Sunday, November 28, 2010

Observations on Photography in the Digital Age

When I decided to return to Photography in late 2007 my first thought was that I would have a lot of new stuff to learn. I had all the basic to advanced photography skills from the days of film but now I would need to learn all there is in the digital world.

The reason for wanting to learn everything is because I wanted to create beautiful pictures. You wouldn’t think that creating beautiful pictures would require a lot of learning; especially considering all the skills I already had but the first step in creating an exceptional image is creating a perfect image in camera, on the sensor, right from the start. To accomplish that, there are a lot of things to learn, techniques to perfect, and processes to follow.

A few years have gone by and I am still learning and always trying to improve my images from both a technical and artistic perspective. A part of this process was taking the Canadian Association of Photographic Arts (CAPA) Judging Course and then spending a year doing a lot judging and studying so that I could become a CAPA Certified Judge. I continue to Judge to this day and I enjoy it tremendously. Being exposed to all the images and the wonderful creative work is a great way to learn and to keep up on new trends. It also, on occasion, shows you what can be achieved if you do everything right.

What I have noticed is that there are many good photographers out there that capture excellent images. What I do not see is a lot of excellent photographers as most good photographers lack the skills necessary to create exceptional images. My observations come from seeing many, many images, both digital and print, that are soft or outright out of focus, improperly exposed, have bad color balance or so digitally damaged by improper Post Processing because the original image was soft or improperly exposed or not White Balanced properly to start with.

Soft images are easy to spot in print, especially at 11 x 14 inches, but can be hidden and fixed up fairly well in digital format when done at 1024 x 768 Pixels and displayed on a projector. Exposure and color balance are also easier to fix and hide when digitally projected. In print however, it is much more difficult or even impossible at times. Finally, the digital defects (artifacts, ghosting, noise) caused by post processing images can often be seen even in digital images but are always apparent in print.

The results are that as a judge, I see a lot of technically bad prints and even bad digital images. I even know some excellent photographers that do this and I ask myself why?

Part or if not all the blame seems to come from the digital world. This comes from several factors; price, impatience and the attitude that it can all be fixed in Post Processing. I think a large part of this blame must go to the ‘now’ society we have created. Everyone wants instant results and with advanced cameras and some magical voodoo thing called “Image Stabilization”, they all expect their images to be perfect, all the time, no matter how bad the conditions or their skills are.

In the days of film, there was a cost associated with every click of the shutter. So, before we clicked we took our time. We looked at and observed our subject to make sure we had the very best angle to shoot from. We used a tripod to make sure we didn’t waste the shot. We composed our image and looked at all four corners and all four edges. When we were satisfied with what we saw, we calculated our perfect exposure based on lighting rules, in camera meters and if we were lucky enough to own a hand held light meter or better yet a spot meter we would use that in conjunction with the Zone System to calculate that perfect exposure. Digital has removed all this. People now take ‘snaps’ (word chosen carefully), many of them and only hope they have a good one. I keep hearing “I just shoot a bunch and I usually get something good”. Very often they only end up with a bunch of badly exposed soft images they need to fix. All this, because there is no cost associated with each click of the camera.

This new digital world has also helped create this “Now” generation. Everyone wants stuff now! I want to click once and see a perfect image. Cameras and their advertisements promise perfection and so perfection is expected, now. People just seem to be impatient and they just want to push that button. No sense walking around, taking your time, smelling the roses. You almost never see Tripods or people getting on their knees or, god forbid, laying down on their stomach. People will not even walk forward a few steps to get some foreground annoyances out of the way. Click, crop, edit, done!

So from these two things, price and impatience, we get a natural evolution into the digital world of “We can fix it in post processing”. We know for a fact that all the pros use Adobe CS5, or Lightroom, or Aperture or something equivalent and so, if we take any of our bad images and post process them the same way a pro does, we should end up with pro quality images. Right?

It wasn’t long before I started studying digital photography that I learned that the image coming out of the camera was the first and single most important step in creating a perfect image. In many ways, this is even more important now than it was in the days of film. This doesn’t mean it all starts with a quick ‘snap’ of the button, but rather, with a well-planned and perfectly executed ‘click’ of the shutter knowing and understanding the whole process from image capture to RAW image import to the final print. If that first step, the ‘capture’ isn’t perfect to start with, it won’t be exceptional by the time the print is created no matter how much work you do to the image. The final print may be made better than the original capture, but it will not be made perfect.

Lastly and not mentioned earlier is the digital world itself. Most people now view images on their Blackberries or iPhones and on occasion on their standard quality computer monitors at resolutions well below that of standard HD TV’s. These screens do not lend themselves to showing imperfections in images and so a lot of bad work flows from the process. Prints contain far more detail than what can be displayed by our monitors. Also, worse than the use on monitors is the use of Digital Projectors that are used by Photography Clubs including National Photography Associations, that still use the old archaic resolution of 1024 by 768 pixels.

Why would these National Associations promote such old archaic low resolution standards? Why would they not promote the use of the at least more modern day HD standard of 1920 by 1080 pixels that can be displayed on most modern televisions and projectors and almost all monitors? By keeping this old standard as ‘acceptable’ and even promoting this standard the National Associations are grossly doing a disservice to themselves and their members. They should be there to promote their art which includes promoting higher quality standards, not just acceptable mainstream standards set in the digital dark ages of almost twenty-five years ago.

Today, less than twelve percent of computer users still use the 1024 x 768 resolution set in 1987 and over half of those do so because of vision problems; not because of limits set by their current hardware. If the photography industry is to thrive and to prove itself as an art form to governments and the art society as a whole, it needs to wake up and promote better standards that will push its members to create better quality images; not standards that are designed to limit and stifle.

© 2010 François Cléroux

(Version 1.10 - June 15, 2011)

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- Francois Cleroux