Photoshop. Blessing or curse?
I have a positively canine appetite for looking at pictures, but sometimes I wonder if the web is too much of a good thing. I've never reached saturation level with viewing pictures, but amateur digisnaps can make that cliff's edge seem close indeed.
I've got nothing against seeing work that's not so good, if it's...sincere. What I'm really getting allergic to is "Photoshop excess." (Not that I mean to pick on Photoshop exclusively. Digitographers can abuse just about any image editor in multitudinous inventive ways.) If you could listen to my brain as I surf the web looking at mounds and mounds of near-anonymous amateur pics, it might go something like this:
Oversharpening again. Gawd. Careful with that axe, Eugene! That's about nine times more vivid than the harshest summer sun. If the world were like this every edge would be like a razor blade and we'd cut ourselves to shreds on life. At least we'd all have halos, though, like angels.
Oh, yes, oversaturation. Ubiquitous. This one's about four clicks past "Velvia Mode" on the zapometer. Thanks, guy—we never knew how nice oranges and greens in nature could look when they're oversaturated about 4X past where Mother Nature stopped. Where do you live, anyway, a Simpsons cartoon?
Now here's a guy who's found a cheesy, horrible Photoshop filter effect he likes, and he's laying it on with a trowel. I might try that. Except of course that I'd rather have electrodes attached to my gonads.
Just found that contrast slider, didja? Now, you're going to have to stop going nuts with that, or Mommy and I are going to take it away from you. You could hurt yourself.
Here we go—a nice sky filter. That is definitely not a color found in actual skies. It's how the sky will look when the Klingons are arriving, or maybe after the sun has expanded and the oceans have boiled away. Looks good in his picture, though.
And so forth.
The motto of Photoshop Excess: Anything that can be done, can be overdone.
I have a nice, brief little shorthand critique for any picture that suffers overmuch from such a syndrome: "XS FX." Excess effects, dude. Dial it back. Look up the word "subtlety." Then "restraint."
And then there's black and white. I find DSLRs nearly useless for B&W because of the highlight issue. There's just no information there. I suppose slides have inured us to this problem in color, and I don't mind color pictures taken with DSLRs, but for B&W DSLRs are essentially useless. Even if there is some information, it's so coarse that the gradation has no subtlety at all. The effect is even worse than having no information/gradation in the shadows, which we're at least accustomed to struggling with.
Some photographers solve this by underexposing 2–3 stops and then jacking up the shadows somewhat with the Shadow/Highlight control in Photoshop (there's another control that can easily be used to excess—pictures with too much shadow compensation always remind me of something that got baked in an oven), but although this works sometimes, at other times it just makes the midtones look wrong, like a severe film/developer mismatch.
But of course, this doesn't stop photographers from publishing loads of B&W pictures. They range from pretty decent to downright awful.
Part of the problem may be that many people don't know what a good B&W picture is supposed to look like. How can they make one when they have little frame of reference? Even most highly skilled darkroom printers kept "reference prints" handy.
Color photographers don't have that excuse. Their frame of reference should be THE WORLD. Also known as reality. What's out there.
Maybe Photoshop could come with a "reality limiter" tool, like some engines have rev limiters. If you hit those sliders too hard, a pop-up box would come up that says, "You are exceeding what God intended. Proceed?"
Featured Comment by Michael: "A very excellent rant. Yes indeedy. Love it. However. Many of the monochrome photos we love—I give you lith printing—are predicated on the loss of information. For various reasons we like things out of focus (um, bokeh, is it?), overexposed, underexposed, taken in a rainstorm, fogged over, Lensbabies, desaturated, etc., etc. Loss of information is where it's at. Blow a few highlights? Pah! Clumpy dark bits? Humbug! I give you Moriyama's dawg. But do keep the rants coming."
[Added by MJ:]
"There are many important pictures that do not contain the full Truth, that do not reveal Form, that do not show us coherence in its deepest sense. Examples, ones that are nonetheless among the most powerful pictures I know, include Daido Moriyama's Stray Dog (which about does it for dog pictures)...." (Robert Adams, Beauty in Photography, p. 32.)
Featured Comment by Phthalo Blue: "One nifty little 'fixer' is found in the Camera Raw dialog box—the Vibrance slider. When you ramp it up, it's meant to effect only the less saturated colors and make only minimal adjustments to colors already well-saturated. One day, I'm sure Adobe will come out with the God Filter—a couple of clicks and all images are made great. It could even have its own keyboard shortcut Command-O-M-F-G (Win: Control-O-M-F-G). Barring that, we all just struggle along. I don't so much hate poorly done images that you find everywhere. Lack of improvement over time is depressing, however."
Featured Comment by Matthew Brown: "I think another thing that doesn't help is that so many online photo communities and sites seem to encourage the 'turn everything up to 11' mentality with adjustments. E.g., in one of my favorite subject areas (railroad photos), one of the best known sites is railpictures.net, which applies pretty strict screening to get your photo published there. Thus, everyone wants to. The look they seem to want is sharpened to razor edges, saturation past the point of Velvia. Thus, lots of budding railroad photographers are being trained like dogs to prefer oversharpened, oversaturated images. The same happens on a lot of other sites, whether through formal screening or simply by user ratings or comments."
Mike replies: Matthew, thanks for this—enforced mass taste was really the reason for the demise of camera clubs in the '60s and '70s. In one sense, I'm sure online sharing sites are functioning much like camera clubs—pressuring for uniformity and conformity rather than encouraging independence and originality. (If there's one thing I've learned about photography enthusiasts over the years, it's that everybody seems to want to key to what will gain them the acceptance of others.) To the extent this is true, it's not a positive development in my opinion.
P.S. I'm not quite sure I agree with your assessment of railpictures.net, however...perhaps people should head over there and look through the Photos > Top Photos > Top of All Time and decide for themselves whether they think the presentation is overdone or not.