BOOK REVIEW: The Creative Digital Darkroom Is Practically Perfect

Creative Digital Darkroom

Katrin Eismann and Seán Duggan are not quite household names in the Photoshop universe, though Katrin is practically there with her 2005 inclusion in the NAPP Hall of Fame and her position as Chair of the Masters of Professional Studies in Digital Photography at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. I attended one of her sessions on skin retouching at Photoshop World and it was great. Seán, on the other hand, has been published in several books and regularly writes the Photoshop section of Layers Magazine, but doesn’t have the same name recognition as “Deke” or “Ben.” However, I just read The Creative Digital Darkroom and these two seriously deserve to be known on a first-name basis. The book exceeded my expectations and is one of those rare works that satisfies both the artistic and technical sides of creative work.

Roots

This book feels timeless, and it reminds me of another seminal work in photography: the Ansel Adams Photography Series. Books often serve either the artistic side of photography (Take Your Photography to the Next Level by George Barr is a good example) or the technical side (Real World Camera Raw is another good example) but the best books often marry the two and speak of both as if they are not separate—each side fuels the other. The Ansel Adams books and The Creative Digital Darkroom do this.

I also noticed something else that this book does that most other great books seem to do: focus on plenty of well-written text. The Ansel Adams books have a lot of text in them, and it’s all intriguing stuff. If anyone could lean on a bunch of cool photos to fill out their book, Ansel Adams could—but he didn’t. In the Photoshop realm, many books devote a majority of their space to images: Scott Kelby’s books often have just a sidebar devoted to text and use the rest of the space for images. This isn’t bad (especially for step-by-step books that focus on specific tasks) but the books over the years that I’ve got the most learning out of have been the ones that feel more like textbooks, with only just enough eye candy to support the text. Dan Margulis’ books fit this model, and so does The Creative Digital Darkroom. I would not be surprised if this book became used as a textbook in some design schools, and I think it deserves a place in some curriculums.

Anything new on workflow?

With the addition of Aperture and Photoshop Lightroom over the past couple years, it seems much discussion in digital photography is about workflow. I reviewed several books on digital photography workflow in general and Lightroom in particular and it’s actually a straightforward process—not much room for creativity. The Creative Digital Darkroom only touches upon workflow and building a digital darkroom, and the process it outlines is not much different than anyone else’s:

  • Acquire: Raw or JPEG, digital camera and scanning considerations
  • File Preparation: noise reduction, input sharpening, correction distortion and perspective, cropping and straightening
  • Global Enhancement: color correction, tonality, contrast
  • Selective Enhancement: selected tone and color improvements, creative work
  • Output: printing or export for web

The thing about this process is that it’s not married to a single application (a Lightroom workflow would consist of importing, development and then on to slideshow, print or the web—that’s how the application modules are structured). This process is a purist approach to digital photography, based on what regular film photography has always been about. It’s a great model for beginners and experts alike, especially beginners who have grown up with Photoshop and think they can fix everything with that application. Thinking in more fundamental terms (as this book provides) will make you a better photographer.

One pleasant surprise in this book was the addition of a section on building a digital darkroom, touching upon everything from ergonomics and equipment to peripherals (such as a drawing tablet) and settings, including Photoshop preferences and color settings. Of course, this isn’t a book on color management and it can’t compete with those that are—but it’s thorough and straightforward enough that anyone can follow the recommendations Katrin and Seán give and end up with a solid foundation for digital darkroom work.

Everything is deep

I’m surprised at the level of detail and depth that goes into every section in The Creative Digital Darkroom. For example, the chapter on file organization and archive preparation covers resolution, printer types and print quality, bit depth, exposure, pixel count, DNG and XMP, and Camera Raw in both its Bridge and Lightroom forms. I just finished reviewing Bruce Fraser and Jeff Schewe’s Real World Camera Raw, and it didn’t really cover Lightroom’s unique Camera Raw interface. While this book only devotes a few pages to Lightroom, it covers enough to give readers a leg up on using it. That and the fact that Camera Raw in Lightroom is not fundamentally different from Camera Raw in Bridge (which is extensively covered) makes it easier for readers to use Lightroom.

Another thing I really love about this book is the quality of the techniques being taught. You can tell when a technique is truly expert, and most of the techniques you’ll find in this book rank right up there with the master-level professional techniques. Take a look at page 95 for a technique from John Paul Caponigro, one of the preeminent digital photographers working today. It’s a simple technique (only two steps) but many of the best techniques only need a couple steps. I’m always more wary of the ones that take several steps and involve moving pixels around, whether with the Brush Tool or the Clone Stamp Tool. There’s also some excellent techniques involving edge masking and inverted edge masking that can help with sharpening. If you want to improve your masking skills, this book will help you explore new possibilities.

I am also impressed at the breadth of coverage for Photoshop’s various tools and features. There’s an old saying that you can do anything in Photshop about ten different ways, and it must be true because most if not all are documented in this book. There’s a few menu items such as Match Color, Shadow/Highlight and the new-and-improved Brightness/Contrast commands that were recently updated and discussed when they came out, but you don’t hear a whole lot about them afterwards. The focus is often on Levels and Curves, and rightly so, but I think every Photoshop user from student to expert wants to master all the techniques and know which ones work the best in any given situation. The Creative Digital Darkroom will teach you everything you need to know about Photoshop’s many features.

One thing you will not find in this book is techniques specific to certain types of photos. Katrin Eismann fans will be particularly disappointed that there’s no skin retouching techniques, which she is particularly known for. The techniques you find in The Creative Digital Darkroom are for photography in general, and techniques specific to portraits or landscapes are just not here. I don’t consider this an error: the book is already an exhaustive resource on digital darkroom techniques, and to include genre-specific techniques is just too much. All the techniques in this book can be applied to any photo, even the creative techniques near the end such as sepia toning, film grain, reticulation and texture. By the way, if you want to see even more creative effects check out Tim Shelbourne’s Photoshop CS3 Photo Effects Cookbook; my review is here. It has many more photo effects and they are extensively documented and demonstrated.

One more thing

The book doesn’t come with a CD-ROM, but it does come with what I think is even better: a Web site, www.creativedigitaldarkroom.com. From here you can download at least a hundred images from the book, check up on errata, see other reviews of the book and contact the authors. CD-ROMs are set in stone so to speak, and it looks like the website is becoming a popular choice for extending the value of books in the field. Katrin has a couple other websites for her books (check them all out at katrineismann.com).

Conclusion

I consider this book a perfect resource for mastering the creative digital darkroom. The techniques are extensively documented, thorough and come from some of the best workflows in use today. The writing is excellent and copious, and not bogged down with large images. The theory behind the techniques is timeless and relies on the fundamentals such as channels, Lab color, luminosity and blending. I cannot recommend this book highly enough if you are a digital photographer with a creative bent.

The Creative Digital Darkroom
Katrin Eismann & Seán Duggan
Rating: 10/10
Published by O’Reilly
$49.99