How the Darkroom Experience Applies to the Digital “Lightroom”

Interviews with artists, photographers and writers living and working on the creative fulcrum between fine art and art for industry
by Geoff Bush

With fifty-plus years working with great creative minds in the ad industry in both management and creative capacities, I have always been fascinated with the choices and rationales offered by the best of the best for the application of their talents to the commercial world. The most experienced of these individuals also presents an opportunity to learn about changes – technical, social and personal, providing insight to what those planning to make a career in creativity. In this dialogue Roderick Bley, a deeply experience photographer, demonstrates the importance of singular focus on a craft to achieve personal creative goals.

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How the Darkroom Experience Applies to the Digital “Lightroom”

An interview with Roderick Bley, professional digital photographer.

Question #1 – How did you get started in photography?

You could say that I was literally born into the industry.  When I was a teenager my parents owned a photo lab where I am sure I was as much a hindrance as a help, but it’s where I caught the bug. Even before the photo lab my public school librarian knew that I was interested in photography and would loan me the school camera, a Russian Zenith E. This continued throughout high school where I joined the camera club and the yearbook club. If you were looking for me, the school darkroom is where you would find me. Also did local wedding photography and learned a lot about personal photography.

Question #2 – Tell us about your formal education in photography.

I was fortunate to have been accepted into the photo technology program at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto.  This was a four year program but I was well prepared because of my practical experience. So my professor advised me to head out into the real world after my second year. I took his advice and he was right because photographic education was just beginning.

Question #3 – Tell us a bit about your real first career in photography.

I had a number of paying jobs while in Toronto but my first “career” job was working for a small family run photo lab in Calgary, Alberta Canada. As with most young entrepreneurs the thought of owning my own business was always on my mind but the path to get there started on the night shift. The company was expanding its operations and I graduated to the day shift where I was quickly involved in assisting the business build a new location and move the operations. It was also during this time frame that I first met the Kodak rep, a great guy named Joe Davis, who was working with a world leader in the photographic industry with great products. There appeared to be some hope of becoming part of the business. The family had other thoughts so I decided it best to head out on my own and opened a small black and white photo lab. I kept taking landscape and scenic photographs and sent them to various stock agencies in the hopes of selling the rights. In the early days I was fortunate since the agencies were looking for fresh talent and new images. As the years went by they became more demanding and required a certain “quota” to retain their audience. I really enjoyed the photography but had a young family to care for and the chance for speculative income was trumped by a need for the steady work in the photo lab.

Question #4 – You have quite a resume′. Could you give us some career highlights?

After leaving Ryerson I worked for variety of photo labs in the Toronto where I learned the art of the dye transfer process from a true craftsman. This process rivaled all forms of imaging due to its permanent nature. When we moved to Calgary simply referencing “Ryerson” opened doors but mentioning the experience in making dye transfers was met with a cynical look…we learned later that the Calgary marketplace was not as excited about this “art form” as the folks back in Toronto.

After a few short years we were introduced to our first recession (one of many to follow) which found thousands of Calgarians unemployed, literally overnight.

We needed to meet the mortgage, car and food payments and with the help of my Kodak rep friend, I found myself working in Regina for Kroma Kolor. Now I was at the other end of the photo lab industry – high volume photofinishing rather than commercial. We would process thousands of rolls of film each day for major drug and food chains in western Canada. When the recession eventually caught up to the local economy and after many persistent attempts I was hired by Kodak Canada.

This is where I learned that my photographic education was far from over. Kodak gave me the best chance to learn the industry from the pioneers themselves. I was fortunate to have learned from the likes of Joe Schwaab and Bob Barr. Both were pioneers in the development of color photography. I also learned the intricate technical aspects of the darkroom processes like chemistry, light theory, color science, optical science, production workflow, etc.

The five years I worked for Kodak were the greatest learning years for me as I got to put into practice the very thing I loved to do.

Then a wonderful thing happened. Kodak was an official sponsor of the 1988 Winter Olympic Games so all of us in Calgary were official hosts…what a great photographic opportunity!

The years at Kodak were great but opportunities to moving up the ladder would involve leaving Calgary. So I left Kodak and went to work for a prominent camera store in Calgary where I learned the finer points of high-end retailing. Six years later I went back to my first love and became a partner with two good friends operating Photo Décor Imaging. Combined we were a powerhouse of wealth/knowledge within the commercial lab market. We serviced the oil & gas, trade show, and the corporate office decor industries. We also worked with a variety of prominent photographers producing large murals and high quality commercial images.

Question #5 – What is it about the darkroom that attracted you?

I would have to say that I have always been in awe of “creating” something. As a young boy I loved hand-on projects like wood working, gardening, learning music and traveling. Travel exposed me to some incredible sights around the world and it was the camera that allowed me to capture those images. The darkroom was a natural extension of that experience where I could watch the memories come alive again. This was definitely “hands-on” but looking back I have to wonder what affect “dipping my fingers in the chemicals” could have on my long-term health!

The idea of creating something that others would see was very stimulating … now if only the person who took the photograph and the one processing the image were the same person. At that time this was but a dream because I wanted to be the one creating the shot as well as the one in control of the processing and final production of the image. Both activities are full time and there aren’t many able to do both well.

Question #6 – Is there any particular project you would identify as the highlight of your career?

The project that stands out front and foremost is the Calgary Airport Project.  This was one of the first Canadian airports to privatize and during that transition the airport was to “beautify” its facilities with incredible exhibits and signage. Photo Decor was awarded a major portion of the project. Fortunately Calgary is surrounded by incredible world class photo opportunities like Banff, Lake Louise, Rocky Mountains, Waterton Lakes, Dinosaur National Park, and vast prairie landscapes supplying incredible imagery to decorate the luggage carousels, walls, escalator corridors. The most impressive of all is the US Customs area. I flew into Calgary about a month ago and am still spellbound when seeing the results of our craftsmanship hanging on the walls some 15 years later.

Question #7 – When did you first get involved with the digital aspect of photography?

Digital is a big word that today has a very specific meaning but I am sure that as time goes by it will once again express a different connotation.

So far it has meant a number of things to me:

  • digital controllers on photo printers vs. solid state
  • digital evaluation of image information vs. photometric
  • digital scanning of images vs. photographic separations (this is what killed the dye transfer process)
  • digital camera vs. film camera
  • digital image processing vs. chemical image processing
  • digital file manipulation vs. negative retouching/film stripping
  • digital image hosting vs. photo prints
  • crashed hard drive vs. scratched film

My first introduction to digital was during my first lab job in Calgary. The owner was very interested in electronic automation in the lab and was constantly modifying the lab equipment to interface with the early computers…this would qualify as digital controllers.

Kodak digital components were becoming an integral part of high volume photo labs and the One Hour labs were beginning to use digital evaluation/scanning as part of the print process.

During my time in retail I saw the first digital cameras coming to market. They were too costly for the average consumer but savvy commercial and professional photographers were moving forward to embrace the new technology. In order to stay with the times we purchased our first Mac computer and started the steep and fast learning curve of digital imaging.

A good friend of mine used to say “the digital era is like the freight train we never heard coming!”

Question #8 – So you got onboard this “digital freight train?”

Photo Décor Imaging really was one of the early adopters of digital technology in Canada. The big players were in US markets and we met regularly sharing both positive and negative experiences as we moved along the “bleeding edge” of technology.

During this era there were many “firsts”…ink jet printing, hi-res digital scanning, digital proofing, digital color management, digital costs, software expenses, computer investments, hardware crashes…the list goes on!

People working at the forefront were all facing the same issues…everything was new, there weren’t any industry standards, expenses were ongoing, gaining control of an ever growing industry. But the bottom line was that digital was part of our industry and we had only one option, “hang on tight for the ride of your life”

Question #9 – As a photographer, with a strong darkroom background, you’ve clearly embraced the digital world. What are the advantages of digital vs. the chemical darkroom?

Like any new technology there’s a time period where the old and new need to come together.  I’m not sure if this period has truly come to a peaceful existence. The likes of Kodak & Konica are shadows of their former selves while Nikon, Canon, Fujifilm & Olympus have emerged as successful players in the photographic digital arena.

Most of the things now be done by digital imaging were originally done using traditional photographic methods … film, chemicals and a darkroom.  The major difference is that the traditional process would require craftsmen and photo labs to produce their masterpieces such as dye transfers and prints. The primary advantage of the digital process is that all of this can now be done, to various degrees, at home, in the office, or through the Internet. There are countless software and Internet options as to what you can do with your digital file. The best part is that we can do most of this without the use of chemicals and endless rolls of film. So overall it’s a greener experience.

Question #10 – What brought you and your family to Saint Paul, Minnesota?

In 2000 we sold Photo Décor Imaging and took a consulting opportunity with a company in St Paul. We were consulting with others within the commercial photo lab industry using job management information systems which helped owners make better business decisions.

During that time we pursued our long term dream of selling prints of our own photographic images as art by formalizing “out’n’about” as a company which we now call outNbout visualImaging, llc. It’s an internet based company which produces Giclée fine art prints, canvas gallery wraps along with print and web “rights managed” stock images.

Because our images are so often used for home and business décor we are positioning our brand by asking the customer to “Think Different About Art!”

Question #11 – So that was the Spark that formally ignited outNbout.

Exactly! The idea was that digital removed the barrier between the camera and the darkroom. Now they all were part of one continuous workflow. Years ago folks would ask where were we going and we would simply say “oh out’n’about”, implying that we were out taking our next winning photograph. Now we think of the “picture taking opportunity” as just the beginning of the experience. The final image is created using our “lightroom” techniques.

After finally leaving the photo lab industry behind we decided to setup our “out’n’about” travels as a business we now call outNbout visualImaging

Question #12 – If your computer is now your “digital darkroom.” Can you tell us what we would find in there?

Our darkroom has really become more like of a “digital lightroom.” It has been over six years since we started using digital technology exclusively to create fine art prints. We use Nikon digital cameras, working a strict RAW work flow, using DxO as our RAW Converter and then follow through with Adobe Lightroom and Adobe PhotoShop as our post production software.

We also employ EnBlend for blending images of various exposures since it’s not possible to digitally capture the dynamic range of a sunlit scene with one exposure. Blending a variety of exposed images to make one perfectly exposed image renders incredible highlight and shadow detail.

We have a very strict work flow based upon the principles of the “darkroom era.” This gives us ultimate control over color management, sharpness and image brilliance.  Terms such as UnSharp Masking, Gamma, Tonal Curves, and Reciprocity are very familiar to us and we know how to use them to our advantage to produce the most realistic representation of the original scene.

We always welcome new technology such as D-Light, Back Fill, Focus Stacking, EnBlend and Enfuse which offer functionality not available within the traditional darkroom.

At this point we have embraced the Apple Mac as our primary platform…after all, this was the only platform of choice at the time it all started in the photo industry.

We create Giclée fine art prints on Epson printers using their award winning Ultrachrome K3 Inks and printed on Fine Art Papers designed for museum quality archival prints and reproductions.

One of the side effects of digital photography is the massive number of image files you need to electronically file. Not to mention the 100’s of thousands of slides and transparencies we have yet to scan and incorporate into our digital libraries. Scanning is a very time consuming job that requires “quiet time” as well as patience to ensure that all of the various film types used over the years are scanned to their optimum quality. We use a variety of scanning technologies ranging from drum scanning to the Nikon L.E.D. scanner. Both technologies offer incredible sharpness and image detail.

Question #13 – What exciting projects you are currently working on?

Our latest projects combine many of the darkroom and lightroom techniques learned over the decades.  We are going into areas where a single digital image simply can’t go!

  • GigaPans – panoramic images exceeding 1Giga Byte (GB) in size
  • Panoramic 360 – blending and stitching images to form spherical images
  • Focus Stacking – numerous macro images, each taken with a unique point of focus and blended to form a perfectly focused image from the front to the rear of the image
  • Enblending – combining multiple exposed images into one perfectly exposed image

Question #14 – Where can we learn more about what you are doing?

Just check out our website and some of other internet sites where we are featured. We are also putting together a blog we plan to regularly update. It should be a good place to learn about the exciting things happening in photography from both the technology and artistic sides of the experience.

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