Experimental Images : Easter Sunday Ride 2012


Building Murals Just Off Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park

For all the insistence on greater controls on the image making characteristics of the Nikon 1 by DPReview Forum members there is precious little of this sentiment heaped upon the tools that are used to post process the resultant images. Nikon 1 users demand seemingly every button option available for the Nikon 1 that exists on their more upscale camera purchases. But when in comes to their post processing software (e.g. Photoshop or Lightroom) they want utter simplicity whenever possible. In point of fact you would be hard pressed to find much if any experimentation going on among the “I gotta have more buttons” crowd. Their approach is to render images with as much detail and color saturation as possible from the camera and then to print these images as large as possible for use in their next camera club competition. Nothing wrong with this approach but it begs the question, “Why so little affinity for vast controls embedded in the tools used in the one step in the entire line of digital photographic rendering that counts the most?”

In a word, “fear”. Fear of the complexities of the Photoshop paradigm and their inability or unwillingness to grasp its design. But why?

Part of the problem lies in the aims of the photographers with respect to images. It never ceases to amaze me that today’s photography has gone digital with the vast majority of that transition taking place around the 35mm format. Why? Because of the various sizes available the 35mm has the least to offer in terms of fidelity. It would have made more sense to have had camera formats like the Hasselblad be the standard bearers for digital photography. At least then you would have been producing images with enough fidelity to warrant the costs of the camera.

But like so much in our world the digitalization of the medium has changed our perceptions of real quality. Gone are the vinyl pressings of great symphonic music, replaced by the MP3 versions which have far less fidelity and nuance. But frankly that is what has to happen when you start making things portable. The smaller the package the less fidelity and the greater the number of shortcuts that you are forced to take in order to provide information (in this instance music) in a device whose form factor allows you to carry it in a shirt pocket or strapped to your arm while jogging or bicycling. There is a price to pay for portability.

Dining outdoors at Native Foods on Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park.

Similarly when you look at the situations with cameras the same logic applies. The digital camera format that affords the greatest opportunity for carrying a great deal of data around in a small package is the 35mm format. What is ironic is that this was the step child of the past century. No serious photographer dared bring one of these things to a “studio shoot”. They instead lugged around view cameras or perhaps medium format cameras like the Hasselblad and celebrated the vast tonality of their images as compared to the grainy and crude imagery of the 35mm camera. How times have changed.

The photography scene today is populated with middle-aged men who have more lens and greater in-camera control than anyone ever envisioned before embedded digital technology came to cameras. And yet their images are still as stilted as ever they were in the days of Kodachrome. Why?

Part of the problem lies in the folks whose job it is to evaluate each new camera that comes along. George Bernard Shaw was reputed to have said “Those who can do. Those who can’t teach.” We to some degree he was correct. But in the world of photography, the dictum should be “Those who can make images. Those who can’t make lens tests.” In essence the value of a camera has been reduced to the degree to which it can serve in the faithful reproduction of a standard scene containing paper clips, stamps, feathers, liquor bottles and wrist watches.

DPReview Test Target

Here is the test review scene used by DPReview. The purpose of this odd looking collection is to provide the reviewers a basis for comparison between cameras when considering things like the color fidelity of the image, lens resolution, chromatic aberration, optical distortion and more. It is a serious attempt to provide a more sound scientific approach to camera review and should be applauded. But as anyone can attest you cannot pick a race horse or an athlete solely on the basis of physical conformation. But in many cases that is exactly the position taken by the weekend photographers who populate the various forums.

They have legions of images of ducks, bees, flowers, tall grasses and furry animals on display. All of this is essentially there to allow you to verify that their camera lenses can focus with impeccable precision on the finest of animal fur and that the color rendition is as close to what the eye saw as possible.

Perhaps the reason that I like the visual presentation of the television series CSI: Miami is because they have taken virtual rendering and tossed it out the window in favor of a more surreal approach to visualization. The thought that a digital images could ever duplicate reality is on the face of it absurd. We have made a near religion out of worshipping cameras whose lenses produce a certain quality of “bokeh”. It has indeed become a crutch in image making that is uniquely the province of the 35mm world. You focus on a flower or a leaf and then through the background so far out of focus that a smeary wash of color is all you can detect in anything that is not your central subject.

It is as if the entire world had decided that Posterizations of scenes were the only viable technique to be used. Of course posterizations (samples of which you see here) are nice but that should not be raised to the level of religious truth. But that is exactly what has happened to “bokeh”. Weekend photographers clamor for wide aperture lenses that if not available will (they claim) lead them to the desperate need to sit down and hold their collective breaths until such time as they can have them.

And to insure that they can get precise control over everything they see they want buttons. No they want more buttons. They want to be able to fire off a set of three exposure whenever they choose so as to ensure that their exposures are “perfect”. It would be like having a baseball player who had never hit better than .160 demand that his baseball bats be upgraded to ones which just before impact expanded to three times its diameter to allow for a larger “sweet spot”. This would of course mean that he would triple his chances of hitting that pesky little white orb with the herringbone stitching out of the park. And don’t think that this is an absurd thing unless of course you don’t remember the era of the corked bat, juiced up baseballs or steroids.

For the weekend photographers families this means that with the dizzying array of buttons and choices you can now take a perfectly simply thing like capturing a snapshot of the family holding up a recent caught trout to new levels. Dad will now be able to trot out his tripod and mount his 3 pound 35mm camera body atop this spindly little carbon fiber wonder where he can fidget for seemingly hours trying to eyeball live histograms to help him judge whether is white balance is exactly what it should be while fine tuning his shutter speed/aperture combination to eliminate the possibility of subject blur. And if after all of this he realizes that the sun is starting to get low enough in the sky that the faces of his subjects are now in shadow, there is always the ever-present electronic flash which when fired will fry that trout and the retinas of his subjects.

Now when this photo warrior gets home he dumps his precious cargo of RAW images (a very manly thing to do) and begins processing them with as little intervention as possible. He tells himself that this is because he favors “real images” rather than those made “better” through manipulation. But frankly the truth is that the vastly complicated nature of the interface of something like Photoshop scares him. It ironically has too much control over nuances of images that he does not even realize exist.

So he looks for an import program which with the aid of a standard preset give him the best images possible right from the camera and onto paper or his computer screen. And from there they travel (via the Cloud) to his iPad or iPhone which he totes around with him so that he can bore the heck out of his relatives and friends and even better other weekend photographers. They can sit collectively and “ooh and ash” at the sharp renderings of animal fur. Over coffee they can spout the insipid litany of specifications of their cameras and present the opinions of their favorite camera gurus who frankly get paid under the table for their unbiased rantings.

Such is world of photography today.