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Book Review: “The Digital Negative,” By Jeff Schewe


My first digital images were scanned images from some of my 35mm slides, and later, direct captures from a Point & Shoot camera and were either jpegs or tiffs. I was an early user of Photoshop, probably starting with about PS 2.0 or so. But I used it more like Photoshop Elements, though, not even remotely appreciating or understanding its power and complexity. Somewhere along the line, I learned to use levels, and eventually curves, to bump up the contrast and “fix” the exposure issues. I learned selection techniques and some painting techniques to start to work with selective parts of an image, to blend and even roughly, to composite.

“The Digital Negative” completely met my expectations

But I didn’t really begin to appreciate the power and utility of Photoshop until some years down the road. Over the years I have observed that as humans, we learn in different ways. Some of us learn by doing, others by watching. I tend to learn more by reading and then doing. And I am the kind of guy who likes to know not only the “what,” but the “why.” So, reading works that get “under the hood” a bit are very attractive to me.

In the early 1990’s, as I began to embrace digital photography, I acquired my first scanner (an HP Photosmart Slide scanner) and suddenly was plunged into the world of photographic bits and bytes. Trying to understand what makes a good scanned image was (still is) intimidating (thankfully, I work mostly from original camera-captured images today). Browsing in my local bookstore, I picked up a copy of “Real World Scanning and Halftones” and took it home. I actually have read it through (a couple times). I have been a “fan” of the “Real World” series by Peachpit Press ever since. These books are definitely for the “under-the-hood” type like me. They are detailed and go into what makes things happen and why, rather than just telling you what they do and giving examples. I like that. I think I learn best that way.

Reading a book called “Real World Color Management,” I became acquainted with the work of one of its co-authors, the late Bruce Fraser (Bruce died a few years back, leaving a void in the digital photography world. I understand that Bruce was also a great friend and family man to those who knew him and/or worked with him). I avidly read Bruce’s Real World Image Sharpening and used his sharpening actions in my workflow (I have always been a bit bewildered by image sharpening – I understand all the theory, but the art of putting it practice is again, another thing).

If you have not already embraced raw, “The Digital Negative,” may persuade you to reconsider

Like many other followers, I was saddened to learn of Bruce’s death, after a long struggle with cancer. At the same time, I became aware of a new release, “Real World Camera Raw.” I learned that Jeff Schewe and Bruce were good friends, collaborators, and business partners. They were part of the group of gurus who started the “Pixel Genius” company that brought us Genuine Fractals, among other things. Today, I use their PhotoKit Sharpener software almost exclusively. I figure they were the original experts on sharpening, so among all the very good sharpening softwares available today, why not go with these guys?

Jeff was asked by Bruce to see the “Real World Camera Raw” book through and he did an admirable job. I was pleased to find his writing style, explanation of the “why,” and wry sense of humor very similar to Bruce’s. So, when I see Jeff Schewe’s name on a book, I have high expectations. Having carefully read the book from cover to cover, I give Jeff an “A.” “The Digital Negative” (copyright, Jeff Schewe, Peach Pit Press, 2013) completely met my expectations.

If you have not already embraced the use of raw, “The Digital Negative,” may persuade you to reconsider. The book is based on the premise that raw capture is the equivalent of a “negative.” And Jeff makes a very persuasive argument that not only should you use raw capture, but much (if not most) of the post-capture image editing can and should be done in the raw image editor!

Lightroom and ACR share the same basic engine

This book mainly confines itself to Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, but I do not see any reason why the principles will not extend to other raw image editors. I have primarily used Photoshop and its embedded Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) editor, but may have found a reason to re-consider my workflow after reading the book. I have Lightroom (LR4) and have—up to this point—used it mainly as an image management database. However, I have advised several friends making the “upgrade” from programs like Elements that they very likely only would need LR. I am a creature of habit. So I have developed (pun intended) a PS-oriented workflow over the years.

The good news for those of us who have not gotten heavily into Lightroom’s Development Module, is that most of raw editing is essentially similar, as both Lightroom and ACR share the same basic engine. So the book really addresses both. While Jeff is a Lightroom user (using Photoshop only to do the things it can uniquely do that LR doesn’t), he does a good job of bouncing back and forth in his explanations, highlighting the similarities and differences in workflow between the two. I have generally made a series of basic adjustments to the raw image (primarily following Jeff and Bruce’s advice from “Real World Camera Raw”), and then opened the image into Photoshop to do most of my other work. “The Digital Negative” suggests that this might not be the best approach.

One of the primary benefits of Lightroom (and ACR) is so-called “parametric” editing vs. “pixel editing.” Once an image is opened in Photoshop you begin to make actual physical changes to the pixel structure of an image (assuming, for the moment that we are not talking about “smart object” editing – a topic for another discussion). In a bit of an oversimplified way, what parametric editing is, is a set of “instructions” kept in a side file to apply to the image when it is finally “baked.” The advantage of this approach is of course flexibility—the ability to go back and apply or un-apply certain changes, without having made permanent changes to the pixel structure of the digital file.

The primary benefit of the Lightroom and ACR raw image editors is “parametric” editing

After a nice (at least for an “under-the-hood” type) explanation of how camera image sensors capture images and what makes up a “digital negative,” Jeff leads the reader through a discussion of how ACR and Lightroom works, including some history on the how and why of Lightroom’s departure from the Photoshop workflow.

Chapters 3 and 4 get to the “meat.” In these chapters we learn how to make basic image corrections such as white balance, setting the highlight and shadow points, and making mid-tone contrast through the vibrance and clarity adjustments; all accompanied by an explanation of what these adjustments actually are doing to the image. We then learn how to make more specific adjustments (most of which I have traditionally made after taking the image into Photoshop), like local adjustments, gradient filtering, and sharpening.

Jeff next gives the reader some insight into his workflow for fine-tuning images in Photoshop. He suggests, however, that in many cases, the image can be made ready for final output right in the raw image editor. Finally, he gives us a suggested “workflow” much of which I saw in the “Real World Camera Raw” Book. I guess there is something to be said for consistency (particularly since many readers of “The Digital Negative” will probably not read, or need to read, the Camera Raw book).

I use books the same way I do any other photographic tool. They are not “bibles.” They are informational tools and some of what they contain is very useful to incorporate into your personal workflow. Others may not work for you. As I said at the outset, we learn (and work) differently. Schewe’s style is never preachy. It has a bit of a “this works for me and should work for you, but to each his own,” flavor. He has an understated sense of humor that comes through the book nicely, making a fairly technical subject easy to read and understand.

I use books like any other photographic tool; they are not “bibles”

The Digital Negative” is really the first of its kind as a book that takes us through the process of capture to output, using raw image capture and manipulation. It is a book that, in my view, should be in the library of every photographer who uses raw capture files and does any significant post-processing. I highly recommend it.



One Response

  1. […] book is the companion to Jeff’s “The Digital Negative” (see my review). I view this 2- volume series as the modern day (“digital”) equivalent of the Ansel Adams […]

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