On viewing and presentation methods

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Phantom lamp, Chicago

A little while ago, a reader sent me an email with a question (and great idea for a post): what’s the best method image viewing and presentation, especially when considering different audiences? It’s not an easy one to answer, and honestly, perhaps something that’s given very little to no consideration by most photographers. This is obviously problematic because it’s the final, critical link in the creative chain: if the audience isn’t seeing what you captured, much less what you intend – why are you bothering to show it at all? I would personally rather not show an image than show one that conveys the wrong overall impression. Perhaps the differentiation isn’t quite so clear cut, but I think you get my drift.

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The output disconnect and the future of image viewing

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Kuala Lumpur skyline after rain. An example image for which there is no perfect output medium at present: web sizes we don’t need to talk about. Full resolution screens lack the tonal resolution to render the clouds in a transparent manner; print comes closest, but ultimately is a reflective medium and so lacks the dynamic range to represent the difference between the foreground trees in deep shadow and the light in the buildings.

Let’s take stock of where we are at the moment in terms of viewing options for images: there’s basically still only digital and print. On the digital side, displays have been steadily increasing in resolution and information density – and to some extent also size; we have 4K monitors in some laptops at 14″ and under, 8K in some televisions with an enormous jump to 50″+, and the majority of devices sit in the 2-4MP range somewhere between 12″ and 30″. There are also mobile devices with HD, QHD or even 4K (the recently announced Sony Z5) resolutions in sub-6″ screens; that’s an absurdly huge range of pixel densities. Everything from about 100PPI to 800+PPI. Clearly, preparing content for this is not going to be easy; viewing distances don’t necessarily have anything to do with perceived information density (say pixels per degree of observed FOV), either. You can hold your mobile at such a distance that it subtends the same angle as your 27″ 5K iMac, but the problem is the iMac will actually have double or more of the information density – just look at the number of pixels along the long axis. Or the converse might be true. As image makers, how do we manage this?

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Don’t underestimate the final display medium

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This image doesn’t work small: there’s far too much detail going on to appreciate at just 800 pixels high.

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.

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