You know how a thought can sometimes hit you between the eyes? Like a small blob of something softish moving at a velocity sufficient to keep it airborne. It arrives with a wettish splat and jerks your head back. Ouch!
The thought that hit me yesterday was this: as camera technology, lenses, and processing have gotten so much better, are images becoming more realistic, or less?
I mean more like the reporting or recording of subjects that might be seen by our own eyes, "in the flesh" as the expression is. I was looking at A6300 examples on Flickr and my eye fell on a complicated B&W picture of a woman looking up at the camera amid a scene. The light looked like nothing I have ever witnessed in the world, impossibly dark with areas here and there that glowed like light sources; the detail was so extreme that every micro-feature on the topography of her skin could be charted by a dermatologist; the local contrast made every slight change of value pop into high relief. Her skin looked as hard as obsidian, glowing from within. It looked like a scene from some distant planet, under some different sun. Then a little while later I was at a review site and idly clicked on a picture the site offered up, and was met with a fantastical cityscape that looked like a poster for a science-fiction movie. Cars made long blurs, their headlights streaked bars of white, on tangled curlicues of expressways against a candy-coated sky, while the skyscrapers of the city-center rose in the distance like a fantastical Oz. High DR had banished every shadow and lighted every shaded crack and crevice. The colors were lightened and brightened to a remorseless unceasing cheerfulness. I kept staring at it and realized I could not make it transport my mind to an actual scene, something that I myself might see, somewhere, anywhere, here on Earth.
Both pictures were appealing; neither could have been captured, or not very easily, on film; both exhibited the pictorial conventions of our present window in history—that is, they looked like we collectively seem to think pictures are supposed to look. And both dutifully exhibited in different ways the technical virtuosity of today's equipment. Both pictures were good by most conventional measures. It's just that—splat!—neither one looked, well, very real.
I'm not drawing any conclusions about this because...how could you? Two pictures out of billions don't tell us anything. And I'd show you the pictures, but I try desperately not to use negative examples on TOP. It's just not friendly, to dangle one artwork by a specific individual before a crowd for the purpose of picking on it. Anyone could expose to unfriendly fire nearly any photograph that any one of us ever made. It's not what people want when they share their work. Work shown to others is both a gift as well as an unspoken appeal for affirmation.
But I do wish I could unthink that thought.
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Featured Comments from:
Neil Partridge: "Oh my word you've just crystalised a thought of mine that's been lurking for years. I've never been that keen on anything posed, artificially lit or obviously photoshopped. I much prefer something that looks like a momentary grab of something real and untouched. So yes I agree...We need more reality (for those who prefer it)."
Rob de Loe: "There's definitely an emerging aesthetic that I think of as hyper-realism (or in the second example you used, hyper-unrealism!) As sensors and lenses allow us to record more detail, I'm seeing more and more images that I can only describe as 'clinically sharp and detailed.' This development will be a boon to people doing forensic photography, where the ability to see the smallest detail in a crime scene photograph is a huge advantage. But I don't think it's necessarily improving photography. I see portraits now where I can count every pore on the person's nose, and that's not very appealing. Similarly, there are countless super-detailed, super-sharp landscape images that, to me, are also super lifeless and clinical.
"I realize I'm just defining my own tastes here. However, I think it's worth raising the topic because we've already reached the stage in the development of the technology where for many people current possible digital image quality is 'too good.' I think this fact explains why there's a small resurgence in film, alternative printing techniques, and interest in 'alt' lenses. On the plus side, we are in a golden age of photography where we all can have almost exactly what we want."
bongo: "To 'make you look' was/is the goal, not to accurately represent the scene."
Bill Wheeler: "I know exactly what you mean, and you describe a 'not-very-real' picture well—at least, as I would describe it. A few weeks ago, I photographed a mountain view with my DSLR, and while the photograph had its own appeal, it didn't look real to me. I emailed the image to a long-time friend with whom I share photographs, and he liked it a lot. It wasn't as 'all-out' as the photograph described in your piece, but still it did not look real to me. This past summer, I attended, twice, an exhibit of Ansel Adam's photography. It also didn't look 'real' to me, but it was gorgeous to behold!"
Mark Hobson: "Welcome to the world of Pictorialism Redux, Digital Edition.
cdembrey: "Same as it ever was. Way back in the 19th century they were doing double exposures to put the same person in a photo multiple times. Get it right in camera is not a modern concept. At the turn of the 19th/20th centuries the pictorialists were distorting reality. A little later Man Ray, Ansel Adams and others were changing reality to suit their tastes. In the past image manipulation required a dollop of creativity. Nowadays just a couple of clicks will do you. 8-D "
John McMillin: "The other night I spent a few hours on Zillow researching the local market. The groaning sounds I made had nothing to do with the crazy prices or ugly houses I found. My reaction was to the repulsive, overcooked HDR photography that showed up in three-quarters of the listings. I saw lurid colors never seen in nature, while other photos were so brightened that colors washed out almost completely. Window views showed strong halos, adding unreality, and white walls were marred by exaggerated shadows that made them look dirty and greasy. This look has more to do with fashion photography and hobbit-fantasy movies. It's unattractive and unappealing to me. If I saw such scenes with my own eyes, I'd head for the closest eye doc!
"I also work in this field. I work to give my clients realistic images with true colors. When I use HDR—usually outdoors—I use it so mildly that it's not obvious. Indoors, by mixing natural light and direct and fill flash, I aim for honest, naturalistic images. This took time and practice to achieve. My competition seems to do no lighting, but simply to shoot a wide bracket, and then fiddle with the results until it meets their standard 'imagery.'
"IMHO, overuse of HDR is a common mistake that is spreading way beyond its wise use."
Roel Kramer: "My thoughts: Too realistic...maybe often a loss of atmosphere. Human eye (at least mine) do no see all the details that are shown in many current cameras/lenses, certainly not in dim light. Something unexpected, seen in a short flash, will give you an impression of what is going on, without details. You will not reproduce this image/feeling with a supersharp picture.
"I only shoot B&W film and even I have this problem with the current lenses. My test for your question would be: take classic B&W pictures (a Koudelka shot from Gypsies; HCB, for example 'Boy carrying a wine bottle'; 'Migrant Mother'...) and ask yourself: how would this shot have looked when it would have been shot with current technique. Would this have been an improvement or would it have lost its appeal? More of these questions!"