Overview of the Digital Negative Process
So I don't wanna use this camera, but I wanna be able to print a cyanotype, a platinum print, and album imprint, I wanna do a salt print, I want to get engaged with that historical process. So how do I do that? Well, I could start to work with a digital negative. What a digital negative is, is we take a file, and I literally mean any digital file, your iPhone, if you're in Illustrator, so if you work in Adobe Illustrator, and you create a file, we take any file that is digital, we're gonna convert that, and then we're gonna print it on on overhead transparency. The overhead transparency becomes the negative. So that's what we're gonna then use to do the contact printing. The cool part of this, like I said, because it's any file, I can take my iPhone, and take a picture on my iPhone, I can use my Nikon, or Canon, or Sony, and I can print with it. The other thing that a digital negative does, is it allows us to use the same negative, the same negative template across multiple mediums. So...
I could take a digital negative, and work with it in a cyanotype, I can work with it in a platinum print, I can work with it in a salt print. And while you could do that with a traditional negative, these historical processes, as we taught more about them in the specific process, are heavily influenced by their ability to create contrast. And some of them have a longer scale, so they can actually create more contrast, some of them create less contrast. When you're workin' in the traditional way, you had to make a decision about your negative, when you shot it and developed it to say, "Oh, is it gonna be easier to print in platinum?" That means what it might be a little bit more work to print in cyanotype. So you had to make some decisions there in the analog world about how you were gonna process the film, to kind of optimize it for the printing. Now when I started, I was a platinum printer. So the majority of my negatives were created with the scale, and the contrast in mind for platinum. When I started to shift, I just had to get a little smarter about how I used the chemistry. But the digit negative, because we're gonna control all of that in Photoshop, I now have got the power to go in, and make a little shift here or there, and make the adjustments, so that they work in the different processes. The other thing about a digital negative is because it's stored in the computer, it allows us to, not necessarily have to worry about the damage to the original source negative. So if we go back to this negative. This is really a one of a kind object. So if I damage this in any way, or I want to do something strange to this, like I said, cut it up into a weird shape, or I wanna cut it in half, and flip the other half, I damage the original source negative. So unless I'm willing to scan and build and internegative, and do things like that, I lose this. But the digital negative, because it comes off an inkjet printer, I can recreate over, and over, and over again. So there's a safety factor to that. One of my absolute favorite photographs I've ever taken, is of a log drift in the ocean, and I was platinum printing it, and the paper had not dried, I stuck the negative on it, and what happened was, the platinum came up into the negative. And so I actually, basically, ended up with a thousand little dots of platinum onto my negative, that I had to scan, and then go in and clone out in Photoshop. With a digital negative, I would have just thrown the digital negative away, printed a new one, and started over again. So there is some benefit if you do run into a problem like that. So there are some pros and cons of working with digital negatives that I wanted to cover before we actually jump into what the process looks like. Like I said, one of the big pros is that we can recreate them over, and over again. We also have the ability to manipulate the image, and use all the tools and power of Photoshop to correct, alter, shift, change, the image. So if we want a telephone pole to not be in there, great, I can go ahead and use contour and fill, remove the telephone pole, create the image however I want. I can blend images together, I can stack images. Like I said, if you're in Illustrator, I just got done workin' with somebody and he draws everything in Illustrator, does these beautiful murals in there, and we've started created those in alternative processing. So he's able to continue his craft in this way. So that's a benefit, because it's anything that's digital. Also, I don't have to carry that around. That's a huge benefit actually. It's a lot easier to pull my phone out and go, click, and put that in there and know that I can still get a reasonably good image to work with. On the downside, digital images look different than film images, so this is one of the things, when I teach black and white film photography that I try to get people to understand, is that those are actually two different mediums, so they both live in the continuum of photography. They're both about the capturing of light, but the experience of the way film captures light, and how digital captures light, produces a different look. The aesthetic is slightly different. So part of that is, if you make a mistake in the digital world, and you print traditionally, and it comes out of the printer, and you're like, "Oh, it looks a little funny. "It doesn't look quite right." You're gonna make a tweak. You push the digital file a little more, you try to pull it back a little bit more, and everything just looks a little odd. It looks really odd when we make a digital negative. The sins of the errors in digital editing, are exponentially larger when we go to make alternative processing. Because they really don't look right in the substrate we create. The way that the emulsion is created, and we talk about this, we're actually coating these papers, and the emulsion is being adhered into the paper, so the way that happens causes some of these digital artifacts that show up. One of the big ones is over sharpening. So digital files have a natural sharpness to them. That is different than film, because the grain helped with how sharpness was perceived. So one of the tell tale ways of looking at a digital negative produced alternative print, is an over sharpening factor. Now, if you're good at sharpening in a digital image, you won't necessarily even see that in the digital negative. But people who love a little bit sharper images, when they create their digital negative, and then they make their print out on whatever method their doing, they look at it, and they're like, "It feels...weird." And that weirdness is usually an over sharpness. So that's one of the pieces. We really have to get a good handle on our process. Another kind of con of working with image, you have to be able to... Actually I would say it's a con in the general printing of digital anyway, of printing. But, you have to really be able to visualize how the tones are gonna appear in a print, and how that translates into what's happening on the screen. Now we're gonna talk about how to build the digital negative, and we do a bunch of work to get all those tones in the black and white image to map properly, but, you'll look at an image, and you'll say, "Oh, it looks really flat when I printed it "in platinum, or in salt, or in a cyanotype. "My Van Dyke print just looks flat." And then you go back and put it next to the computer screen, you'll be like, "Ah, it's kind of flat on the computer screen." And where it's gonna normally be flat, is in the mid tones. So that's one of the other areas we see is a difficulty of working with the digital negative, is we really have to make sure we get the mid tones of our black and white image to separate enough that we get the contrast we're looking for in the image. Another con of working with them is, this is an introductory course, so I've picked a methodology, and I've picked what I think is an easy methodology, that if you're familiar with Photoshop, and you've ever used a curved, we can get you to do alternative processing really easy. There's a quadtone rip, there's precision digital negatives, there's all sorts of different ways to create these digital negatives. And each one has a pro and a con into its own. You get a certain look, and a certain feel with the different techniques to create a digital negative. It becomes really easy to start chasing your tail for the holy grail of the perfect digital negative. And you start working on all the science, and all the measurement, and all the math, and you end up printing hundreds and hundreds of test step wedges, to try to get everything perfect. When the reality is, the alternative process has an inherent uniqueness to it. There's a drift because we're coating the paper by hand each time, because we're working the process by hand each time. There's subtle nuances in difference. So you're gonna see a drift between 1 and 3, 1 and 4% from image to image that is a part of the uniqueness of the historical process. It's a part of the reason we do this. Is we want the feeling of something rich, something unique, something that has that artfulness to it, rather than just something that's mechanically replicated to perfection each time. I do think it's a con that there are so many options. And like I said, whether you picked the quadtone rip. We're using a tone mapping curve correction, which I think is a great process. They all produce beautiful images. They're all subtly different, and if you're already familiar with, say, a quadtone rip method, and you want to try this method, great. Or vice versa, if you decide after trying this, "Oh I wanna try the quadtone rip method, see how that is." you can try those different elements. And ultimately what they all are, are different ways of describing how gray scale values in a black and white image are sent to the printer to create a negative. So that's what those different techniques do. But because there are several, it can become easy to get lost in the technical side. I'm a person who would much rather be coating and making prints, than doing the technical side. So, I like to get to the point where I feel like I'm getting something I want, and then I want to make photographs. I'm a photographer. I'm not a technician, I'm not a scientist. When you get into this process, and you start looking at some other people's work, they're amazing photographers, and they're also chemists, they're also mechanical engineers, they're also civil engineers, so their brains are just wrapped around that hard core science part, and it's great, because they're incredibly gracious, they share a lot, and they do all that crazy math, and there's these spreadsheets, and you're like, "Oh, I'm glad somebody figured that out for me to go... "Yay, it came out of the printer." So, don't get too tripped up in the hard complexities of it. The last con I would say is that there are a lot of steps. So, there's a lot of things you've gotta go through, but once you've done it once or twice, it becomes second nature. So like anything else, there's gonna be muscle memory involved. So don't be intimidated when we get into actually how to create this stuff. We'll be like, "Whoa, that's a lot." It's a lot up front. But once you do this, it's super easy. As a matter of fact, once you kind of get dialed into your process, like the other day, I printed 14 cyanotypes in about three hours. 'Cause once the digital negative information was set, I could just print. And that's really what I want to do. I want to go into my dark room, I wanna get it set up, and I want to make cool photographs.