Lightroom vs the darkroom

What would Ansel do?

For the longest time in my early photography endeavors I was convinced that good photography doesn’t need to be edited. A good photo will be good right after you take it off the camera. I was convinced that Ansel Adams’ work was amazing because of his patience and prudence in waiting for the perfect light and only displaying his best work. And then I was stricken with this quote:

“The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance. Each performance differs in subtle ways.”

…and then I lightened up a bit on my semi-strict “no editing” policy. Further reading into Adams’ life and the concept of visualization and the capture and editing of a negative/print or raw file/exported file solidified in my mind the idea that, although the fundamentals of a picture must be captured when the shutter is opened, the picture is not complete until the final product is as close as possible to what the photographer saw in their mind at the moment of exposure.

But as I sat recently making meticulous adjustments in Silver Efex to try and get a B&W “just so”, I reflected on Ansel Adams’ work and his meticulous work in the dark room. I wondered what he’d think of this modern “darkroom”.

Silver Efex vs Tri-X

The bit that I still struggle to reconcile is the ease of digital photography vs the higher difficulty and reward of film. Lightroom and Silver Efex are the two software I use to edit my black and whites. Even film scans I run through these to make adjustments and do “digital enlarging”, including all dodging and burning and tonal control. Finally I “clean up” any scanning errors in Photoshop.

But this feels like cheating, almost. I have to remind myself that analog photography and digital photography are two entirely different mediums and making use of the technology afforded to me by the modern day is in no way diminishing the basic art of photography- arranging the world in an artistic composition.

The use of software is still means to an end. It’s still a creative control in achieving the visualization that must be present for good photography. It may not be as “effective” or as “pure” as the way the old masters did it, but then again, we’ve moved on from horses to cars, from gas to electric lights, from daguerreotype to modern film and then to digital.


Scanning film still feels like digital photography to me, in a strange way. I develop my own negatives, so there’s some creative control put into the developing process, but there’s a whole world of enlarging finesse that is lost on me because at this point, it’s just too difficult and expensive for me to do. I enjoy working with large format film, and my high school’s dark room wasn’t explicitly set up to enlarge 4×5 or even 120 film, so I had to severely jury-rig one of the enlargers in order to accommodate the larger film.

Lack of ideal equipment, cheap enlarging paper, and a fully tapped well of patience when a decent film scanner was just a little ways up the hall drove me from scanning enlargements. It was so much easier, so much cleaner to scan the film and then work from there. But even if I still worked with enlargements, I would still need to scan them in order to share them on the internet. And, if I had some chemical streaking or some spotting on the enlargement, would I touch that up in the computer? Would it be “digital photography”, if even a bit, then? The question of when the crossover between mediums occurs bothers me a bit, but mostly I’ve let it go and focused on the creative process.

Journey vs Destination

I’ve always been caught up in the journey more than the destination as far as life is concerned. One of the main reasons I enjoy photography is it’s a very technical medium. Digital photography is closely tied into being able to effectively use digital equipment and computer software. Analog photography involves a variety of mechanical, physics, and chemistry skills. The jittery feeling I get when I pull a negative out of Photo-Flo and walk out into the light to see what came out is an artistic and a technical fulfillment. I enjoy taking pictures as much as I enjoy them being “done”.

So that’s part of why the crossover between analog and digital bothers me. “Skipping” enlarging in order to scan the negative and “digitally enlarge” the picture feels like I’m cheating myself out of the gratifying, if difficult, experience of honing my skills in enlarging. While there are some arguments that can be made that working with multi-grade paper, dodging and burning, and any manner of enlarging techniques gives a better result if used correctly, the very end consumer, the person looking at my photographs, doesn’t get any of the backstory. They get the photo in whatever form it ended up in.

And I think that’s the most important thing to remember. One definition of art I like is the transferring of ideas. Medium and technical skill only serve to transfer an idea from my mind to yours. Whatever best accomplishes that, whatever most completely recreates in your head what I saw in mine, is ultimately the “best” process.

What about you?

What are your thoughts on all this? How do you define art, and what is your view on the process of its creation? Is it possible to “cheat” in art as long as the work is completely your own and it serves to aid visualization and recreation of an idea? Tell me what you think.



Add yours →

  1. As someone interested in digital painting, I’ve struggled with a similar feeling of “cheating.” However, as I have found out, the more flexible tools available to me in Photoshop does not magically make me pro. Tools will never be a substitute for strong artistic ability.

    • This is true! While working in a digital medium seems far cleaner because of the ability to make minute changes (moving sliders in Lightroom or working with layers in Photoshop), the technical skill and artistry still needs to be expressed in order for the tools to be effective.

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