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Review: "The Creative Digital Darkroom" by Katrin Eismann and Sean Duggan

By Ron Eggers

So many new digital photography books reach the market that it's sometimes difficult to tell one from another. Every once in a while, though, a new title comes along that distinguishes itself, either by the author’s slant or how the subject matter is covered. Katrin Eismann and Seán Duggan's new book, “The Creative Digital Darkroom” (O’Reilly, $49.99) is one of those books. It’s a comprehensive how-to and reference guide that can help even experienced photographers work more effectively with digital images.

I don't know Seán Duggan, but for the sake of full disclosure, I've known Katrin for a number of years, and I’m always impressed with the quality of her writing. “Real World Digital Photography,” which she wrote with Duggan and Tim Grey, became a must-have guide for photographers.

The 400-some pages of “Creative Digital Darkroom” are loaded with useful information, creative techniques and interesting projects. To get the most out of a book like this requires a considerable investment of time. It's not something you read once and go on to the next section. The 10-chapter book includes a foreword by Stephen Johnson, the photographer, author and educator. He says of the edition, "It is a workbook for today's photographer, providing needed detail to process the image and the reasoning behind the procedure." You have to go over the techniques carefully and actually try the suggested approaches, on either the images featured in the book, which are available for download, or your images.

The manuscript comes largely out of the authors’ personal experience: "In this book, we share some of the essential creative concepts and techniques that we use when working in the digital darkroom," Eismann notes in the preface. That’s one feature that distinguishes this book from others on the topic, that it stresses specific simulated darkroom techniques and darkroom terminology.

After presenting the authors' view on the relationship between seeing and photography, and providing an overview of the concepts of digital imaging (Chapter 1), the book gets into the nuts and bolts of digital imaging (Chapter 2). There's a complete run down of the hardware and software required for professional digital imaging, and in keeping with the theme of comparing conventional and digital photography, the focus is on building a digital darkroom rather than configuring a digital imaging system.

Most of the major hardware components of the digital darkroom are covered, but briefly—this isn’t a book on computers—yet the info is more than sufficient. As you’d expect, the primary focus of the software section is Adobe Photoshop. In fact, the rest of the text concentrates primarily on Photoshop, with a bit about Adobe Lightroom and Camera Raw, and an occasional mention of third-party applications and plug-ins.

Readers with only cursory exposure to Photoshop will appreciate the section, "Under the Hood: Essential Photoshop Preferences and Color Settings." The many, sometimes confusing, settings and adjustments are presented in an easy-to-read and understand manner. Such Photoshop tasks as setting preferences, customizing the interface and adjusting color settings are explained, without losing the reader with excess detail.

One of the underlying concepts of this book is the importance of the quality of the original image. "Digital images, whether they're from a digital camera or scanner, are all about information … your goal is to capture as much tonal, color and detail information as possible." To that end, both scanning film and digital camera image capture are explained. In both cases, the preparation of the file for its intended output is all-essential. Among the many tasks explained are increasing and decreasing image size, cropping, reducing electronic noise, sharpening, correcting optical distortion and adjusting the perspective.

The next six chapters cover all the tools required for optimizing and manipulating images. The sections on levels and histograms alone are worth the price of the book. The authors also explain how to use creative filters, toning, dodging, burning, simulated cross-processing effects, and present step-by-step instructions for applying a variety of creative digital effects.

There’s a discussion of concepts that are applicable to most of the creative techniques. One of the fundamentals is to use non-destructive editing techniques whenever possible. For example, Photoshop often provides a number of ways to achieve a desired effect, some of them destructive. In almost all cases where there’s an option, adding non-destructive layers over the original image is preferable to applying destructive techniques directly to the image.

The section on color theory is quite useful. One of the things that makes color so difficult is that it’s highly subjective. To obtain consistent color it's important to understand at least some scientific color theory, color models and the differences between working in the additive RGB and subtractive CMY (or CMYK) color spaces. With digital images, the basic building blocks of color are hue, saturation and luminosity, and the book goes into considerable detail about how to control these elements to achieve optimum color.

Wherever there's a mouse icon next to an image in the book, it signals that the image is available for downloaded at www.creativedigitaldarkroom.com, so you can practice the covered techniques. The book is so richly illustrated and graphically interesting that the actual Web site is a little disappointing. Its simple, logical design comes off as relatively boring. Depending on your display size, the dark blue menu options in the black bar that extends  across the top of the screen can be difficult to see. Fortunately, the menu option changes to yellow on mouseover.

All 128 sample images can be downloaded in one massive 246MB zip file. Images for the individual chapters come in sets of 14 to 23, and can also be downloaded in zip files, and you can access single images as well by file name. (All images are copyrighted, and cannot be used for any purpose other than following the tutorials.) I tried downloading a couple of the images just to see how the process worked. Once you download the images, you just follow the numbered instructions in the book under the file name. It couldn't be simpler.

There's some special content on the site that's not in the book. Chapter 11, “The Print,” is available as a bonus 20-page PDF. That's actually an important chapter that shouldn't be missed. As the authors note, "... for most photographers, especially those who come from a traditional darkroom background, the ultimate destination for their creative expression is the print."

The chapter covers such important items as working with profiles, which isn't covered in the color correction chapter, soft-proofing, printing within Photoshop and working with outside vendors. Soft-proofing is under-utilized by photographers because they are often dissatisfied with the results. After reading this section, your results should improve.

If the objective is to come up with the best digital images possible, this book will propel you in the right direction.