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…
Mike Nelson Pedde says
And yes, I have All of the Develop module sliders in Lr set to zero as default. Lens distortion corrections and CA are turned on but those often get tweaked.
One of the best bits of advice I found when learning Lr was to start the slider(s) at 0, move to the right until I could say, “That’s too much.” then pull back to the left until I said, “That’s not enough”, then seesaw back and forth, narrowing the range each time. We couldn’t do that in the darkroom days w/o going through a lot of paper.
I’m in the unusual position for a photographer of having programmed my own raw editor . It performs a subtle sort of tone mapping based on the chemical process of film developing. It’s kinda like stand development. This happens to enhance the image in such a way that I simply don’t need 90% of the sliders available in other editors… there’s less rope to hang yourself with when you only have 17 things to change.
On top of that, though, the more I use it the *less* I find myself turning up the strength of the tonemapping. The defaults do have some pop, but I find that many of my absolute favorite shots are ones that I leave closer to the default settings, and my older photos are starting to look rather overprocessed to my current eyes.
Somehow, over the years, I’ve become *more* sensitive to overprocessing, not less. I wonder why. Is it perhaps because I started photography when “shitty HDR” was in?
Jack Hogan says
Hey filmulator looks good CarVac. I am not good at compiling, any windows executables lying around?
Sorry to say, but I don’t know how to develop for Windows (or Mac for that matter) so it’s not available anywhere but Linux for now.
On Ubuntu and Mint you don’t have to compile it; it’s available from this ppa: https://launchpad.net/~dhor/+archive/ubuntu/myway
Eric Calabros says
Sorry to say that but I badly need that on Windows 🙂
Pierre Pichot says
Post processing is like spices: if the base is good, a touch often goes the long way.
I like to have the flexibility that Lr and C1 offer, giving me the possibility to touch almost every single aspect of my photos. However when I start moving too many sliders, or above half the range, it means that I’m starting to compensate a bad shot with post-processing rather than enhancing a good shot.
After years of experimentation, I tend to have a pretty simple post processing workflow now. Partly because I’ve raised my game why taking the photo, partly because I enjoy deep shadows and don’t need complex work to get them as if it’s daylight 😛
Jack Hogan says
Fully agreed Jim, very much like the vicious circle of increasing salt in food: the restaurants want their food (e.g. pizza) to be tastier than what you eat at home, so they pile on the salt; the processed food companies then say ‘hey, we don’t want our pizza to taste bland compared to what people eat at a restaurant’ so they pile it on too; we come home and think ‘whoa, this is tasteless compared to the frozen pizza I shoved in the oven yesterday’, so we pile it on. Then we go to a restaurant ….
Ed Wolpov says
Could it be that many of these younger photographers have never seen a “real” silver or chromogenic photograph? All they have seen are digital prints (if they’re lucky) and certainly hoards of images on their monitor. They have no clue how images are supposed to look. But, that brings up the question of how are images “supposed” to look? Maybe it’s us ol’ folks that are missing something! (Not in my case, though… I’m with you.)
Eric Calabros says
“They have no clue how images are supposed to look”
But their eyes that see the world are still working with same technology level of ol’ folks’ visual system 🙂 so they know these new turbocharged images are not neutral by any means. But humans are free to move the neutrality line in their artistic expression. Because, basically, every imagination structure has its own logic. in the movie Sicario, it would be utterly ridiculous if one of the characters suddenly jump and fly over the city, but in Superman vs. Batman, it’s pretty normal. We can’t define a standard that dictates how “images are supposed to look”. If target audience accept the image’s logic which implies that extraordinary vibrant pink mountain is normal, well I’m not sure that we can say something is wrong with the image. We can say, at most, this thing doesn’t work for me.
I’ve seen folks come into workshops with electric images, and leave making more realistic ones. Maybe they were brainwashed.
I’ve also seen supersaturated images in stores (mostly touristy stores in scenic locales) with those kind of photographs, and I’m sure the photographer was amping them up because that’s what sells in that venue. But then again, I’ve seen UV-activated paintings on black velvet in those places, too. Thankfully, not recently, though.
It’s one thing to make gonzo images because that’s a conscious choice. It’s another to make them because you don’t know any better.