Making fine prints in your digital darkroom
Getting started
by Norman Koren

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Making fine prints in your digital darkroom
Understanding image sharpness and MTF
Image galleries / How to purchase prints
Photographic technique
Image editing with Picture Window Pro

A simplified zone system
Canon FS4000US 4000 dpi scanner
Epson 2450 flatbed scanner
Digital vs. film | Canon EOS-10D
Building simple web pages
updated Oct. 3, 2007
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Table of contents

for the Making Fine
Prints series

Getting started
Introduction | Why a digital darkroom?
How good a print can you make from 35mm?
Why make your own scans and prints?
Learning the craft | What you'll need
Computer | Film scanner
Digital camera | Image editing software
Why you need a 48 bit editor | Printer
Light & color | Pixels, images, & files | Scanners
Digital cameras | Printers | Papers and inks
Monitor calibration and gamma
Printer calibration | Scanning | Basic image editing
Black & White, matting and framing
Tonal quality and dynamic range in digital cameras

Color Management: Introduction | Implementation
Profiles with MonacoEZcolor | Evaluating profiles




for Image editing with
Picture Window Pro
Introduction | Making masks
Contrast masking
Tinting and hand coloring B&W images
Example: Sunset, Providence, Rhode Island

Introduction

I've loved fine photographic prints ever since I started visiting the George Eastman House as a child. From the mid-1960's through the mid-1980's I worked intensively in my home darkroom, mastering the art of making fine black and white prints. But as career and family demands grew, finding time to set up chemicals, print, then clean up became increasingly difficult. Though I did little darkroom work between 1985 and 1998, I never gave up the idea of working in the darkroom. Now, thanks to digital technology, I'm back making beautiful prints, and I'm delighted.

In this tutorial I share my techniques for making fine museum quality prints, both color and black and white, starting with negatives, slides, or digital camera images. This page tells you what you need and how to get started. The tutorial is outlined below in Learning the craft-- a roadmap.  The total investment, apart from the computer, can be under $1000 (all prices in US dollars).
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 Correct monitor calibration
is vital for viewing and making fine prints. Two key parameters, Black level (often labeled Brightness) and Contrast, are set on the monitor. A third, Gamma, is set in the video card lookup table (LUT). Contrast is normally set to maximum. Color temperature should be set to 6500K or lower-- 6500K looks best on most CRTs. It can be set on the monitor (preferably) or with the video card/color management software, but not both. Color quality should be set to 24 or 32 bits. The room should be dimly lit; no direct light should shine on the screen. Gray images should look subjectively gray to your eye. For flat screen (LCD) monitors, Screen resolution (right-click on the wallpaper, Properties, Settings) should be set to the monitor's native resolution.

Gamma defines the curve that relates the pixel levels in your computer to the luminance (brightness) of your monitor and prints, using the equation,

Luminance = (pixel level/255)gamma + black level
You can estimate gamma from the pattern on the left side of the chart on the right by viewing it from a distance and observing where the average luminance across the pattern is constant. Gamma should be set to 1.8 for older Macintosh systems (2.2 seems to be the current standard) or 2.2 for Windows systems and the Internet sRGB color space using techniques in Monitor calibration: Setting gamma. Gamma is extremely sensitive to viewing angle in most Laptop LCD screens. This chart is only for monitors; it doesn't work on printed media.

You can set your monitor's Black level using the mostly black pattern on the right of the chart. This pattern contains two dark gray vertical bars which increase in luminance with increasing gamma. (If you can't see them, your black level is way low.) The left bar should be just above the threshold of visibility opposite your chosen gamma-- it should be invisible where gamma is lower by about 0.3. The right bar should be distinctly visible, but still very dark. Black level interacts with gamma; you may have to go back and forth two or three times.

The pattern provides a good indicator of display quality. Cheap LCDs can't achieve a constant neutral gray appearance. But good flat screen displays can be excellent, and prices are dropping.

For more detail and a larger chart, see Monitor calibration: Gamma and black level.

I encourage you to load this chart on your computer and check it occasionally. I'll be happy to grant permission to reproduce it on your website if you e-mail me, give me credit and a link to this page.

Key questions about the digital darkroom

Why a digital darkroom?

First of all, you don't need an actual darkroom. You can set it up anywhere you can set up your computer. All you need is space for a printer and, if you're still using film, a film scanner. There are no toxic chemicals to mix, set up, or clean up. You don't need to set aside large blocks of time to feel productive. Color and tonal adjustments, dodging, and burning are simple and precise. The image on a well-calibrated monitor closely resembles the print; there is little delay between exposure and evaluation. I'm sometimes tempted to go back to black and white darkroom printing, which doesn't have the frustrating complexities of color. A well made selenium-toned silver print is archival and still hard to beat. But the Epson 2200 printer comes close, and digital offers superior control. And printers keep getting better. Aspens near Vail, Colorado. Click for enlarged image.

How good a print can you make from 35mm?

This is best answered with an example. The image of aspen trees on the Pitkin Creek trail near Vail, Colorado (above) contains nearly an entire 35mm frame (24x36mm). It was taken with the Canon "New" F-1 camera, the outstanding 35mm f/2.8 TS (Tilt-Shift) lens stopped down to f/8 or f/11 and tilted slightly, a lightweight Manfrotto tripod, and Kodacolor Gold 100 film, which is sharper than you might expect. The original was scanned on an HP Photosmart S20 at 2400 pixels per inch (ppi), for a total resolution is 3328x2184 pixels (defined below), and sharpened with unsharp mask. The above image has been reduced by a factor of 8 to 416x273 pixels. The images on the left and below (from near the center and left of the frame) contain 416x273 unreduced pixels (1 screen pixel = 1 image pixel). These images span 1/8 of the total image lengthwise; each contains 1/64 the total image area. If the entire image were reproduced at a typical monitor resolution of 80 pixels/inch (30x magnification), it would cover 28x42 inches, more than twice my printer's maximum 13x19 inch print size. A3 (11.7x16.5 inch) prints of this image are extremely sharp-- beautiful and satisfying. Prints from 2400 dpi scans are about as sharp as the best enlarger (conventional darkroom) prints; prints from properly sharpened 4000 dpi scans are sharper: See Understanding image sharpness, Part 2 and CanoScan FS4000US.

I compare digital cameras with 35mm film elsewhere. The brief summary: the overall image quality of 6 megapixel digital SLRs equals 35mm (nearly as sharp, but grainless). 8 megapixel DSLRs do better.

Why scan your own film?

Legend has it that the best scans are made at photo shops on drum scanners, which have slightly higher Dmax than desktop CCD scanners (see scanner specifications). But drum scans are expensive; they are advantageous only for large format film and the occasional slide with important detail in the darkest areas. In most instances you can do as well if you have a decent film scanner and know how to use it. Photo.net's scanning forum is well worth checking out.

Why make your own prints?

View image galleries
How to purchase prints .
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An excellent opportunity to collect high quality photographic prints and support this website
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Learning the craft-- a study guide

Learning the craft of digital photographic printmaking can be daunting to a novice. This roadmap is intended to help guide you. Consider it a mini site map. A full Site map is also available.
 
Digital darkroom

overview
and
workflow

You'll need
  1. Scanner or digital camera 
  2. Computer with lots of memory
  3. Image editing program 
  4. Printer 
  Workflow
  1. Scan the film (slide or negative) or upload the digital camera image(s).
  2. Edit the image for the desired appearance.
  3. Print the image
You'll need to calibrate your monitor.
 
Equipment.  Your first concern will probably be equipment, summarized below in What you'll need. More detail can be found in the following pages.
  • Scanners (devices for digitizing film) explains scanner specifications and describes the different types. Includes a list of film and flatbed scanners. A separate page, Scanning, describes how to use them.
  • Digital cameras describes the key features that affect image quality. Has a table of some of the better models and links to sites with detailed information and reviews.
  • Photo printers describes high quality inkjet photo printers, particularly the Epson Ultrachrome series (the Stylus Photo 2200, etc.).
  • Canon EOS-10D Digital SLR This outstanding 6.3 megapixel Digital SLR will be of particular interest to those of you shopping for a high quality digital camera.
  • Canon FS4000US 4000 dpi 35mm film scanner is an excellent choice for scanning 35mm film. Nikon and Minolta also make excellent scanners.
  • Epson 2450 and 3200 flatbed scanners and their successors (the 4870) are excellent for medium format and 4x5. The resolution isn't quite up to snuff for 35mm, but it keeps improving incrementally.
Basic concepts.  You will need to be familiar with the concepts of light, color, and digital imaging.  Like much of this site, these pages go into considerable technical depth. Don't worry if you don't grasp everything at first; you can always return.
  • Light & color introduces the basic concepts of additive and subtractive colors as well as the HSV and HSL color models used for image editing.
  • Pixels, images, and file formats introduces the fundamental concepts of digital images, how their size and resolution is specified, and how they are stored.
  • Photographic technique covers photographic vision, cameras, lenses, tripods, bags, film, filters, and panoramic photography. It also has a section on travel.
  • A simplified zone system explains how to expose film to capture maximum information. (It's less relevant to digital cameras, where histograms are used to determine exposure.)
Setup and calibration.  Once you have the basic equipment-- digital camera and/or scanner, computer, and image editing software, you will need to set it up and calibrate it.
  • Monitor calibration is a critical step. Don't skip it!
  • Printer calibration  explains how to get your prints to match the images on your calibrated monitor, without and with ICC color management.
Image editing is one the heart making fine prints, and it's probably the one that requires the biggest learning curve, apart from color management. As you'll soon see I'm not a fan of Photoshop.
  • Picture Window Pro is a powerful program that's much less expensive than Photoshop, and easier to learn and use. I describe it briefly below.
  • Basic image editing illustrates the basics of image editing, using PW Pro as an example. 
  • Image editing with Picture Window Pro introduces PW Pro and illustrates a number of techniques, including making masks, contrast masking, and "hand-coloring" B&W images.
Going deeper.  Once you've covered the basics you may want to explore these pages.
  • Black & White, matting and framing presents workflows for producing excellent Black & White prints with color inkjet printers. Includes techniques for matting and framing prints.
  • Tonal quality and dynamic range in digital cameras explains how to achieve ultimate tonal quality and access the hidden dynamic range from images captured with digital cameras.
  • Papers and inks describes specialized ink sets (mostly for B&W) and fine art papers. You should start out with inks and papers recommended by the printer manufacturer. But you may eventually want to look further...
  • Color Management isn't necessary for beginners. You can make very fine prints without it. But if you want to print on third-party fine art papers, refine the match between your monitor and printer, or send out image files to be printed, you'll need it. It involves a significant learning curve.
  • Understanding image sharpness and MTF is a series of articles that cover a number of image quality-related topics, including sharpness in lenses, film, scanners, and digital cameras, as well as testing lenses, depth of field, and grain.
Background reading.

What you'll need

Computer

I use a PC. Although the Mac has traditionally dominated graphic arts applications, today's PC is every bit as capable. Any recentPC is fast enough for most image editing, but you'll need extra memory and storage. Darron Spohn's photo.net article (with responses) is worth checking out.

Film scanner

A scanner is a device that converts images-- negatives, slides or prints-- to digital format, i.e., pixels. To make prints digitally from film originals you'll need to have them scanned. If you have a stock of existing film images I strongly recommend that you purchase a scanner. Although shops can make scans, you can usually obtain the finest quality, and you can certainly save money in the long run, with your own scanner. You don't need a scanner for images made on a digital camera.

There are several types of scanner, and several formats within each type.


Scan your entire collection?  I've received several inquiries from people who want to scan their entire collection of slides and negatives, sometimes numbering in the thousands. Alas, I can't recommend this. Scanning, editing (which can usually be put off), and transferring files to CD is simply too time-consuming. You have to clean each slide or strip, put it in the scanner, wait for the scan, etc.My recommendation: Scan only your best. Select carefully. It will take enough of your time.
My main scanner for 35mm is the 4000 dpi Canon CanoScan FS4000US, but I still use the 2400 dpi 36 bit Hewlett-Packard PhotoSmart S20 for panoramic images. It makes very decent 13 inch high (up to 33 inch long) prints. Dust can be a real pain with the HP, but the CanoScan's infrared channel dust removal is very effective. I use the Epson 3200 flatbed for medium format and larger.
 
. To learn more about scanners, go to Scanners.

This page explains scanner specifications and has a large Table of scanners.

Digital camera

When I started this page, film had the edge over digital. Digital cameras were advancing so rapidly that they would become obsolete in six months. This is no longer the case. Progress has slowed. Digital SLR cameras are superior to their 35mm counterparts, and they no longer become obsolete overnight. There are two major digital camera categories. Here are the basic pros and cons of digital cameras. As time passes, the pros grow and the cons shrink. In my (not too) humble opinion, the only reasons to buy a film camera in 2007 are (1) you're uncomfortable with computers, (2) you don't use much film, hence you won't recoup your investment, and (3) you've enrolled in a college photography class that requires a film camera. Many colleges are extremely backward.
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. To learn more about digital cameras, go to Digital cameras.

This page contains a Table of digital cameras and Links to important sites.

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Image editing software

Here's where I'm biased. I use an image editing program gives me all the control I could ever ask for-- a truly great piece of software; a real joy to work with. But it's not well known. It's Picture Window Pro from Digital Light & Color, a labor of love for its creator, Jonathan Sachs, who authored one of the landmark programs of personal computing, Lotus 1-2-3. Why do I love this program so much when most of the world uses Photoshop? If you haven't mastered Photoshop and you don't need its extensive graphic arts capabilities, you should consider Picture Window Pro. A photo.net forum discussion is well worth a look. I use Picture Window in my introduction to Image editing, and I've written a set of in-depth tutorials on Image editing with Picture Window Pro. There's no need for another Photoshop tutorial-- there are already dozens on the Web. I can't resist this quote by John C. Dvorak (February 21, 2001) (alternate URL ), who continues to use Photoshop for its graphics capabilities.
"Photoshop is probably one of the most problematic programs ever devised. Only a person who uses it everyday can come close to mastering it. Once, I was at Adobe's corporate headquarters and wanted to learn a trick, so I had one of the company hotshots show me. He must have shown me 10 different ways of doing the same thing. When I got home, I could recall none.  ...  Books like Monroy's are only for professionals, although Monroy and the publishers would probably not agree. In fact, there is no such thing as a Photoshop book for beginners because Photoshop has no natural point at which the uninitiated can begin. Learning Photoshop by reading would be like learning how to drive a Formula One car from a book."
I occasionally talk to people who have tried digital printing but prefer the old-fashioned chemical darkroom. They have one thing in common: they've struggled with Photoshop.
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Why you need a 48-bit color/16-bit B&W image editor

The image on the right of bristlecone pines on the Arapahoe Glacier trail is one of my favorites. But it doesn't look very promising straight out of the Canon FS4000US scanner (top right). The reason is that the sky is extremely bright, and the scanner software sets the brightness levels to maintain detail in the brightest and darkest parts of the image. As a result, most of the tonal range is occupied by the sky-- foreground tones are dark and compressed. (April 2002. The original scan came out quite a bit better with the latest version of Canon's FilmGet software, 1.0.3.)

The image is edited (middle right) using the mask (bottom right) to adjust the foreground and sky separately. Foreground tones are brought up to the desired brightness and color. In a 24-bit (8 bits = 256 levels per channel) color file, grayscale levels-- tonal detail-- would have been lost in the dark compressed foreground; the adjusted image would have had a roughness to its colors. For example, levels 78, 79 and 80 might all be transformed to level 167. This doesn't happen to every level, but it must happen to some levels. There is no loss of scan detail in a 48-bit (16 bits = 65536 levels per channel) color file. It maintains its tonal detail when it's adjusted. 

Once these adjustments are complete the file may be saved as 24-bit color or 8 bit B&W without loss of quality. Many editors can't work in 48-bit precision, for example Photoshop LE, the "lite" version supplied with many scanners, and Photoshop Elements. Two that can are Photoshop (the full version, 6.0+) and Picture Window Pro (my favorite).

Inkjetart.com has a particularly nice three part article illustrating the advantages of 48-bit editing. Color Management guru Bruce Fraser has excellent articles on the advantages of 48-bit editing and on Photoshop's 48-bit limitations.

Arapahoe glacier trail bristlecones: as scanned
Arapahoe glacier trail bristlecones-- click for large image.
Adjustment mask for Arapahoe glacier trail bristlecones

Additional software

Even though the image editor enables you to do most of what you need to transform a raw image into a work of art, some additional programs may come in handy. I haven't tested all of these, but all come with glowing recommendations from friends.

Printer

Several printer technologies are available-- laser, inkjet and dye sublimation. Inkjet printers, particularly those with six or more ink colors, lead the pack for photographic image quality. Printers have come a long way since I started digital darkroom work in 1998. There are two major types of inkjet printer.
. To learn more about printers, particularly the Epson 1270, 1280/1290 and 2100/2200, go to Printers. This page contains tips on using printers and links. Specialized inks and fine art papers for Epson printers are listed in Papers and inks.

Some of the top printers today are
Learning the craft-- a study guide | Calibrating your monitor | Calibrating your printer

Images and text copyright 2000-2013 by Norman Koren. Norman Koren lives in Boulder, Colorado, where he worked in developing magnetic recording technology for high capacity data storage systems until 2001. He has been working on Imatest since 2003. He has been involved with photography since 1964.