Process Part I

As opposed to all of the stuff tagged process where I blather on about how I approach subjects when working with a camera this little series of posts to come is all about a much more boring part (to me at least) — the part that comes after that, commonly referred to as post-processing. Well I guess some people call it editing but I hate that term because I think of editing as choosing which photos to use/show/etc.

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Whoa, that's different than the other ones of Erika seen before, at least in terms of look. Yes it is, one of the great things about black & white being so open to interpretation of how you want it to look. I'll use a couple of random images to discuss post-processing etc, particularly black & white but this one should do for now as it's actually very high key as shot with most of the tonal values way way above mid-tone save a few like the hair and lips etc.

Take this as a amalgam of somewhere near thirty-two email and chat conversations I've had over the last couple of months regarding post, black and white, and stuff like that. Most of those conversations were with people that had never really used black and white film let along processed and printed it themselves. The first of those conversations produced the long toe/broad shoulder post.

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Holy crap that's different. Actually it's what I use as my default import preset for this project. Not because it's my favorite, not because it's the best-est, honestly it was random and I just stuck with it as a baseline for most of what's here. I don't like fussing with treatments or optimizations or even fine-tuning until I actually am ready for final output. I treat everything more or less Like I would a contact sheet when I was shooting film. One size fits all.

Sure I'll dilly-dally with an entire batch and use a different treatment here and there but it's the same when I shot film. The whole batch gets the works and I'll usually leave it that way until I decide what pictures I'll end up using or go to a print.

VSCO

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So what's all this VSCO stuff at the end of the posts and what's going on with the above two treatments? VSCO if you don't know is a bunch of Lightroom presets portended to emulate film. Do they? Meh, kinda in some ways, not so much as others. They are pretty diverse, save me the time of creating my own in LR, and are good enough for what I use LR for, which is not much beyond initial evaluation and treatment for the web.

Let's take the above three treatments in order.

  • VSCO FILM 01 TRI-X the minus version. With -0.3 on the exposure slider. All of the VSCO film slaps a fairly steep contrast curve on. The minus versions are maybe a little less steep. Broadly speaking in B/W terms even the minus version seems to have a bit more contrast than what Kodak would say is a recommended development target contrast index. It also has a minor "fade" on both the black and white end of this. What's a "fade"? It's lifting everything a bit so that you just cannot hit absolute 0. Sure you can still have nothing as in zero exposure but now that 0 is say 15. The white end is the same just opposite.

  • VSCO FILM 05 BW400CN C41 color process film that made black and white negatives. interesting and very much like the still available (I think) Ilford XP-2 super. My by chance standard preset slapped on stuff here unless otherwise noted. Any adjustments? Nope left the exposure alone. What does this one do? Will it has a very steep S-curve with crap-tons of mid-tone contrast. So much that it puts anything near a highlight into severe compression. It also has a strange bump at the very top that acts like a two-level fade in the whites and a bit less of a fade in the blacks that the TRI-X but still a bit above absolute black.

  • VSCO FILM O1 TRI-X the normal variety. Same -0.3 exposure adjustment. More fade at both ends than the minus version but what seems a very similar or even steeper contrast curve. Yes so if you do that math you have less overall black to white contrast but even more mid-tone contrast and more-more deep shadow compression (compression = merging of values = less separation of values = less detail). VSCO as a habit introduces much more "fade" in the blacks before introducing a bunch more in the whites even in their plus versions.

So we are not looking at apples to apples considering two have exposure adjustments and one does not. True but even then what is apples to apples? Let's see, but first an aside; The two versions with the exposure adjustment are more canonical "should be" black/white printing versions. "Should be" meaning I am showing a lot of mid-tones with "good" highlight separation rather than compressing all the highlights together like one "should".

Okay, let's go apples to apples but with a different picture and two presets from VSCO FILM 01.

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VSCO FILM 01 HP5- but the rest is SOOC

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VSCO FILM 01 TRI-X-

Wow they are really different. Are they? Half of you may like the brighter one better and the other half may like the darker one with "better" highlight separation better.

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VSCO FILM 01 HP5- with -0.2 exposure

A few things to consider. In reality TX and HP5 were not that different from each other if you targeted the same CI in development. These are probably more different than the real films the have a slightly different curve shape and one has a bit more contrast than the other etc. The biggest difference is HP-5 from VSCO's perspective pushes the mids up a bit you can see how similar they are with my arbitrary adjustment.

Is VSCO "correct". Umm not really in fact they have somethings that are really whacky inside their own family of presets. More on that in a minute. Does that mean they are "wrong". Not really that either. They have a bunch of other stuff baked (like development and printing, and errors/flaws) in in no real apples-to-apples way. That's fine, who cares but it's also not some written in stone thing. Feel free to modify trust me TRI-X with me shooting, processing, and printing it looks completely different than the guy using the same film down the street, even if he uses the same developer and same paper.

What about two radically different presets like say umm that BW400CN thing. Let's see.

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VSCO FILM 05 BW400CN

I raised the shadow under Erika's chin to about the same as the above. This preset has a quite obviously far more extreme contrast curve. In fact all of them are putting most of the highlights into compression with very little separation. May actually seem like less than the first set of pictures but that's only because you now have a lot more shadow to show contrast in the frame.

Let's "print" for the highlights and let the shadows be damned. A time honored tradition with the traditionalists (who may also develop to a lower CI which looks like shit imho) and also a new mantra of don't blow the highlights since digital still sucks in real full-fidelity DR.

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FILM 01 HP5- -0.5 exposure

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FILM 01 TRI-X- -0.4exposure

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FILM 05 BW400CN -0.33 exposure

Kind of hard to tell what's going on in the last one due to that hump in the highlights on that preset. Close enough. In any case putting the highlights around the same neighborhood let's you see the real differences between just these three presets vs everything being pushed up into compression. In reality I would probably not go this dark but use a few blobs of sloppy brush local exposure adjustment to put things like the dress detail where I wanted it to show detail. You can see what +/- half a stop and a lot less can do. Same goes with local adjustments.

Bottom Line

VSCO is not doing anything magic but they are well built presets in the way I define it.

  • They provide a lot of diversity even in the black and white medium. I am only showing a two that are close and one that is a "little" out-there (especially compared to the real film).

  • They show amazing flexibility in use in terms of minor adjustments to even basic things show a wide-range of useful results. So much so that everyones stuff that uses the same presets doesn't look at all alike. Sort of the same as TRI-X. Contrast that with some presets that only work in a very narrow range of input parameters. Everyone has to adjust the input to ummm get to the place where it works = looks the same.

  • A nice baseline to dirty digital up a little even if LR grain sucks. Not everything has to be so so so clinically pristine. In fact I really don't want that for this project at all. I want more of a 35mm feel.

I occasionally use the more extreme stuff like the + and ++ and +++ versions like this but honestly those usually tend towards the "fade" thing on the extreme. As a side note the whole fade thing only happened with real film if you had no idea what you were doing and severely underexposed negative film and then printed so the highlights were bright. The severe fade on both ends, can't imagine where that would happen. Actually I could, an unusable negative that looked almost clear and then to double the incompetence you tried to print it on low-contrast paper, I guess?

Do some of those work in certain circumstances? Sure they might but I kinda only like them if the context matches. They look ridiculous when everything else screams of well lit carefully composed technical competency. The good part is because they are well constructed you can remove that fade crap entirely if you want from any version of any preset with one click. Overall it's a a well thought-out set of presets that save me a lot of time vs building my own. Especially since I almost never use LR for final output but that's for another day.