Friday, February 9, 2007

colours, japanese food and turntables

Bill Callahan (smog)

«bill callahan (the Independent San Francisco»

I look over my photos, and I see a variety of colours. However, it is often that I hear that I "just" go for B&W. Here, B&W can include split toning, or just a few colours. Although perhaps an unfair stereotyping, it is mostly true: I am displeased with the colours of many shots I make, and rarely think that they convey the emotion I want to present.

As I now get to work first with Adobe's Lightroom, and sometimes skipping any dodge, burning, and/or corrections with Photoshop, I have noticed another reason: the digital cameras sensors still suck. (OK, just bear with my drama here.)

I got my first camera in 1999, and shot with colour film. All the nice photos looked fine with a little contrast correction, as done by the nice person at the mom/pop photo store. Nice work, I was very pleased. Once I got the first digital camera at the end of 2001, I stopped using colour film, in favour of black and white. Not sure why, I do not know much about film performances, but the colours in digital are very crisp when properly exposed. Even clinical. I was doing digital colour and film B&W.

It must have been while using Photoshop Elements and discovering the "overlay" layer blending, that I fell in love with contrast. Turning up the contrast in colour looks strange, and perhaps more importantly to what I want to do, very distracting. I think this falls into common wisdom, and there is nothing new here. Since then, I developed some Gradient Maps to convert colour images to anywhere between 2 and 5 tones. At times, I used it for desaturation, and that is all I did in the early days: very desaturated images thanks to the Gradient Map and blending with blurred layers. Soon, I lost interest in that look, and it was just a learning step towards B&W.

I am fascinated by making odd connections, and I can think of Japanese food. After all, I like to think that my subsconcious is rather limited and it applies similar rules to many, seeming disparate, perceptions. The main reason why I like Japanese food is that elements are simple and generally separated. When taking a bite, there are a few flavors to savor, unlike say, a pizza with "everything on it." I like the focus on just a few elements at play at any one time, so I can maximize learning and/or appreciation. (Yes, when I eat pizza, I just want one or two toppings maximum.)

B&W photography offers to me the same experience as Japanese food: I am able to highlight for myself a couple of elements in the photo that I want to emphasize. The image can still be chaotic in its lines, or something very simple. However, the "sweet spot" is being able to play with the contrast in the image. «Triangle» above is a wonderful example, and I am not a fan of flower images (flower and portraits are still my weak spot, and the feedback on flickr correlates to that notion).

Playing a record on a turntable can be full of noises that can detract from the experience, yet this is contradicted in photography, although people may enjoy the noise on both. A consequence of increasing the contrast in an image is to increase the noise as well. In colour images this seems to be unacceptable, but it is highly tolerable in B&W, as a way to add "ambiance" or feel. I am curious if in a few generations this appeal will go away, as a greater number of photographers may only know digital and, like most today, listening to music in a digital representation is more appealing than a turntable with noise/pops. However, blurry paintings are still appealing quite a few generations removed from its start.

Even in Camera RAW images of today, turning up the contrast on images exposed to my liking means having to deal with the presence of noise. This is not the case for many applications of digital photography, but for early morning and late afternoon photographs, the contrast is already low, but the light is delicious: the image has to be compromise, in one sense, to gain in expression in a B&W space.

The reason why digital cameras suck (within the limits of what I want to do), even when there is gorgeous colours at that time, is that as the image is broken into RGB at different pixel locations, the blue channel is mostly noisy, though the blue channel contains quite an amount of sharpness detail and texture. In using Lightroom to convert to B&W, I am struck at the quality increase in the image when I convert to grayscale, and can use the different RGB colours to mix into one very satisfatory image in two-tones. This is a simple fact of Information Theory, where the total information is increased when different sources are combined properly. Then, I can apply some split toning to change the mood a little, if the B&W is too harsh.

This approach has become so intuitive, that it is best to assume that the image is going to be in B&W so I do not worry to much about White Balance, unless the capture quality is compromised, i.e., one of the three channels may be over, or under, exposed. As the newer digital cameras provide a histogram for each channel individually, this problem with white balance can be corrected. Not only is the white balance not as critical, or easy to correct, but it becomes a matter of using this camera instrumentation shortcoming to my advantage. For example, under expose to obtain some "digital grain" and have a signature noise, controllable (it is in the blue channel after all), and not depend too much on a layer, or more, of gaussian noise.

There will be a time of very fast and sensitive digital sensors to 32 or 64 bits, and perhaps I will return to colour. However, there is nothing to complain at the moment, just to have some eureka moments and work with the faulty instrument.