When accessorizing your digital darkroom, remember that a few basic items are better than the flashy gizmos.
When I was in high school, I decided to set up a darkroom in the attic. I started by getting a Jobo “two-banger” tank to develop my film and later added an enlarger to do the really cool part of printing my images. One thing I remember from that experience was that I continually spent money on accessories, all the things that “every good darkroom should not be without.” It seemed that there was always some new tool that I needed to make my darkroom look professional and my prints look better, but I found that the latest and greatest new gizmo didn’t make me a better photographer.
In today’s digital world, the process of building your digital darkroom is similar to that of creating a conventional darkroom. You have a good digital camera, a well equipped PC or Mac, and a nice photo printer, but there always seems to be something else you need to make things perfect. Everybody talks about getting the fastest processor or the latest hot video card and monitor, but sometimes the simple, basic things can make the most difference.
In the hardware arena, nothing is more important than two basic elements of all computers: memory and hard drives. In both cases, more and bigger are better. The more memory you can put into a system, the better it will perform. Instead of spending several hundred dollars extra to get the latest, fastest processor, spend that money doubling the amount of memory and you’ll get a lot more bang for your buck. This is especially true in the PC market.
As you work in your digital darkroom, you will find that digital files are like air: they fill the space given to them. Your 80-gigabyte (GB) hard drive, which seemed so large a year ago, suddenly is down to less than 10 percent free space. You can get a larger drive or a second drive. Given how the price per GB is dropping, do both. Two 160 GB drives are likely to cost less than what you originally paid for that older drive, and it is worth it to spend a couple of extra bucks to get drives that have 8 megabyte buffers. They are becoming the standard, and the price differential has become minimal.
Several working professional photographers that I know now use duplicate hard drives as their primary backups, instead of CDs or DVDs. When you add up the costs, the time it takes to back up, the ease of access and the elimination of the multiple-format issues, hard drives can be a very viable archiving solution.
On the software side, there are several tools that you absolutely need in your digital darkroom. First, you need a way to transfer images from your digital camera to your computer, typically to a hard drive. You can actually do this the basic way by using the Explorer applets built into the Windows and Mac operating systems. Virtually all of the digital film readers will appear as a hard-drive-type device when installed on a PC or Mac. You then simply copy the files from one drive to another, setting up folders on the hard drive to organize the images.
All digital cameras also come with software that provides transfer and viewing programs. Nikon View, Canon File Viewer, Olympus Viewer and Kodak Photo Desk are examples of what manufacturers provide in the box. They all give you the ability to view, transfer and perform some additional functions such as renaming, captioning, raw file conversion and even some rudimentary editing. The major gripes about these programs have been that either they don’t work very well or the user interface is seriously lacking.
If you are more serious about your digital files and want to rename or caption, several utilities are available on both platforms. Photo Mechanic and iView MediaPro are excellent examples of programs that perform these functions well. Both run on PCs and Macs, and both support most raw formats, as well as JPEGs and TIFFs. Neither is inexpensive, but both are sophisticated programs that also perform other functions.
In the raw
If you are shooting in raw format, you will need a way to “develop” your images. Again, the programs provided by the manufacturers will do an adequate job of converting files to JPEGs and TIFFs. For those who want something more sophisticated, your options have recently gotten somewhat limited. This is a good thing, however, because we finally are getting some standards, which has led to more features being built into other products.Bibble, available for both Mac and PC, supports the most popular raw formats. It is the oldest and one of the best raw converters, but it has not kept up with new releases. For example, the best raw converter on the market — Adobe Camera Raw v2.0 — is now built right into the latest version of Photoshop CS. If you are serious enough to be shooting raw, you are serious enough that you need to own Photoshop CS. This program has now become akin to the developing tank and enlarger in your digital darkroom.
Camera Raw includes a powerful set of tools for exposure control, color calibration and chromatic aberration. Although the Adobe product is the best tool around for upsizing raw images, users have noted a few shortcomings. First, it does not yet handle all digital camera raw formats and second, it stores EXIF data in the new XMP block, so programs not XMP-aware ill not see the EXIF data. Both of these should be fixed in an upcoming release of Camera Raw that may be available by the time you read this article.
If you don’t feel that you need all the power of Photoshop CS, several other excellent and less expensive programs are out there for processing your digital photos. Capture One, Paint Shop Pro and Photoshop Elements are all fine programs that will provide average users with the tools they need to edit and print their images.
If you are a Photoshop user, however, you probably are aware of the incredible number of add-ons and plug-ins available. You can spend a small fortune buying the latest and hottest tools to help you work better, smarter, faster or (most importantly) cooler. In my experience, most of these quickly wind up on a shelf in the closet. There are, however, three tools that I use regularly in my workflow: Dfine is my noise removal tool; Photokit Sharpener does all my sharpening; and Knockout helps me mask my more difficult photo selections.
And, at last, I have found the ultimate accessory that no digital darkroom should be without. This is better than Photoshop, cooler than Alien Skin and more versatile than Sledge-O-Matic. From the geniuses at TomatoChip.com, I give you the USB Beverage Warmer. How did we ever live without it?