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Saturday, 14 December 2019


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it's interesting to me that pure white and pure black are rare and almost non-existent in nature but seem to be so important in imaging. Most advertisements for monitors have some allusion to "inky blacks". And the typical video display in showrooms is set to eye-watering contrast levels. Not much apparent interest in mid-tone accuracy.

I miss Mr. Vestal. I only knew him through his writing, but I read everything I could find that he authored.

"Does every melody have to use every key on the piano?"

—David Vestal

No, but it should use as many of them as necessary. Pure black and white are the spices of the image and rarely the essence. The essence is generally in the greys sometimes with neither pure black or white.

-Jim Bullard

Ha. You should post a David Vestal quote on a monthly basis.

I think of Roy DeCarava's moody dark photos, which look great in a book (better than online).

"...the dictum that every B&W print has to contain a pure white and a pure black."
Jeepers! Ranks right up there with "Form follows function"! They both sound reasonable till you give them more than 10 seconds thought.

I've always admired David Vestal, but I'll quibble with his analogy in this case.

Although it's true that areas of pure black and pure white aren't mandatory in B&W prints, it's relatively uncommon to find real-world subjects that have less tonal range than a print can reproduce. Foggy days, maybe. Close-ups of atonal subjects, maybe.

But most subjects exceed the print paper's tonal range, so they'll look flat without areas of pure black and pure white. Whereas melodies requiring all 88 keys on a piano are so exceptional I've never heard one.

A melody doesn't even have to use every note in the octave or the scale, much less the entire keyboard. And chalk me up as another admirer of David Vestal. The man was devoid of nonsense. Nonsense parted before his prose as the sea to Moses.

I think the key point here is that most scenes exceed the B&W print's tonal range. While both piano (and other musical scales) and photographic exposure go by powers of two (octaves in music, f-stops in exposure), music isn't a direct representation of a real-world scene, and I don't see a very powerful connection between musical notes and print tones; without such a connection, the claim that's what right (or wrong) for one must be right (or wrong) for the other seems weak. In fact Vestal makes no argument, beyond the simple analogy.

I think Vestal is right that fetishizing, or even making a "rule", that you "must" use the full brighness range of your output medium is wrong, badly wrong, stupidly wrong—it still turns out to be right for a surprising number of images. Even a surprising number of high-key images badly need their (very few) deep blacks.

In general, confusing "rules of thumb" with actual rules is a bad mistake. Not sure there are any actual rules in art, which may be part of the problem—when confronted with rules of thumb one doesn't have actual rules handy to compare them to, which (I suspect) would make the difference quite apparent.

Just for fun, taking the piano analogy a bit further... Why do our 21 step gray scale wedges have to be linear? The notes on a properly tuned (tempered) piano aren't linear. Pianos are not tuned to produce evenly spaced tones on a graph, but rather to produce tones that taste err sound good. This varies from piano to piano.

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