Black and White and Color

The eyeWhat follows is a revised and extended version of comments I made recently on another website.

For close to ten years I have processed digital raw photos into black and white images nearly every day. Somehow digital black and white just suits me and I enjoy spending time doing post processing. This is unusual for a couple of reasons, not least because I never shot film in black and white or color.

Deciding to pick up a camera is easy. Becoming a competent non-professional photographer is difficult. Like everyone else I started out reading and following whatever advice I could find. There are thousands of books and millions of experts on every website just waiting to help out. Following formulas and emulating the work of others got me started but that didn’t last long. My goal was always been to produce unique personal work. So for years I have attempted to educate myself while following my muse.

Phototrice.com which is an integral part of my photography went online about fifteen months ago. It gives me the opportunity to publish pictures, create useful software and most of all communicate with a wide audience. A hobby with a purpose you might say. One thing it is not is a vehicle for making money.

Phototrice has presented a few challenges along the way. Certainly I want to maintain minimum quality standards for words and images published in the blog. The first challenge is that I’m a software developer by profession. My languages of choice are for instructing machines. In that regard English is a second language. There is also a requirement to publish mostly color images in the blog. My personal interest is digital black and white photography which has a secondary role here.

I only use digital cameras and capture technologies. Even if my finished images are completely true to the original raw photos they are not what used to be called straight photography. Digital images are manipulated right from capture to conform to the look of historical materials and processes. In other words they emulate analog photographs by design. I see this matter-of-fact processing bias as an unfortunate limitation.

Much of the potential of digital imaging technology is squandered by confining oneself to an emulation of analog photography. That is why I regularly explore techniques that are simply not possible with analog film capture. For me the camera and digital capture are source material for finished images that may or may not resemble classic photographs. I understand that some people will find my attitude annoying but I see no reason confine my work to a standard that ignores the potential of my tools.

Old Dogs

The eyeI’ve been developing software since the days of the Apple II. Back then everyone who used a microcomputer had to know something about how software worked. Most people just wanted to use VisiCalc or play games on those early machines but a few of us were fascinated by the technology. I can tell you the exact day I became a programmer. It was Thanksgiving Day 1979. After a marathon twenty hour session learning MS BASIC I could code. It was such a rush.

From that early day I started writing code for money and continued to do so until a couple of years ago. Suddenly after I turned sixty it was like someone turned off the light. Software developers are young and I was not young. Over the years I had opportunities to become a manager but the code always spoke to me. So I became an ex software developer.

Now after some time has passed it seems that code still speaks to me. In fact I have begun to recapture some of the excitement that I felt in the early days. I no longer have endless meetings, pressing deadlines or code reviews. Now I get to write code to make the machine personal again. My projects are small and completely non-commercial. Most run on my desktop machine but I dabble a bit with mobile Android stuff.

A few months ago I put together an application to generate PDF calendar sets and web ready images. My idea was to be able to take a finished full sized photograph and generate several sizes of images for publishing online along with two different calendars types in encrypted PDF format. This has worked extremely well. I can now generate all the image content for a post on phototrice.com in a few seconds with no hand work.

My old habits have also served me well in that I continue to write reusable object code. This has come in handy for my latest project creating photo mosaic images. This project highlights the differences between makers of things and consumers of things. It would be simple and faster to pay a few bucks to buy some photo mosaic software. It would be simple and boring that is. It is better for me to build the software and learn something new.

To that end I am finishing up the first phase of the project which consists of discovering images, cataloging and producing graphic tiles. There are lots of ways to accomplish this task. I decided to leverage my existing code from the calendar project to automate Photoshop to do the imaging work and use a Sqlite database to manage the cataloging. Works like a charm.

I’m really looking forward to the next phase which is actually creating the mosaic images. I will be writing code using the .Net framework rather than automating Photoshop to accomplish this. It is the interesting part for me. I have done quite a bit of document imaging work over the years but not much actual graphics programming. It should be fun. So in a few weeks you may see some really bad photo mosaic images here on phototrice.com.

HDR How We See

The eyeSeveral years ago there was a lively debate going on about HDR still photography. At the core of the debate were people saying that HDR would never be ‘real’ photography because it was crude, garish and cartoon like. The back and forth was predictable and uninformative because no attention was given to two essential points. First, the raw cartoon appearance of HDR images was largely the result of inadequate software used in ways that were far from subtle. Second, HDR is about digital technology. More than a century of black and white and nearly a century of color still photography taught us to see images in very specific ways. HDR was well outside our normal understanding of what photographs look like.

It is important to remember that HDR is not a film photography technique. Sure you could bracket and scan several frames to get some sort of increased dynamic range out of film but that seems a ridiculous notion. Photographic film is a legacy medium that should be used to make the best possible chemical based analog images. It should not be used to imitate something else.

The imitation game also applies to digital technology. I happen to enjoy making black and white images using my digital camera. For years I’ve listened to people tell me that digital black and white could never be truly correct because it did not work by exposing light sensitive chemicals smeared on plastic film. Right, I can’t imitate analog silver, platinum or any other oxidized metal salt on paper. Nor do I wish to spend my time imitating analog photography. My goal is to make the best possible black and white images using the digital technology at my disposal. Sometimes that means using HDR to get the best possible images.

Photojournalism feels the pinch

So what happens when photojournalism, which huffs and puffs about standards and integrity, confronts standardized HDR image capture? More to the point, what happens when photojournalists find themselves producing images for display on HDR output technology? Well, then it’s time for a rethink of standards.

If you display images as facsimiles using ink on paper you are fine with the current standards. On the other hand, if your images are used on 4K televisions, you have to compete with 4K HDR video. HDR, unless captured using discreet data streams and created in post process, bakes a certain level of digital manipulation into the output. HDR output requires a reevaluation of what constitutes ‘clean’ source information. Not to mention that as imaging technology evolves so must the standards.

Legacy is fine but technology marches on

The still photography I practice will soon be as much a legacy activity as making images on film. My digital camera is essentially a video camera that is adapted to capture high quality single frames. Once you can get continuous high resolution capture, at whatever frame rate is appropriate, still cameras will be legacy technology. In addition, high resolution wide gamut output screens will pretty much mandate HDR content. It seems likely that HDR will be how we will see the world presented on our entertainment devices. Otherwise it will appear dull and lifeless to modern consumers.

Time to become a fine art photographer

If I want to stay involved with photography in the future as a non-professional then the audience for my work is likely to change. One-off hand crafted images may be thought of more as art in the future. There will always be a place for finely crafted works made by highly skilled individuals. Whether they are made with traditional artist materials, legacy photographic processes or some more modern technology makes little difference. Art is about communicating ideas. The practice of art may be closely tied to a particular medium but ideas are the free currency of creative expression. The opportunity for self expression is always present but the audience must value your work. Otherwise you must be satisfied to make work only for yourself.