Turning a Digital Image into a Photograph


When we left off last time we had made short work of over a hundred years of photographic history in a matter of minutes.

We started out with the knowledge that passing light through a small hole will project an image. At first people just used a pencil or whatever to trace the projection in order to obtain a permanent image. From then until now we have been fooling around with different ways to fix the image.

We know that many different chemical reactions can be triggered by the energy in light. It is a short jump from there (except for the details) to capitalizing on the different reactive properties of exposed chemicals versus unexposed chemicals to create an image.

Now we come to digital photography. Speaking of it as “digital photography” makes it sound wildly different from traditional photographic methods, but it isn’t really all that different. We take the same energy that has been in light all along and instead of holding on to a chemical record of its presence (e.g. altered silver salts on a cellulose film) we just detect it and make a note of it on a chip with flipped magnetic bits.

Here is a link to an article that explains a bit about how digital sensors work. As with most articles on the subject, an explanation of how the photons are actually detected is avoided. I have yet to find a good article on it.

Drawing on my vague memories of quantum mechanics classes and what not while in college, a wildly simplified explanation of the deal is that when light falls on certain molecules, the energy in the light is transferred to the atoms and it gets their electrons all  jazzed up and they jump into higher energy states. When the electrons drop back down to their normal states, they release the energy as electricity which is used to record the light’s presence by flipping digital bits.

Again the devil is in the details, but we still have the same basic system – light falls on a sensitive surface and the energy causes a change which can be used to create an image based on the difference between exposed areas and unexposed areas.


So now we have a bunch of bits representing an image. What do we do now? Send ’em to the printer of course so we can create a photograph. There are a lot of different printers out there that can be used. The most commonly used for photographs is the ink jet printer. Here tiny droplets of ink are sprayed onto paper. It works surprisingly well and a good printer matched with good paper can produce an excellent photograph.

But wait there’s more! Perhaps we would like to use a digital camera, but produce traditional chemical prints. Well we could buy a digital enlarger made by a company called De Vere. This is like a regular enlarger only instead of passing light through a negative, it takes a digital file and projects it onto photo-sensitive paper. I’d love to get my hands on one of these, but the price is in the tens of thousands range.

Another possibility is called a LightJet print. The digital image is fed into the machine like the digital enlarger, but instead of projecting the whole image onto stationary paper, lasers shoot little dots of light at a rotating piece of photo-sensitive paper until it has “painted” the entire image. Again the LightJet process is expensive. It isn’t something you can do in your basement.

How about something you can do yourself?

Well, you know, if we could turn the digital file into a physical negative, then we could use our regular old darkroom to make the prints. That is just what a guy named Dan Burkholder likes to do. He creates “digital negatives”.

An inkjet printer can print not only on paper, but on transparencies too. Soooo, we reverse our image using our photo editing software and print a negative on a transparent sheet – piece ‘o cake. Turns out that there are a few details to take care of, but luckily Dan has worked it all out for us and has written a book about it. Neat.

Once we have a digital negative, we can create any kind of print – carbon, palladium, bichromate, etc. We could use an enlarger, but since the inkjet printer can make us a really big negative, we can often just contact print. Hey, we can contact print and make the exposure using sunlight so that we don’t need the enlarger at all. We can even use our negative to print directly on plant leaves like Rosemary Horn does – no chemicals and no darkroom!

Some may ask why bother with all of this when you can just use a digital camera and print to printer. Wham bam. No muss. No fuss. It’s now, it’s hip, it’s what everybody is doing.

Well, because it is art. Art should be different, art should experiment, art should present things in different ways than the status quo. Just because something is quicker or easier or sharper or more colorful or whatever does not mean it is “better”.


Photography did not, as many people predicted, render painting obsolete. Painting is painting and photography is photography; they are not replacements of each other.

Neither are the various methods of “painting” replacements for each other. We should not stop using oils because there are watercolors. We should not stop using watercolors because there are pencils.

Just so each method of creating a photograph is not a replacement for another. An inkjet is not a replacement for a dye transfer nor for an albumen. They each have a certain look and feel and aura that a skilled artist can use to enhance an image.

We should not stop creating photographs, real live touch them with your hands hang them on the wall photographs, just because we use a digital sensor instead of a chemical one to record the image.



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5 Responses to “Turning a Digital Image into a Photograph”

  1. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Oh boy! There’s a lot of information in these last few posts. I’ll have to come back and read them over a few times. Thanks for sharing your knowledge on the subject. It helps clarify.
    I like all of your photos, but I really like the one at the top of this post!

  2. fencer Says:

    Now that’s interesting… photos on leaves and other shrubbery!

    I tried Koenig’s gumoil process (http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=8397089367707351277) a few years back with digital on transparencies as a negative. Some interesting results but I didn’t refine it… should go back to it.

    Is there any relatively common light sensitive chemical or subsstance I wonder, rather than potassium bichromate for instance for the gumoil process. Hate messing with toxic chemicals…


    • forestrat Says:


      I had not heard of gumoil before. It sounds like a lot of work and takes a lot of time, but pretty cool too. Maybe someday when I retire or win the lottery or something I can work on it.

      I’m afraid I have not found any wet photographic process that doesn’t use some sort of toxic chemical along the way somewhere. I’ll keep looking.

      Here is a link to a FAQ about various traditional methods.



  3. fencer Says:

    Thanks for that link…


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