How I Became a Photographer-Techie

In my previous posting I talked about how achieving a deep understanding of the entire digital workflow is a very difficult and time-consuming undertaking and that you should go for increased artistic merit rather than improved technical qualities of your photos.

I have two reasons for saying that. The first one is that if you want to go all the way, the technical way is very hard. And if you don’t go all the way, then what’s the point of even starting? The second reason is that once you get through, you’ll be able to produce sharp prints with vibrant colors and a full dynamic range, but the images will still be mediocre.

Still, I know that there are people out there with a strong technical interest in photography and the digital workflow, so for those of you, here is a brief history of my steps through the jungle of photographic technology.

First Steps

It all started in 1989 when my parents bought me a fully manual Zenit with a non-TTL light meter and a 58/2 lens on it. I didn’t know a thing about shutter speeds or apertures, just that I needed to line up the split image in the viewfinder and the needle of the exposure meter. I took pictures occasionally, but was far from calling photography a hobby.

One day I made a close-up of some leaves in the shadow. The shutter speed was too long, so I opened the aperture all the way and took another photo. When I looked at the resulting images, I was so fascinated by the shallow depth-of-field of the second one, that my interest in photography was born. I didn’t think much about it then, but that was the first time that I chose a technical aspect over an artistic one. I could have been fascinated by the shape of the leaves, their color, surface, or how they reflected the light, but instead I was fascinated by the shallow DOF.

A week later I got a friend of mine to translate the Russian manual for me, so that I’d learn how to fully control the camera, and that step cemented me on the technological path…

Better Equipment

In the mid 1990s I started looking at photo magazines and got blinded by the flashy photos they published. I was still using my Zenit, while modern was something like a Nikon F70: auto-focus, matrix metering, zoom lenses, built-in flash, etc. I wanted one so badly, but as a student there was no way I could afford one. So I went for a manual-focus Pentax SuperProgram and a normal lens. Soon I bought a wide-angle lens, then a tele. Due to the new focal lengths my photos became more interesting, but not really better.

Getting Even more Technical

I soon learned about things like resolution, 18% gray, lens distortion, chromatic abberation and so on. I made a Web page that listed lenses, sizes, resolution numbers, etc. I carried out experiments to determine the true focal length of a macro lens. Virtually all photos that I made were of lenses and cameras to put up on my web page. I was becoming an expert on gear and photographic technology without being a photographer!

I’d also switched to slide film because the labs were doing funny things to my pictures of black lenses on white backgrounds. On the images during my rare vacation trips I could only see the optical faults of my lenses.

Early Digital

Around 2002 I was enjoying “photography” immensely, but I was having trouble sharing my analog “photos” with people on the Internet. Thank god I couldn’t afford a film scanner, otherwise I would have gotten one of those too… Instead I saved some money and got a digital compact.

I was so excited about all the possibilities: adjust exposure, adjust the cropping, sharpen, blur, correct perspective distortion… The immediate feedback was great, the variable ISO also. As software I was using an early version of PaintShopPro (PSP 6.0), and I was a happy camper.

I soon learned about the power of the histogram and started basing my exposure heavily on it. I kept hearing about monitor calibration, so I experimented with various software programs, played with the curves in the video-driver, and basically messed everything up, before realizing that I didn’t know what I was doing. The explanations on the Internet were incomplete and contradicting, so I soon gave up.

Digital SLR

I soon started getting bothered by the slow AF and long shutter lag of my digital compact, so I started looking into digital SLRs. Pentax had delayed their first dSLR a few times while Canon had just announced the 10D and two weeks later one could go out and but it. So with a heavy heart I sold my Pentax equipment and switched to Canon.

The 10D was a great camera for me. I was taking lots and lots of photos, chasing birds, photographing sunsets, etc. Your typical hobby photographer: with an untrained eye and basically too lazy to be at the right place at the right time.

I had heard about the advantages of RAW, so I tried it, but all I had was Canon’s DPP software (which at that time was horribly slow and inflexible), and I didn’t know what I was doing, so I soon put RAW in the “too slow, too much disk space, no real advantage” drawer.

I was also hearing about how Adobe RGB was “better”, so I took some photos in that color space. But the images looked dark and dull in PSP, so I soon gave that up and went back to sRGB.

As my photos were still not as good as those in the photographic magazines, I made another attempt at RAW (I’m grinning sarcastically as I’m typing this). This time around I bought CaptureOne and I enjoyed the workflow very much. But I had no idea what camera profiles were or what they were good for, my computer was too slow, my hard drive too small, and I still didn’t see much point in working with those large RAW files, so again I went back to JPGs.

The Eifel Tower

In the meantime I’d made some decent photos, that I wanted to put up on my Web page. I’d figured out basic image resizing and sharpening, and even without fully understanding dpi, lpi or what the controls of unsharp mask did, I still managed to produce decent small JPGs.

About a month earlier I’d found a setting in PSP called “Use color management”, so I figured, I’d use it. I’d also noticed that with this setting JPGs in Adobe RAW looked OK in PSP. But damn it, they didn’t look OK in the web browser! I remember having this photo of the Eifel Tower, and it looked good in PSP but like crap in Netscape. The colors were way off, the image was much darker, there was heavy posterization…

In my desperation, I made a screen shot of the image in PSP, then cropped that and opened it in Netscape, and it looked correct. Wow! It was a tedious process, but it worked, so I just made my gallery photos that way. Later on I went back to sRGB and didn’t have to do the screen shots any more, but I didn’t understand why. I now know why, but I won’t give you the answer quite yet.

Eifel Tower

First Prints

After I’d selected the images for my first Web gallery, it was only natural that I wanted to have them printed. Since I’d had all these problems with shifting colors and brightness, and since I’d finally found “the way”, I wanted a lab where I could say “print my photos without making any changes whatsoever.” I found such a lab, sent a bunch of photos to them and back came a stack of 20 x 30 cm (8″ x 12″) prints, all way too dark. No funny color shifts, just way too dark.

I was devastated! I had edited my JPGs properly, I’d saved them OK, they looked OK on screen and in the Web browser. I’d even calibrated my monitor using several software programs.

Calibration Spyder

Next I bought the cheapest spyder that I could find. I read the instructions, set my screen to 100% brightness and 100% contrast (so that the spyder would not be fooled by my previous calibration attempts) and let it do its thing. But after the calibration the JPGs that had produced the dark prints still looked OK on screen.

And they should have looked much darker… So I bought the interactive tutorial “1-2-3 of digital imaging“. I learned some things from it, but I still had no idea why I was getting dark prints.


Along with the Canon 10D I’d gotten a copy of Photoshop Elements (PE). I installed it and started experimenting with it. I also bought a book on color management and I made a third attempt at using Adobe RGB. I turned color management on in PE just like I’d done in PSP a year before. Elements had the feature “Save for Web”, so I tried out. And what do you think happened? If you said “dark images, funny colors” then you are right!

I was about to go crazy! I started asking questions on all imaginable Internet forums and I got two ideas: my monitor was probably set way too bright, and I had to get Photoshop since PE cannot convert to a profile, only assign a profile.

The idea with the monitor could not be right, I thought, because I’d calibrated with a hardware spyder. And this “convert to profile” thing could not be that important, otherwise Elements would be completely useless. But since all tutorials and examples on the Internet were suing Photoshop and everyone was saying how great Photoshop is, I decided to get it. First I bought Photoshop 6 for 30 €, then I upgraded to CS2 for 275 €. It was relatively inexpensive and legal, so I was quite happy.

I found a great tutorial on the Web about how to set up color management in Photoshop. I then learned what “convert to profile” does, and I had my first revelation. If I now performed “Convert to sRGB” and then “Save for Web” there were no more funny color shits!!! So I took those JPGs that a year ago had produced the dark prints, converted them to sRGB (although they were already in sRGB) and sent them out for printing.

Continuation Follows

In my next posting I’ll finish up the story. It has a happy end, but it will take some more typing to get us there. In the meantime try to guess how the prints from those sRGB JPGs looked like, OK?