Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Photography Unites the Inner Artiste and Logician

I have the feeling that I am mentally rehashing a conversation that has been had for millenia in one form or another and for around 100 years in photography circles.

It concerns the latest step forward in technological capability. I read an article* recently about advances that permit such things as taking a picture and only deciding later where to place the focus or range of exposure. Simply put, the idea is that enormous amounts of digital data are captured and stored, including data about variables not previously captured such as angle and direction of light falling on an object all across the visual field. Later, you process the picture, picking and choosing which data to emphasize or remove entirely.

The implication is that, like cropping before it, this post-processing allows you to make an aesthetically pleasing picture out of a poorly composed snapshot. My inner artiste goes "HARUMPH".

Distracting the artiste momentarily with a new set of wallpaper choices, my inner logician takes the opportunity to jump in: "Hold on there...There are uses for this sort of approach, because not all photography is planned and carefully executed art."

For example, if, as the article states, you are a journalist and don't have time to sit around positioning everything, or the action is going by in a split second and you want to capture it live, great. Get those shots of the street war and get the heck out of the line of fire as fast as possible. Don't worry about getting back to relative safety only to discover all your shots are blurred or overexposed beyond recognition.

Or, lets' say you are a scientist looking for something and you aren't quite sure what or where it is, but it is in there somewhere... What a wonderful opportunity to dig around with the image to see what is hiding in there. My inner artiste and inner logician agree on the wonderfulness of the opportunity.

A wonderful combination of hardware and software makes it all possible. Algorithms that enable manipulation of incredibly dense numbers of pixels, working in tandem with some pretty sophisticated hardware in the "smart" lenses. Lenses that don't weigh a ton and require giant tripods or manual stabilizers that might as well be tripods. Speaking of which, "lens" singular may soon be the case - no more swapping out of lenses all the time. I'd really like to see that change in my camera pack. It would leave far more room for other things in my backpack as I trudge up the side of that mountain. Things like the rocks I like to collect.

The tradeoff is that by necessity, there will be even more people out there who miss the opportunity to really look at what is in front of them before they take a shot. The opportunity to be in the moment with your camera by virtue of having to observe, contemplate, study, see what comes to your inner self before you take that shot. The less technology there is in the camera, the more you have to pay attention to what you are looking at if you want something that is more than just not chopping off your friend's head (although we now have technology to user-proof against head chopping. It's called facial tracking software). One of the nice things about photography technology that doesn't attempt to do it all for you is that you are more likely to engage with your subject. Hopefully. Accidental decapitation existed 50 years ago, so maybe my position doesn't hold water.

I lug my camera everywhere and I suppose I will always plot plan and study what I'm shooting no matter what nifty geeky technology they come up with. And I'm no Luddite - I carry a nice (somewhat heavy) digital camera and lenses around with me. And I sometimes play with Photoshop just to see what comes of it. Just as I used to play in the darkroom. I love a good abstraction as much as a "realistic" (as much as there can be said to be realism) portrait or landscape.

When I started writing this post, I was kind of unhappy with the idea that soon cameras will allow me to blur, blunder and mess up my photographs and escape the consequences of not paying proper attention.

However, now I have come to the conclusion that the more the better because I can set everything on Manual mode if I want, I can enlist my camera ever more to the cause of investigative science and I can take that shot of the interesting passersby as well.

*"Smarter Photography" by Gary Anthes, Communications of the ACM June 2012 Vol 55, No. 6 pp 16-18

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