Magazine Article


The Golden Age of Photography Part 1: Looking at 'The Look'

Digital cameras fall into two camps, as far as their native picture files are concerned. Some are "interpreted" by the firmware to look like "finished pictures" upon first download. Cameras like these will probably be the most successful for use with from-the-card digital printing services and kiosks.

Other picture files download with a lot less "interpretation" done by the camera. The Kodak DCS series has been among these since the original, launched in 1991. Upon first sight, their pictures look flat, unsaturated, listless. You'd probably hate the prints, if your kids looked like that at Disneyland.

But if you're a pro, you might want to make your own decisions about how much contrast each picture should possess, or how saturated the colors. Not every professional picture is shot at Disneyland. Some are shot on misty plains or in shaded forests, where contrasts are broad and colors subdued. A pro is the type likely to shoot there, and to want the scene reproduced correctly.

When I'm shooting on assignment as a pro, which do I prefer, the ready-to-print download, or the more fully adjustable?

I'll put it to you like this. My cameras of choice are the Nikon D1x, and the D100. The former, as professional as they come, delivers the "pro" download. The latter, positioned as a "prosumer" camera, delivers something closer to ready-to-print. I like 'em both.

I like 'em both because I expect to work on their pictures regardless, once I get 'em on the computer.

And thinking that over at the Agfa/Duggal party, I realized that's why I was getting snappish when the editor said he preferred film. And it wasn't the Campari.

Mea Culpa

Since all my pix end up on the computer, I'm likely to do something I wouldn't with film. I'm likely to fiddle with them. Nothing I do in the course of the fiddling is beyond the capacities of film. But duplicating them in film means doing them in the darkroom. That requires extra steps. My digital repository, the place I download tomy computeris also my digital darkroom. Making adjustments of the type that require sophisticated enlarger and processing techniques for film require only pushing a slider in software for digital. What theoretically is possible to do with film is almost a certainty to be done with digital.

So I do it.

Don Sutherland has sold cameras across the counter, shot with them as a pro, and written about them for more than 30 years. His first article predicting the future of digital photography (1976) is becoming truer and truer. Don is a photo historian as well as futurist, and is author of the immortal slogan, "If you have one foot in the future and one in the past, you understand the present perfectly."

And if you say you don't like what I'm doingwhich is what the editor's remark amounted toI act like you're saying my wife is lumpy.

The subjects I shoot most often are ships. Ships float in the water, against big, bright skies, sometimes in haze or fog. Ships are surrounded by their environments, which sometimes creates a problem. Sometimes the ships don't stand out from their backgrounds.

So, as long as I'm downloading my pix, as long as I'm straightening 'em or sharpening a little, brightening 'em or cropping a little, I might as well do something to make 'em stand out from their backgrounds.

It's easy in Photoshop to go after the colors, access them individually, brighten or darken or saturate or desaturate them one at a time. You want to make the ship stand out? Watch this.

Garish colors.

I could get equally garish colors by scanning a film image and accessing the color channels from the scan. But since I don't shoot film much any more, these garish scans are few and far between.

Whether there's something inherently "different" between "the digital look" and "the film look" is a topic that deserves further investigation. But as a working hypothesis, I'm guessing that what we interpret as "the digital look" is not fundamental to the technology. I'm guessing it's fundamental to how photographers are using that technology.

Time will tell. Until we've looked further into the question, I feel like studying something that has really rich, saturated reds. How about another Campari? ptn