About 20/2 vision


General Photography

I’m hearing more and more complaints about pretty badly done digital postproduction of large-format photographs, often by very well-known photographers. Just this morning, I received another email with such a complaint. Those who follow this blog closely will remember a recent exhibition review where I bemoaned it myself.

(updated below)

I recently talked about this with a friend of mine who has been taking photographs for thirty years now (incl. large-format). I asked him why so many photographers formerly well known for their beautiful analog prints end up with bad, oversharpened digital prints, which often even have colours bordering on the gaudy. My friend suggested it was because these photographers typically hand off the work to be done by the various professional digital labs, and they accept what they get back, thinking that that’s just as good as it gets.

This answer makes some sense (especially once you realize that many of those labs spend a lot of time working for advertizing photography), except it’s hard to understand why someone who knows what a good analog print looks like would accept an obviously bad digital one. How could that be? And if you’re paying someone a lot of money to produce prints for you, what would prevent you from telling that person to go back and fix it?

Mind you, we’re not talking about the technical differences between an analog and an inkjet print. I know about those. That’s not the issue. We’re talking about obvious problems, which can easily be avoided.

If you work with a scan, you don’t have to oversharpen the image. It’s questionable whether you even have to sharpen at all, and if you sharpen, there are many different ways of doing this (this is a technical issue, of course, and the purpose of this blog has never been to discuss those, so I’ll refrain from doing that).

Since I was poking holes into his first explanation, my friend mentioned that many photographers have long struggled with lenses that weren’t quite as sharp as desired, and that might point to what could be another explanation: If you grow up (figuratively speaking) with lenses that aren’t sharp enough, then an oversharpened image might just finally look like it is what the image should look like. Except, of course, that it doesn’t - because only hawks have 20/2 vision.

But even if you never had these problems, seeing an image suddenly become oh-so much “clearer” when you oversharpen, might seduce you into accepting it as the end result - even if it simply looks terrible (that, of course, would explain the plethora of overharpened, gaudy images on Flickr - anyone can take a great picture, you just need to sharpen the crap out of it and pump up the saturation [or use HDF]).

So I still don’t know where the problem is actually coming from, but this year I have noticed it a lot - and many people (photographers) have privately (or in emails) complained to me about the quality of prints in exhibitions (“Have you seen XYZ’s show? The prints are very bad”).

Of course, this whole debate could easily deteriorate into yet another analog-versus-digital discussion, and I have absolutely no interest in seeing that. But maybe that is part of the problem, that people still argue about analog versus digital, instead of simply getting over it and talking about all the different digital issues that one needs to figure out if one wants to produce a beautiful print.

I could be entirely wrong, but I know or have heard of quite a few master printers, who can do amazing analog prints for you - but I can’t think easily of their digital equivalents. And the kinds of names often mentioned in the digital world are people who make most of their money Photoshopping models to make them look like absurd looking androids (because that’s where the money is). In fact, the people I have met who know how to produce beautiful fine-art work digitally are all ten years younger than me - so it’s almost as if the transition from analog to digital resulted in a whole generation of technical wizzards missing, at least as far as the fine-art world is concerned.

To sum things up, I thought I’d blog about this issue, especially in the light of hearing so many complaints this year - and seeing so many bad prints myself.

Breaking update: It’s HDR - not HDF. HDF is the Hubble Deep Field (which, btw, is not only not oversharpened, but also not de-noised!). Acronym craziness!

Update (22 Dec 09): Here is an interesting take on the sharpness problem by Joseph Holmes: “Because Photoshop lets you sharpen so easily when preparing an image for printing, printers now routinely follow the rule that you must sharpen an image so it looks as sharp as possible sharp from an ideal viewing distance. A 30x44” print of mine, for example, was sharpened so it looked incredibly sharp from 3 to 4 feet away. The trouble is, once you move in closer than that ideal viewing distance, rather than seeing film grain which appears natural, we’re confronted with the ugly digital artifacts of Photoshop sharpening. If you get close enough to start making out too much film grain, you naturally back off. If you move in and see sharpening artifacts, you feel like something has gone horribly wrong.”