Here’s a question for all photographers: how many of you have considered the intended viewing method for an image at any point before final output? No need to answer this to anybody other than yourself. 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 (collectively) undervalue the output medium.
Even career photographers such as myself don’t really pay it enough attention; I suspect this is the source of another large difference between artists and photographers. For an artist, the display medium and the creation medium are one and the same; if you’re a sculptor or a painter, you work on the final piece and that’s also what gets seen by the audience. For the photographer, there’s an increasing disconnect between how we create images and how we view them. The fact that most photographers rarely print these days makes things worse. Let’s consider the typical photographic process for a moment:
1. We see something with our eyes;
2. We compose in a viewfinder, or on an LCD; both are fairly small in terms of physical size, to the point that we have to check accuracy of focus post-capture by magnifying the image – something which is usually clear at the final viewing size;
3. We do a first round edit/ cull by looking at thumbnails or a contact sheet, simply because it’s difficult to A-B compare large images with limited screen sizes;
4. We post process either at fit-to-screen size or full resolution or greater (for retouching)
5. We output to web (most uses) or print (rarely)
I’m sure you can all see the problem here: at no point do we ever evaluate or view the image at final output size until it’s done.
Not every composition works at every output size – I think that much is clear from the simple fact that resolution limitations mean some images can’t be printed above certain dimensions – but resolution aside, I think most of us do not take that into account when creating the initial compositions. This of course results in a significant discontinuity between what we see, what we shoot, and what we show – and remember, we as photographers are judged solely on what we show. It is therefore in every photographer’s best interests to ensure that they are showing their work in the best possible way.
Here’s the biggest challenge, though: with digital photography, most of the time we have almost no control over the viewing medium. Think about it: whenever I upload an image online, I’m never quite sure a) how large it’s being viewed by the other party; b) if their display is correctly calibrated both for colour and brightness; c) what effective screen DPI they’re running; d) whether there are other things on that page or screen which might land up distracting from the image.
At least with what I upload to my own site or social media channels, I have some control over how the images are used; if it’s an image for a client, there’s usually zero control whatsoever. I’m sure many pros can sympathise with me here: bad art directors/ departments can completely kill an image by poor CMYK conversions, poor printing, insensitive cropping, sloppy downsizing…the list goes on. And the worst thing is that we frequently get blamed for the images not looking right – after they have been completely butchered!
I think I now have an answer to why the work of the great photographic legends of the past seems to be significantly stronger – by which I mean more distinct and memorable – than the current generation: they had more control over their output media. A print was a unique thing, expressing the final artistic intention of the photographer. There was no reinterpretation possible afterwards by the use of different viewing media (eyes and personal biases notwithstanding). If you saw a reproduction of the print, there was usually some effort put in to ensure that the reproduction itself was as faithful to the original as possible. The important thing to take away here is that the photographer decided the print size, material, tones etc. – he might not always have executed it himself, but he certainly would have had final veto power.
Perhaps this is why having an exhibition is such a big deal – as it should be – because the work that’s being shown is about as close to the true intentions of the artist as possible – what is really a shame is that most photographers and sponsors I know here do not take the display part seriously enough; and by printing I mean size, paper choice, lighting etc. And these things have to be considered with sensitivity to the actual physical location, too: prints of the wrong size will either dominate or get lost in the walls, once again reducing the impact of the work.
The modern age of photography has effectively done away with that; other than if we print* and solely show our work via this medium, we’ve lost control to a large extent. There is simply no way that the images I show on this site – just 800 pixels wide – are a good representation of the actual file. Other than depth of field cues, it’s nearly impossible to even discern what format was used for the initial capture; sometimes I’m surprised by my own EXIF data. Many of my Photoshop workshop participants express surprise when they see my actual files on screen – both at the overall macro view (tonal map, colour) and the micro one (resolution, detail and acuity). I’m not surprised: I know just how much is being lost when we resize for web; there’s a degree of disappointment whenever I move down a size, and a degree of surprise and delight when I go the other way. No question that an iPad (with its decent gamut screen) is better than a web JPEG; moving up to a good laptop screen improves things a notch; full screen on the 27″ Thunderbolt Display is better still. And nothing yet beats a large format print – I produced one copy of ‘Verticality’ (below) at 30×30″ on cotton rag baryta and was blown away. I’d spent a lot of time with the 20×20″s from the print run, but that extra 50% length on either side took things to another level.
*See this article for a discourse on the importance of printing for modern photographers.
What I’m finding increasingly with my own images is that the compositions are being influenced by the intended output use – both size and medium – meaning that they might well land up being compromises most of the time, since the majority of people are going to be viewing things on the web anyway. Simply put, images with a lot of fine detail or subtle tonal gradation do not work well at small output sizes – anything less than 13×19″, for instance. Transitions become abrupt at the macro level, and take on the appearance of excessive microcontrast. Downsizing of fine detail inevitably becomes an issue since the output media seldom have the ability to reproduce at such high densities. The upshot of all of this is things start to look a little flat – and most of the time, I have a separate workflow action to produce the web JPEGs out of the actual files I’d use for printing or client delivery. It honestly makes me a little sad, because unless you’ve been to my office or one of my exhibitions, you’re only getting a small portion of the experience.
Though a large print is perhaps the ultimate discriminator, I was recently walking through a shopping mall and saw an 80″ 4K LED panel – that honestly blew me away. Granted, colour was a real unknown as it would undoubtedly require some calibration work (assuming gamut was large enough to begin with) – but the experience was something else. The detail/ resolution, the contrast, the physical size – all of it was more immersive and intense than anything I’d previously experienced. I think it was size without any apparently (at first glance) compromise that did it for me; I admit I’m seriously considering one of these for my office. Unfortunately that would widen the experiential gulf even further between what I see and what my audience sees.
Right now, we are at a point in time where the capture side of the technology is more advanced than the output side; as much as retina iPads have gone some way to bridging the gap (high output density, reasonably accurate and consistent colour) – we’re still far, far off. Average enthusiast cameras are pushing 16-24MP; mainstream displays barely manage HD – 2MP – and only for landscape images. Even the 4K panel was only 8MP; that’s still a 4:1 downsizing from a D800E image. And let’s not even talk about 3D reproduction. I’m going to leave all of you with one final thought: next time, consider upgrading your display devices before your camera; chances are, you’re probably not even seeing your images fully; if you aren’t, then who is? MT
One last seat has opened up for the Prague workshop (2-5 Oct) due to a participant’s conflicting work commitments. Now available at the special price of $1,900 instead of $2,150!For full details and to make a booking, click here. Thanks! MT
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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