The secrets of taking good pictures: Sparkle

I'm grateful for all those years spent in wet darkrooms using the simplest of means to create wonderful prints. The same philosophy is used to add sparkle to pictures today.

August 9, 2011 15:01
Tel Aviv port

Tel Aviv port 311. (photo credit: Tom Langford)


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Tom Langford is a commercial photographer, professional retoucher, and a website designer.

Before the digital era, photography was a very different business. My interest started in the days of heavy, solid, metal-bodied SLR cameras and lenses. I spent many years as an enthusiast developing my own film, and countless hours in darkrooms making black-and-white prints.  

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In those days we didn't have the convenience of an instant digital preview on the back of our cameras, or be able to view pictures soon afterward on a computer screen. It took us a lot of time, expense and expertise to see an enlarged version of even a single picture.  

For instance, here's what I used to do after shooting a roll of black-and-white negative film: I first used a light-tight "changing bag" to load the film into a developing tank. I developed the film using three separate chemical solutions, thoroughly washed it, then hung it up to dry. After cutting it into lengths of six frames, I stored these in a special negative-strip bag. In the darkroom I printed a contact sheet of the pictures, developed this in three trays of chemicals, and dried it. 

This contact sheet was the first opportunity I had to view the pictures using a special magnifier call a loupe, and I marked the images I wanted to print using a wax pencil.   Now came the magical experience of making a black and white print. I would enlarge the tiny negative onto a large sheet of Multigrade photographic paper and use considerable skill, technique and artistry to bring the image alive. I used pieces of card, wire and plasticine  to "dodge" and make areas of the print lighter. I twisted my hands into all sorts if crazy shapes under the enlarger to "burn in" and make areas of the print darker. And I used colored filters in combination with all these techniques to vary the contrast over the image. It  would take a few attempts to produce a version that I was happy with. 

After developing the print I washed it in changes of water for about one and a half hours, then hung it up to dry. Afterwards I pressed it under heavy weights to flatten it. As you can imagine each print was unique, a labor of love that I had to go through before it emerged into the world to be shared with others. 

Thank goodness those days are over! I love the convenience of digital imaging but I'm really glad of my early photography experience. I learned that each image is very a personal statement that you create with care and attention.  


With the rise of digital photography it was quite natural for me to transfer all the work I used to do in the darkroom to the computer. I quickly became a professional retoucher, and since then every singe image that I have published has been shaped by me in my "digital darkroom".  

Adding sparkle to your pictures 

My own BASIC system of taking Good Pictures involves the following five processes: Backgrounds, Awareness, Story, Imagination, and Critique. There is, however, a bonus sixth step: Sparkle. 

When you have taken a Good Picture it is almost a crime, and certainly a sin, not to present it in the best possible light. This means preparing it carefully in your digital darkroom. There are many computer programs that you can use, but the best and most useful is undoubtedly Photoshop. On my photography courses we use Picasa (a free download from Google), and I will be demonstrating what can be done with both.  The trick with digital darkroom work is to use it to enhance a Good Picture, not to try to twist a mediocre image into something it isn't.

It's easy to fall into the trap of using special effects that may briefly amuse your family and friends but will ruin even a Good Picture. I am thankful that I developed my creative skills before computers came along and concentrate on enhancing the image rather than being side-tracked by gimmicks. 

A picture straight from the camera is average in many respects. No digital camera can actually see or sense what is special about a picture. Only you can do this and then use the digital darkroom to help your picture to sparkle.   

Using Picasa to add Sparkle 

Picasa is useful for making basic adjustments to your digital pictures. You can find many online tutorials on how to use it. Here is a simple example of how it can hep to improve a picture.

This is the picture straight from the camera. It's a little dull and flat. 

Here I have edited the picture in Picasa. In the "Tuning" section I used the Shadow and Highlight sliders to increase the contrast and brightness to bring more life into it. 

Using Photoshop to add Sparkle 

Photoshop is the best program for digital darkroom work. It does everything I could do in my chemical darkroom days, and offers many other creative possibilities almost impossible to achieve otherwise. 

I'm often amused, or should I say bemused, by the enthusiasm some people have for filters (automated processes) that they use to enhance their images. As a retoucher working in advertising and TV I hardly ever use filters. Almost everything I do uses the simplest possible manual techniques since I need complete control over every aspect of the image.  

Photo: Sol Schwartz

Here is an excellent photojournalism shot. The strong diagonal is echoed by the strong sideways glance. Very little needs to be done to help tell the story here. 

Photo: Sol Schwartz

First I carefully lightened only the right side of the face as if it had been caught by the light. Then I sharpened the right eye and right side of the nose and mouth to add a little more definition. I removed the slightly distracting colored detail at the top left side, and cropped the picture to eliminate the Micky Mouse side mirrors on each side of the head. The crop also elongates the picture and strengthens the strong diagonal motion. If you are familiar with Photoshop, the methods used were: 

Lighten with a curves adjustment layer using a black layer mask. The lightened area was feathered white.

Sharpen a duplicate of the background. Hide it with a black layer mask and use feathered white to reveal the sharpened areas.

Remove distracting detail using the clone and healing brush tools on new layer. 

There are many online tutorials to learn Photoshop, and the techniques I have used are amongst the simplest. Unfortunately the light version of Photoshop, called Elements, is difficult to use for this type of retouching.  It's not easy to develop a mature way of using Photoshop for digital darkroom work - it's so full of fascinating gimmicks and clever features that it's easy to loose sight of what's important. I'm grateful for all those years I spent in wet darkrooms using the simplest of means to create wonderful prints. It's the same philosophy I use to add sparkle to my pictures today.  

Send me your picture 

If you are aspiring to develop darkroom skills, send me a before-and-after pair of pictures and I will publish one at the end of my next article with some constructive feedback.  Send one picture pair only, at a reduced size to 

Tom Langford is a commercial photographer, professional retoucher, and a website designer. He teaches photography courses for beginners and advanced. Details of his courses and field trips at:            

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