation you have to overcome is time it takes to learn how to use each software effectively.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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