A question of clarity

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Photography as an artistic medium is limited: by and large, the structure of your image is restricted by what exists in reality. Sure, you can alter that representation of reality by changing the light, your composition, your physical position, focal length, perspective, white balance, saturation, or a thousand and one other technical and artistic parameters. But ultimately, it still remains both interpretative and approximate. This is a good and bad thing: it means that assuming there is no post-capture manipulation of content going on, a photograph can be used as a relatively accurate representation of something; there is an assumed level of integrity in a photograph that isn’t present in an impressionist painting, for example. However, photography as a medium isn’t really encouraging of the same interpretative latitude as other media where one starts with a blank canvas/ sheet of paper (forget three dimensional and mixed media for the time being, that’s something which photography will never be able to replicate).

Dimensionality issues aside, I’ve recently been having the feeling that something is missing – and ultimately, I think it’s a limitation of the medium because I haven’t seen it in any photographer’s work, either. It’s a question of clarity: not sharpness, not resolution, not color accuracy, not depth of field, not chromatic aberration or corner softness or distracting bokeh – though all of these things undoubtedly play a part in the final image – but it’s the simple fact that I frequently come across scenes that I see but can’t capture. The resulting image is but a poor facsimile. This applies to my past work, too – I’ve always felt there’s a degree of something lacking in virtually every single image I’ve seen.

I think there are three main problems: firstly, the limitations of capture: the world usually has more dynamic range, detail and tonal subtlety than our cameras can capture – or rather, our cameras aren’t as good as our eyes, yet. But that gap is closing, and output from this year looks markedly better than output from ten, or even five* years ago; that said, my CFV-39 digital back is noticeably better at representing reality than the D800E, which is in turn better than the OM-D and so on down the line. Next, we have limitations in the output medium; here we lag even further behind. There’s no display that can show all of the pixels of a D800E at the same time, in full gamut; no print can match the highlight reproduction of a screen because it isn’t a lightbulb; similarly, no screen can match the shadow reproduction of a print because it isn’t absorptive. Our reproduction media may be able to discriminate between more tones than our capture devices, but they can’t match the dynamic range and luminance output of the real world; perhaps this is why some of the brilliance is missing. Lastly, I think we have a bigger issue in cognative limitations: people simply don’t want to see reality, they want to see what they imagine – which is bigger, more exciting, more saturated and more extreme than reality. I blame that entirely on Hollywood.

*As much of a leap ahead as the D3/D700 generation were, it’s clear that the current generation really leaves them in the dust when it comes to reproduction accuracy. Even smaller sensors like the OM-D.

Curiously, work shot in an entirely controlled environment – a studio still life or product shot, for instance – fixes the problem of imaginative clarity, but introduces another one entirely: we never see anything in reality like that. Food doesn’t look that juicy, watches never look that perfectly lustrous and scratch/dust free, and I’ve never seen anybody who wears the clothes or carries the handbag ever look like the models in the ad. Clearly, this is both a cognitive problem and a visual one; our expectations of that reality are defined by the art director and the client because that’s what they want us to think; it’s more attractive and sexier than the real world, making it very easy to ignore the latter.

Bottom line: I cannot shake the feeling that no matter how good an image is – and in some cases precisely because it’s a good image – I’m not looking at reality, but always at an image.

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This may seem like an obvious conclusion to come to, but given that every technical advance in photography has been pushing us towards fidelity of reproduction** – does pursuing this even make sense, given the fundamental limitations of the medium? I suppose this is a question I’ve been pondering with increasing frequency in the context of my personal work. One can have a strong idea, but a poor presentation of it; or the opposite. Very rarely can you have both – and the overwhelming feeling I’m left with is that even that tends to fall short, because the idea is typically grounded in reality – and we’re back to photography not quite being able to keep up.

**At the high end, this game is decidedly reminiscent of hi-fi audio – just look at the prices of medium and large format gear, and the amount of periphery required to go with it – I’m surprised nobody’s made a vibration-damping woven titanium cable release yet. Or maybe they have, and I’m just not in that league yet.

I don’t think it’s easy to have both – in fact, I’d argue that it’s impossible to have both a strong interpretative (i.e. a communication of what you imagine, rather than what you see) image and a strongly realistic image; the latter implies giving up creative control of your vision to some extent, and being a finder of images rather than a maker of them. Once again we must consider the strange ground that is the studio: yes, we still make images, and control the vision (though one could easily argue that creative control has long been surrendered to client or creative director) – thought these images frequently lack the spontaneity and slight imperfection that is frequently required to communicate some parts of an idea – e.g. speed, urgency, imprecision – to the viewer at a more subconscious level. (In fact, I examined this idea here, in balancing content vs. technical perfection.)

The interpretative school of photography has been developed quite well already – in fact, you’ll find a huge number of photographers anywhere – even on Flickr – that shoot in this school very well. In general, it suits the personal work genre well; fine art a little less well, because success is very dependent on the strength of the photographer’s initial vision and their ability to translate that into an image; it has almost zero commercial value at all, or only in very special circumstances: imagine if the idea you wanted to convey was a fuzzy happiness after drinking a certain brand of alcohol; an out of focus (but pleasing) image of the bottle would do absolutely nothing for product recognition.

I feel that the realistic school has been developed even less – perhaps because there’s not a lot of development that can be done independent of technology. I exclude photojournalism and editorial work from this category of images simply because the image is heavily dependent on the story, which in turn depends on conscious exclusion/ inclusion on the part of the photographer: this is very much interpretative. I suppose the best way to describe realism is something along the lines of: I see something interesting, it exists, I capture it precisely as it is – I don’t know if Andreas Gursky’s images fall into this category or not; I’m inclined to say no, simply because there appears to be far too much postprocessing etc. going on for them to pass as natural.

By definition, though, photography is unnatural. It’s a two-dimensional of three-dimensional reality. I plan to start experimenting with stereoscopic photography from natural perspectives – between 28 and 60-70mm or thereabouts – to see if the presentation of reality can be developed further; I’m sure some interesting (and very confusing) results may be obtained through extreme angles and processing. I’m more interested in seeing if I can capture the simple beauty that just is in a scene; be prepared for some experiments in the near future: successful or not, I’ll have no idea until I try.

At this point, you’re probably wondering why I chose two very pedestrian images to illustrate this article; it’s because they’re extremely close to representing the reality I saw at that instant – or at least they are in my mind’s eye, and when seen at a good size on a good monitor. It’s a development of the realistic school: the truth is, I’m not even sure if it’s possible to turn an ordinary scene into something special without a healthy dose of subjective interpretation, be it in-camera (perspective, composition) or postprocessing (color, sharpness, contrast); the last thing I want to do is produce something technically perfect but boring: that’s completely pointless. The reality is that postprocessing is either used to make up the gap between interpretative perception and reality, or worse, correct for technical errors. No matter how much we process, however, it’s simply impossible to restore the ‘pop’ – either the tonal separation, sharpness and contrast become too much, or they’re not enough. It also doesn’t help that the ‘right amount’ changes depending on the display medium and size. A print requires a different amount of contrast and output sharpening to a monitor – and even then, different papers and different display lighting conditions have to be adjusted for, too.

A quick survey of socially (read: democratically) popular images via Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr or the like reveal that the most popular – not necessarily best from an artistic or technical standpoint – tend to be those that portray ordinary objects or scenes in a very unconventional or different way. Consider the popularity of long exposure landscapes, black and white images and bokeh: none of these are even remotely close to the way our eyes see reality. Simply: in a world of sensory overloads competing for our attention, plain reality just isn’t interesting enough for us anymore.

I want to bring this to a conclusion by opening up the floor to hear your thoughts: do you think there’s something missing from your images? My images? If so, what? And better yet, any ideas why? MT

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Enter the 2013 Maybank Photo Awards here – there’s US$35,000 worth of prizes up for grabs, it’s open to all ASEAN residents, and I’m the head judge! Entries close 31 October 2013.

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. i have an compulsive obsession (or obsessive compulsion?) to pick out lines in a photo. and observe that the left line on 2nd photo is quite distorted. (also the right one is not quite parallel to frame. which screams at me louder than if it were much more obtuse).

    was this a conscious choice of yours to instruct the viewer to examine the subject and ignore the noise? was photo heavily cropped to one side of the original capture? or is the curve simply an inherent feature of the imperfect structure? curious to understand whats behind the photo.

    cheers

  2. I just ran across this entry, and I’m still digging through all the comments, so forgive me if I’ve repeated something –

    Why do you feel that it’s necessary for your photographs to be a 100% accurate representation of a 3-dimensional, nay 4-dimensional, scene?

    • It’s not. It’s just that we expect it because it’s already so close to begin with; what I’m trying to convey is more of a feeling of immersion than point for point quantitative accuracy.

  3. extremely interesting piece, as usual. As you seem to imply, as photographers, we don’t have any choice but to embrace the “interpretive” approach for an image, as the “realism” one is more or less doomed by the very nature of misc. constraints we face. Just wondering though : for paper reproduction, why isn’t it possible to reproduce the same amount of dynamic range, since it is also a reflective medium, as “the real world” is ? Let’s assume we can illuminate the print with as much light as we want.

    • Because of the nature of the medium: blacks will never truly be black, or your extreme highlights cannot be truly metallic and reflective. Arguably choices like here are what makes the output different and interpretative…

  4. I’d just like to say that I love reading your blog and recently bought 2 of your video tutorials just to see and hear your thoughts on capturing images.

    One thing that I notice, and cannot quite figure out how to replicate from your images is the “clarity” or “sharpness” of the images you post on your blog (I cannot quite put a term on this feeling I get, but it’s somewhere around that!). At first, I thought it was a technical limitation and you’re probably using full frame (I use a Sony NEX), but later realised that some of these shots are from compacts and hand phones!

    Would you care to share how you achieved this kind of sharpness and colours? Is this helped with post-processing in Photoshop? Are there tutorials that you have that relates to this topic? Currently, I’m using Lightroom 5 and bumping my sharpening and vibrance slider to the far end doesn’t exactly achieve that either.

    Thanks for hearing me out and being an inspiration :)

    • You can only enhance the presentation of something with PS, not fix fundamental deficiencies. Half of it comes through good shot discipline, which is covered here; half of it through good postprocessing (that’s covered in the Intro to PS workflow video).

Trackbacks

  1. […] That said, I’m willing to bet that the number is very small indeed. In my recent article on pushing clarity and transparency in a photograph and the intense discussion that ensued, the one thing that stuck in my mind was how we […]

  2. […] buyers’ remorse after trying to figure out where to hide all of those now-empty boxes. In a previous exploration of clarity, I — and a huge number of contributors below the line — tried to figure out what it is […]

  3. […] buyers’ remorse after trying to figure out where to hide all of those now-empty boxes. In a previous exploration of clarity, I — and a huge number of contributors below the line — tried to figure out what it is […]

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