When we worked in the darkroom, the tools we had for image manipulation were pretty crude by today’s standards. With silver-based B&W, we could crop, change size, lighten, darken, change contrast, dodge, burn, bleach (like dodging, but affecting only the lighter areas). Sharpening required pin-registered printing setups and fiddly mask-making; most of us didn’t bother. Same with contrast-reduction masking. In color printing, we could do most of what we could do in B&W, but changing the contrast was difficult. In addition, we could manipulate global color. Changing local color was too difficult for most. Large luminance changes were often accompanied with chroma shifts, and most avoided them.
Yet we soldiered on, and made some pretty good prints.
It’s different now. We can do almost anything we can conceive of, and lots of things are dead easy.
So what’s happened to print — and now, screen — quality? Increased by leaps and bounds, right?
Not so much.
I have to admit that there has been some improvement. I went to a show not long ago of high school students working with chemical photography. The prints were generally a bit muddy. There was some “chalk and ashes”. It didn’t look as good as what you see with kids of the same age printing digitally.
But there weren’t any sear-your-eyes prints like you see all over the place now: amped up contrast and saturation, and sharpness that makes you think you’d cut yourself if you pick up a print.
Where did all this excess come from? First off, it’s not new; it’s been with us ever since Photoshop first shipped. I blame the tools. Or rather, I blame the users for getting carried away with the tools.
In the shop, power tools are more dangerous than hand tools. They can whip through work at great rate, but with all that power comes the ability to do great harm. Users of those tools assume extra responsibility, and should have extra training to keep them, and those around them, safe.
So it is with computer image editors.
But the training’s not mandatory, and it seems like a lot of people aren’t being trained. That’s because there is no physical danger. However, the aesthetic danger is extreme. There’s a herd effect here. As more and more people look at images on steroids, that affects their sensibilities, and normal images look blah. So people turn the dial up further trying to make their images stand out. It’s a bit like the race for volume that brought the high-gain limiters to FM radio stations and destroyed with was left of musical quality for many of them.
So it’s not Adobe’s and Phase One’s fault? In my book, they don’t get off scot free. Here’s why: Capture One (C1) and Lightroom (Lr) both ship with a set of default settings that change with the camera and lens used. I think the Adobe defaults are a bit oversharpened, a bit oversaturated[and, in late 2018, the default sharpening increased]. I think that C1 tends to be even more so.
Sharpness, saturation, contrast in moderation are all good things. In excess, they are image-killers. But they are seductive. So much so, that after you’ve seen an image that’s too vibrant, a version of that image that’s right looks dull. When I was taught B&W silver printing, my mentors told me to sneak up on the right contrast grade from the soft side. The reason was the same: once you see a real punchy print, the subtle, elegant one looks flat. In my mind, the ideal starting point for raw development would be with an image that’s a bit soft in contrast, a tad undersaturated, and not quite sharp enough. We certainly don’t have that today with Lr and C1 defaults.
What’s that I hear you saying? “The user can change the defaults.” Well, you’re right, then can. But how many do? And if they don’t, they’re training their eyes to like the drama-queen images.
Somehow, we’ve avoided all following each other lemming-like over the cliff of excess. There are good images out there. Lots of them. Thank God for that. But there’s a lot of eyeball-toasting ones, too. And I suspect there are a lot of new photographers who are embarrassed and chagrined when they finally figure it out, and even more who never do figure it out.
And don’t get me started on HDR…