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Monday, 21 March 2016


To my taste they are a bit over the top ... but then I may be unusual in that my favourite film back in the day was Agfachrome due to its muted colours.

But of course tastes change - given that so many people are exposed to overprocessed images on Flickr etc., perhaps this style is considered the norm.

I am impressed, even if I should know better than to be surprised, by the sheer breadth of (contradictory) opinions about the photos expressed in the comments. Even a group of people interested in photos clearly perceives the same (vagaries of display aside) pictures very differently.

To me these look highly color processed and tone-mapped. I would prefer not to get such extreme manipulations in news photos (hansen's 2013 world press photo winner illustrates some of the dilemmas through his application of similar processing to these shots), but the photo essay format in this case affords a bit of leeway. Still, I am left with the impression that the light has no source but beaming from the eyes of the viewer, penetrating deep into folds and crevices which stand out in video-game relief, showing what we reason must have been there all along, but would not have been visible through a camera before photoshop.

To me this loses an essential facet of photography, which is that it forces us to reconcile the differences between what we know about what we are looking at, with what is objectively visible, on some level. This is the gift photography gave to the world: its machine perspective, a second opinion in the midst of so much disagreement over what we are looking at. When it becomes 'normal' to process the underlying forms (and colors) back into the picture, we lose a bit of that gift, and I mourn for its loss.

I have nothing against artistic interpretation or even artifice, but when the photograph stops pushing back, it is not a triumph.

Pictures which show poverty in a very estetic way. Some are HDR propabely. Not my style of photography! They fit well into a tourist guide!

Yep. The taxi beneath the tree canopy. The home interior in Santiago de Cuba. And the military kiosk. Those were great.

I'm looking at home now on an iPad Pro and everything looks a lot better. It's a masterful set. Agree that, in general the color is a little more aggressive than it could be -- the scenes where there is greater harmony and lower saturation (remembering that the two are related) were the most enjoyable. I don't care about objectivity. We are horrible are accurately and consistently perceiving and recalling color. Might as well make a good subjective rendering.

I think the photographer should take up painting then he could totally make up his images. These are like the photos from from a holiday company brochure/poster, vague resemblances of reality. Were they in the travel section of the newspaper? If not shame on the paper.
As overcooked photos they are unfortunately what many regard as excellent. Personal choice.

I do wish people would stop talking about these as "HDR". There's nothing in there to say that HDR was used.

What I do notice is a slightly unusual vision guiding the tonemapping. It manifests itself as two impressions: first, local contrast (see the left-most chap's face in the cock-fight photo); second, no highlights (see the sky in the green car photo - compare various gaps-between-trees where it occurs and ask yourself if it really could be those relative shades of grey).

If anything the second is the stranger phenomenon to my eyes - it's like the *light* has been taken away; without proper highlights there is no daylight, just a mush of uniform tone with localized corrections.

The funny thing is, I quite like some aspects of that tonemapping for my own work. It gives a uniform tonality and, with suitable noise-reduction, a polished glaze effect across the whole frame. But then again, I shoot landscape not portraiture.

Good idea on the guide-prints though. I should definitely get a few of those lying around.

The interior shot with the TV is one of the best photographs I've seen for a long time, and the only one in which the post-processing doesn't call too much attention to itself.

I'm not sure why so many people here are latching on to the alleged "HDR" look of these pictures. I only see two frames that might have had the contrast stretched a bit (the haircut picture and the night picture with the houses). But the capture range of digital cameras these days is such that those could be pretty "straight" too.

Anyway, compressing the longer contrast range of film into the smaller one of paper (or the longer contrast range of reality into the shorter one of film ... hello Zone System) has been half the point of darkroom manipulations ever since St. Ansel. But of course if you do it with digital and software, then it's a horrible manipulation of reality.

I sort of question the idea of using what film looked like as a standard benchmark for "realism" in photography. There was nothing in particular more real about how film rendered color than how digital does, there was just no software involved so people make it more real in their heads. IMHO.

In this context it's interesting to me how the complaints about digital have evolved over the years. In the early 2000s it was always "digital is too contrasty, you can't get that nice soft contrast in the highlights like with film"... now it's all "oh that HDR is such bullshit, nothing is contrasty enough."

To sum up: I like these pictures. I am not that interested in ideal benchmarks, they are hard to use without fooling yourself.

P.S. I agree that it seems like some of the color might be pushed a bit, but no more so than using Velvia. Velvia was great stuff.

I'm not sure what a colour photo should look like - that's a matter of individual aesthetic preference and vision. By vision I mean an interpretation of a scene that attempts to best express the photographer's ideas, emotions, purpose, i.e., the story.

Of all the photos in the that NY Times series I only really "liked" the second (barber shop,) fifth (bride) and sixth. They seemed less "processed" (if slightly) and the compositions and scenes were of more interest to me.

If I had to say what a colour photo should look like, I'd say either Kodachrome or Agfachrome 64 and (almost) never Velvia. I'm expecting "hate" mail from the Velvia crowd. Just remember, for digital I shoot Fuji. :)

I have a rather mixed reaction to this set. As far as the color and contrast: OK, it's your box of crayons. Color in or out of the lines if it's going to make a good photo. Overall I would like these images if I walked past them in a museum while my companions were in a hurry to get to the coffee shop and I straggled just a little to glance at them.

I'm sure I would hate to live with them. The cock fighting photo, as an example, has some really ugly pieces. Look at the sleeves, especially the yellow striped sleeve. It's not so much a question of color, but of the clarity slider or whatever plugin was abused. The ugliness of that texture on (all) the sleeves doesn't help anything. Other photos have similar over-the-top problems, where the enhanced texture at first glance is cool, but in the long run is distracting and ugly.

I struggle with this in my own work a bit sometimes. A little bit of those clarity/structure things might seem to look better, and then maybe a little more seems to look even better. And you take it back to zero, and it looks too dull. But no. It turns out that too much is too much, and even a little bit might be regrettable. In all of my own photos that have "working" versions as layered photoshop files, over the last couple of years I've reworked and backed off of those effects as I've lived with the images over some time. I love texture -- why not bring it to the front and center? Well, because it can sometimes be ugly, distracting, and unnatural. Even if cool, even if I love it.

It was the same in black and white darkroom printing. When I took a workshop with John Sexton in the early 80s and he shared Ansel Adam's technique, we were instructed to start as subtle as we could and build up, never start with a grade 4 paper and a bunch of hydroquinone, even if that's probably where it's going to end up. If you start there, it's hard to go back. If you end up there, it's hard to go back, even if more subtle is where you should be.

In the cock fighting photo, once you see how ugly that yellow striped sleeve is, you can't unsee it, and it keeps pulling the eye. Back off those sliders/plugins/whatever and make these good photos great.

These images have a distinct editorial 'look' that seems preferred by many news desks these days. It's kind of 'dramatized' and probably translates well to smaller magazine sized images.

I suspect that's what drove the post production to a large extent. People do what sells.

I'm in two minds about whether I like the treatment, and I think it's unfair to judge on a screen rather in print. Nor are they specifically intended as art, but more like a documentary.

I do think many of the images are quite striking, but also fairly typical of the genre and therefore a little staged and 'punchy' in some cases.

But, compared to some colour film, it seems quite moderate.

I am surprised by the level of antipathy in these comments however, especially an image that was presented as an improvement which could be have been snapped on an iPhone by a passer by...

These are stylish images - but I don't care for this style.
You can call me old-fashioned, you can call me over fussy - and you may well be right. But I despise verticals that are not vertical, and I don't think much of converging verticals in architectural photographs either. I can't help wondering if this a deliberate distortion to make these images seem more alien to the viewer. That makes me worry about the tone and key of these images and the artificiality of the saturated colour palette.
And another thing, where are the children? In the Third World countries that I have visited the children always caught my eye immediately - but I don't see a single child in these images.
I admire the technique, but I am suspicious of the agenda behind it.

It's interesting that so many people see HDR, because they really are not--there's plenty of black, and the shadows aren't open at all. All I see is that instead of coming close to blowing out highlights, as is common, they look more like B&W prints from the 30s-50s, where there are solid blacks, but all of the bright areas have been depressed so that there's plenty of highlight detail and no pure whites. Robert Frank's original "The Americans" prints are like this, for instance, as does many other photographers' work from that period.

I like the look. It might turn out to be a bit dark on paper (as Frank's prints do to me as well), but on a screen it looks good. I prefer less saturation, myself--something like Portra 160 naturally gives (see Alec Soth for examples of that).

Mike, I'm never able to answer the questions you ask your TOP readers on the first day mostly because I've never before encountered such photo questions and simply do not know what I think until I've thought overnight or for a day or two about what you ask your readers. Being always a day late (and probably also a dollar short) is OK by me because my attempts to answer TOP questions are extremely beneficial to the growth of my own foto-fu.

Photographers who grew up with non-digital color photographs are attuned to that film-photographic look which often includes dark shadows, strong highlights and lower microcontrast.

Digitally, after shadows are opened and highlights pulled back, colors and details are revealed. Digitally, after clarity or detail sliders are used to increase microcontrast, details and structure are revealed. Photographers who have never used film are naturally attuned to this digital-photographic look.

Which photographic mode, film or digital, better represents the reality of these Cuban scenes? No good answer to that even after some serious pondering on my part. But I have realized that I prefer the clarity and openness of these digital photographs in this journalistic context simply because I can see more in each scene - more color, more detail, more 'structure', more information.

However, given that your TOP demographics skew towards a population who has film experience, I'm not surprised by the many comments which decry this digital look in the set of Cuban photographs.

It is now time to go outdoors and look again at deep shadows and strongly lit areas to remind my eye what can actually be seen.

Leaving questions of style aside, this Cuban series was extremely well-photographed and extremely well-curated. It makes me happy to see such good photographic efforts are still important in journalism.

I like the images. Really excellent. They in no way resemble K64. I have not been to Cuba and I would agree the photos all resemble each other in color palette, certainly they are very warm, which seems unlikely to be reality, unless they were all taken at the same time of day. Perhaps, occasionally, the clarity is a touch too high, but in general I think they are an outstanding set. If I had actually experienced Cuban light then I may not think the same, but I can only comment as I find.

I really like them. More slide film than print film. More Kodachrome than Velvia. The richness and dark look well represent the subject of a land locked in a Kodachrome era of 50 years ago. They call to mind the photos of William Albert Allard.

Horribly over-cooked - the sort of effect you end up with when the 'clarity' slider on Lightroom is pushed far beyond where it should go. Or unsharp mask with a small amount and large radius applied too many times. Hyper-digital effect that draws a lot of oohs and aahs on forums, but which I think looks cheap and nasty. After having one of those on your wall for a week you'd get fed up with it. Ugh.

I thought these were quite good, mostly. The home interior, the barbershop, and the cockfight crowd especially stood out.

It seems to me that the photographer(s) showed a good sensitivity to the light, and the color mostly enhanced the pictures, even if only one or two (like the house interior) really depended on color.

I am amused by the range of opinion about the technical quality. They are oversaturated! And the color is washed out! Too contrasty! And no shadows! Too grim and gritty! And like a travel brochure!

One thing I noticed may have to do with the way the Times serves photos: on my little laptop screen, they looked a bit over-sharpened, but that effect disappeared on a larger monitor at work. (In fact they looked better overall on the larger monitor, even though it's not really a good monitor for photos.)

I read the discussion and wonder: Does any of this matter? HDR or not, saturated or not, clarity or not; we might as well argue over who was the better painter: Rembrandt or El Greco? The photos are well within an acceptable range and I can understand them with the assumption the color choices are intentional which has nothing to do with my visceral preferences.

What bothered me far more was the web designer's need to have the photos enlarge to fill my browser window forcing me to scroll to see them. Unless I missed a switch there was no way to see the whole image on my screen at once. As my browser window grew (both Firefox and Safari) so did the photo; as it shrank it just cropped more out. Whomever designed the site apparently decided the photos were only important as "content" suitable for manipulation and not as statements in and of themselves. That, to me, is a far bigger issue than whether or not the color in the photographs was "good".

Apropos 8 hours, I haven't time for a long comment, but I think they've been processed to ugliness. To call on an idea from David Hurn, the world is full of amazing things and there is no need to construct new or synthetic realities in it's place.

Too much HDR, too much local contrast and 'clarity', too much background separation. Sometimes my 2/35 Biogon pulls that last trick and it always leaves me feeling a bit queasy tbh.

The picture of the crowd at the cockfight is particularly visually ugly. I include the 'visually', because it is the look, not the subject that dominates. As such, it must, surely, be a distraction from the reportage?

Awful, awful, awful. Too much saturation, too much contrast and HDR, too red and yellow -- these photos are supposed to render Cuba "atmospheric," but they just look like a grade-B movie of Cuba. To my mind, the photo you posted should look more like this: https://sircarl.smugmug.com/photos/i-NjLt4vR/0/O/i-NjLt4vR.jpg

[Hi Carl, is your monitor calibrated? Because on my (calibrated) monitor, your version has a strong pink/gray color cast and looks all wrong. --Mike]

Late to the party, of course, but when I originally saw these on the NYT site, my first reaction was that they looked overly digital. Whatever that means. Sort of grungy in a clarity slider sort of way. Or as one person mentioned above, HDR-like. A second look gives me the same impression.

Now as far as the color goes, generally nicely done. It doesn't distract from the subject, they aren't over-saturated, nor do they jump out and slap you in the face. It works for this set of documentary photos on a news site, but they are nothing I would especially take note of as examples of exceptional color photos. I have been poisoned by the web, though. Perhaps I would think differently were I to see them as prints.

I know I'm off topic, but what the heck is that at the top of the frame of the cockfight photo? A plastic bag containing...something?

I have to say I love the look of those photos. Absolutely gorgeous in my eyes. Love the Winograndesque shot. Best series I have seen in some time.

Late to the party, I know, but I'll just say that I like the photos, even though the post-processing doesn't quite work for me in most cases. There is just something off about it.

Here's my take on Cuba and its colours:

Not saying they are better photos, just that I like this colour interpretation better, and find it more closely related to what I saw.

Mostly interesting photos, but the hokey-ass processing detracts from the shot; it steals my attention away from the image.

I'm sick and tired of this gimmick.

Hi Mike,
I would imagine the NYT editor wanted this particular (fashionable) look for the piece and that maybe why the photojournalist turned down the credit.

Secondly, the Cockfight scene looks a little staged to me, suggesting the PJ took some time to nail the shot they had in mind. To me that's ok, we all have a mental picture of how we'd like any shot to turn out, and everyone sees things differently in the mind's eye (as you pointed our recently). Hence there are a wide variety of colour images which appeal to a wide range of individuals. I feel that's something to celebrate, since if we all preferred the same "look" then photography would be a rather drab and uniform exercise, with far fewer practitioners.
All the best,

I like your idea of finding, and keeping, an ideal example/"guide" of color imaging. It makes perfect sense. I also like that you have provided the word "plastic" in reference to a characteristic associated with some color photography. Plastic is how I would describe these photographs; but not in the sense they are malleable....more in the sense they seem vulgar. Not vulgar in content- although it is hard not to associate the cock fight scene with vulgarity- but vulgar in presentation. It is sort of the same thing that attracts your eye to flashy, cheap jewelry on display at store: you cannot help but look at it; but you would not even consider making it your own. I have a sense these photographs do not elicit, even in a minor way, the feelings I would have if actually on scene.

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