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Saturday, 07 August 2010


Nice little essay, Geoff.

"Color Imaging Constrains How We See"
It certainly can.

As a 95% color shooter, however, my title to this essay would probably be something like: "The Liberating Power of Color Imaging"

My text probably wouldn't be much, if any, different from yours! I agree on all points you've made. But I would have added a second half to the thought excursion by highlighting just how powerful and evocative color photography can be when executed by skilled eyes and hands.

Color provides us with an exponentially larger kit of instruments. The fact that perhaps less than 10% are skilled in using these additional tools is neither surprising nor disturbing. (As you probably know better than I, a shocking percentage of people can't accurately see colors at all.) It just highlights wonderful images, like that Haas HCB image (which I'd never seen), all that much brighter. And what about Constantine Manos's drippingly gorgeous American Color works? What treats for the eyes!

Digital curses people with too many choices, and tends to bring out the "more must be better" side of many of us, and not just in color. Many digital black and white shots are ridiculously overdone. And I agree about the Velvia mimicry so common especially for landscapes today (guilty of it myself). I'm waiting for some kind of "counter movement" to the trend, but don't see it yet. Perhaps it's because such a movement wouldn't get many responses on Flickr...

My brother sent me a Denver Post collection of old time color photos that readers might be interested in.

Oil painters have used basically the same gook for centuries, giving them time to get past such technological influences.

But my question is about digital "plastic textures." I see what you mean -- but what is it, in terms of light and pixels?

Furthermore, plastic texture seems reduced, even eliminated, with old manual lenses on a micro 4/3 digital camera, for example. So what is going on when the camera is paired with a modern lens, perhaps made by the same corporation?

First, that is a wonderful portrait of HCB! And Mr. Wittig is so right about the over-saturation/over-sharpening problem. Unfortunately, it is drama that wins for the most part. And, I think, there are times when such an approach is appropriate - certain subjects and certain lighting conditions just lend themselves to an over-the-top treatment. But for the first time in my life, I have recently found myself appreciating a good number of pictures made on old-fashioned C-41 film. There was a time when I wouldn't have been caught dead using it, or admitting that I could even tolerate it. Nevertheless, over the last couple of years I have found myself admiring its results - primarily in the hands of users besides me, but still, I have grown to appreciate its subtlety. I still love Kodachrome the best for color, but with it's demise I will have to say that if I shoot color film again, it will probably be some C-41.

I think if there's any hope it will come when the whole knee-jerk "wow" bubble (with over processed HDR leading the charge) finally bursts and there is a return to a sense of connoisseurship in serious photography, and not just this quest for the quick "wins" you get from all this furious Photoshop dial spinning.

There, I said it. (I also said it on my blog recently, in an anti-HDR screed.)

As a side note, your post brings to mind how the look of Tri-X essentially defined B&W photojournalism for many years (and perhaps still does).

I started shooting Kodachrome in about 1966, I believe. But NEVER K64 (or Kodachrome-X). Well, maybe two rolls of it, total, in my lifetime. Kodachrome II, and then K25.

I hated the look of K64.

But I kept shooting K25 up through the 1990s, in fact until I started going digital in 2000.

I'm very surprised to see this article, which mostly describes history as I remember it, stated specifically in terms of Kodachrome 64.

(And never mind the nit that 64-speed Kodachrome didn't come out until 1962, and was called Kodachrome-X; actual K64 was 1974.)

Kodachrome II (ASA25) had a much more subtle palate, with virtually invisible grain, low contrast. Unfortunately, it was superceeded by K25.
I never understood why anyone would want to shoot K64.

Funny you mention Velvia as being oversaturated (which it is of course). In my eyes Kodachrome is much the same. It's also oversaturated and unrealistic.

Now Portra NC, that's a nice film with a subtle color palette. (Yes you can't really compare slide and negative film.)

With the demise of Kodachrome can anyone point me in the direction of a slide film which comes "closest" to this Kodachrome aesthetic.

It's interesting that you assume that the film aesthetic shapes the photographer's aesthetic, rather than the other way around. I remember when Sensia - Velvia's somewhat quieter sibling - came out. I was thrilled that finally, at last, I would be able to have pictures that looked like what I myself saw when I looked around at the world. For those of us drawn to the bright end of the spectrum, especially those beautiful greens, looking at Kodachrome images, while nice, was like viewing the world through yellow-tinted sunglasses. Or, perhaps, like eyes whose lenses had yellowed with age.

For me, at least, Sensia was a film I chose because it mimicked my existing aesthetic preferences. Maybe those preferences are shaped by the film, and now, by digital, but I remain sceptical that it's all a one-way street. There are a lot of digital effects, for example, that I see all the time in current photography, that I have no desire to incorporate into my own work, either at the time of composition or during post-processing.


Steve McCurry used K64 when he shot the "Afghan Girl" cover for National Geographic in 1984. When he went back in 2001 to find her, he used E100VS.

Ken Tanaka-
A very thoughtful observation. Robert Frost famously commented when asked how he felt about the trend toward 'free verse' in contemporary poetry: "like playing tennis without a net". The lack of constraints (like a requirement to adhere to iambic pentameter or a rhyming scheme) in his judgment made it harder to create art. Perhaps the same is true about digital color photography tools. It took me a couple of years to figure out how to use Kodachrome effectively, but it finally felt like I had learned a specific language. With digital capture and processing, now there's no net...and the court is way bigger.

I generally incline toward digital pioneer Stephen Johnson's view, that digital tools make possible a much more faithful rendition of the subtle beauty of colors found in nature. I find it a pleasurable challenge trying to make beautiful landscape prints that are faithful, rather than 'digital Velvia'. But that's just me! Everyone can craft their own way of looking at things using ones and zeros rather than film.

If you properly calibrate your camera, monitor, and printer, you should be somewhat close to accurate color. (The new 10-bit IPS monitors are great in this respect.) After white balancing, you get as close as you can get to an accurate rendition of the scene. An unbiased starting point, as it were.

Then, the question is what you do to make a pleasing rendition of the scene; I confess to leaning on LR3’s Vibrance control a bit much! I guess that norms have been set by film cameras, and maybe our eyes have been perverted by those norms. This bias is at least less obnoxious than when the starting point of the image was influenced by a film’s chemistry.

There are parallels in the audio world. Those of us who grew up with vinyl records grew accustomed to the particular noise introduced in the vinyl recording and playback path -- and for a long time A-B testers actually preferred CD sound when that noise was artificially added back in. Scoff if you will, but I wonder if folks will look back at the products that add the look of film grain to digital images and think we’re all barking mad?

Wow, I looked at that Velvia shot for too long and lost a tooth.

Koda-what? Velveeta? What are you guys talking about? The period of contemporary fine art color photography from the 70s up until (and including) the present, has been and continues to be dominated by color *negative* film (not to mention the consumer color photography space, prior to digital anyway, including one-time use cameras). Commercial photography, since 1990, can pretty much be said to be a color negative (and now digital of course) endeavor. I always wonder -- who is shooting all this transparency film? The answer: ardent amateurs. Which is great. Really. I think it's great that there's someone else besides Eggleston shooting tranny film. I'm actually surprised it's still around. Anyway, just so everybody knows, color photography, both for fine art purposes (at least in the sense of fine art exhibited in galleries in coastal and lakeside states) and for commercial purposes (again, magazine photography since 1990 or so) means color negative photography, not transparency. The big reason I think is that you can easily make prints from color negatives, you don't have to worry about an interneg or about some disappearing process like Ciba-, oops I mean Ilfo- oops, I mean it's gone in order to be able to make, ahem, actual prints of your work.

Whoa! That photo of HCB by Haas is bee-yoo-ti-ful! Even given web display and such. The color is expressive and definitely Kodachrome in the best possible way but what stands out, I think, is the emotional expressiveness—you *feel* what Bresson is feeling.

Geoff’s point is good. There are years-long waves of enthusiasm for a look. Roughly paraphrasing, he says that the salient characteristics of an attractive film do far more than simply limit our view of the color green, they change how we look at things and what looks we value at the time. I think you can go further with this.

I’ve noticed over years that when I purchase a new camera (which is of course the very, very best compromise for my money), I go through a period where I find its best stuff and its worst but these eventually fade in the background as I find what the camera and I think is most interesting. In other words, I know wide landscapes are pointless with this fuzzy lens so I find narrow landscapes. I know this verdammter sensor is going to blow out every highlight no matter what I do so I better find places where blown highlights are going to be expressive. I forgot to shoot raw so now what on earth is interesting in these over-saturated, over-sharpened jpegs? And, thank heavens this happens every once in a while: There; got it. I hasten to add that this is subtle: if the camera (“film”) blows too many highlights it gets the heave-ho.

Richard Kaufmann’s comment, “Scoff if you will, but I wonder if folks will look back at the products that add the look of film grain to digital images and think we’re all barking mad?” has truth to it but I just had an interesting 3 days where I experienced its contradiction. (I may have been barking mad.) A house just next door was being demolished and having been in the construction business a few decades ago I was utterly fascinated by the changes in the process. I took out my trusty G10 and started taking pictures. At the end of the first day, I looked at the take and saw that I’d bumped several pictures up to ISO 800 and they looked ghastly-ratty-noisy. “Bah!” said I, “This does not look good; should I even bother taking more?” A G10 at 800 is a grim thing. But the next morning I looked again and thought, “Hm, hm! These aren’t bad! That Canon color, they’re pretty sharp, there’s a feeling there that seems appropriate to the subject. . . .” And so, for the next two days, even when at low ISO, I minimized noise reduction or even added grain (thank you, Lightroom!) in post so all the shots had the same feeling. You can see the result here:


I feel strongly that I wouldn’t have taken the same pictures with an M9 or a Nikon D-whatever or a Sinar 8 X 10. They stand on their own. The doughty G10 with its horrid high-ISO actually encouraged something pretty nifty.


Nega-man's experience regarding publishers' acceptance of color negative film is very different from mine. I loved color negative film (Fuji NPS) and C-prints, but it was a rare event for a publisher to accept negatives or prints. It was always transparencies.

If I could access RA4 chemistry in my location, I would still be making C-prints, but the digital tidal wave washed away all my sources.

Yeah no ad agency, printer, or pre-press house I ever worked with welcomed a color neg. It wasn't until the standard workflow went over to photographers providing their own digital files that (most) commercial photographers were able to use color neg without protest from their clients. I was early on that but still, it was 1993-94 and I was the first in my town, a novelty... it wasn't until 97-98 that delivering a SyQuest (and later a Zip) became more common.

I'm not talking about wedding/portrait photographers, I mean commercial photographers.

There's an interesting section in Annie Liebovitz's recent book where she talks about a moment--I think sometime in the 90s--when she decided to start working with color negative film and met huge resistance from her clients. It was only because she was a famous photographer shooting celebrities that she was able to bully the magazines and ad agencies into accepting negative film.

I'm not a commercial photographer, but I make lots of photographs for promotional literature in a situation where I'm also the editor and I'm buying the printer. My experience in the film-scanning era was that even good prepress operators were not very good at scanning negative film. The folks I work with, just didn't have to do this very much. They were great at scanning chromes and matching them in print, but they really struggled with negative films.

Back to Kodachrome, the recent, excellent book, "National Geographic Image Collection" is organized by subject matter, but within that, the pictures are divided by technology with a subsection in each part of the book devoted to Kodachrome. It's a great way to see this special palette.

Ed: Yes, there are often "wow" bubbles. Some of them last (like Velvia did), some don't. I'm still at the point of finding some of the HDR styles that look over-dramatic attractive -- but it's entirely conceivable that I'll get tired of them, and even if I don't, everybody else may. Then it'll take another generation for people to dare to revisit the techniques for artistic purposes.

Nega-Man: That's not the history as I remember being told about it. Set fine art aside, because that's highly individual with few outside technical constraints. From what I read, it seems to me that magazine and studio shooters went from color slides to digital, mostly without even visiting negatives. I know that the film-based stock agencies were full of slides -- many wouldn't touch anything else for color. Wedding shooters of course shot negatives, since actual photographic prints were their end-product. Studio portrait shooters the same (and in many towns they were the same people as the wedding shooters). But stuff going for four-color mainstream printing, magazine editorial and magazine advertising, was shot on chromes, largely because that's what the printers knew how to work with, until that workflow went digital.

@ Geoff Wittig: "rich warm tones and relatively subdued greens"

I've just realised, my sunglasses are like this! Reds and oranges seem to glow when I wear them. All this time I thought they were my John Lennon sunglasses, when really they are my Kodachrome shades!

No wonder I struggle in poor light with them.

I think the idea that Velvia destroyed good photography is a bit odd. I don't think I ever shot a subject based on how it would look on film, but because I liked the subject, all of the elements for a good photograph were there, etc...

To the extent the kind of film I used determines the kind of photos I take, it would actually be black and white, which I started out on and shot pretty much exclusively for years. Even now, with digital, I will make a shot with the express purpose of doing it as a black and white.

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