Photography - State of the Union

DSC_9596.jpgI must be getting old. I continue to be amazed and at the same time horrified by the state of affairs with photography in general. I guess what I am amazed with is the degree of progress in terms of the technology. When the Nikon D1 was released I used one, I didn't own it but I had the opportunity to use an associate's camera on a number of occasions. In and around that time I was shooting a Nikon F5. I thought that the D1 and then the D1H, and then the D1X were interesting but they were nowhere near the camera the F5 was. The F5 was responsive, accurate, durable, etc. I guess the D1 series cameras were okay but again as picture taking devices they paled in comparison. For "serious" photography I was using my medium format gear. I have never been a photojournalist professionally but have always admired great photojournalistic work. I could see how someone that did grab shots for news papers and other publications where turnaround time is king and quality a distant second could trade-off a little bit in terms of the picture taking machine that was the F5 for one of the D1 series cameras, especially the D1H or D1X. The viewfinders were horrid, the battery life terrible, but they were head and shoulders above what came before and they were workable.

Then it happened, the first story shot with digital was published in National Geographic. I believe it was a D1X, maybe Joe McNally, I forget. Not only did it look fine it looked great. Look mom - no grain. I was sort of like nice trick but who the heck wants to use that clunky beast of a camera. I'll stick to my Nikon F5 and occasionally my M6 Leica. A short time later the D2H hit the scene. As an upstanding Nikon shooter I went to my local neighborhood Nikon dealer (try to find one now that has pro level gear - ha) and gave it a spin. Exactly 45.714 seconds later I owned one.

I was not planning on it, I did not expect it but this thing was a monster picture taking machine. Nothing else like it. When I say this I am saying it with no qualifications, it was seriously better in terms of responsiveness, speed, agility, whatever than any film camera I ever used. Not only that but I really liked the way the images looked. Yea they were only 4.something megapixels but they looked great at what I considered reasonable print sizes of the time. Reasonable being 9x12 'ish prints or prints in publication where 12x18 would be quite the deal and usually shot on MF anyway. My D2H camera bodies have well over 100,000 images on them with no issues what so ever. They shoot and handle like they are brand new. I have printed up to about 13x19 and the prints look great. They do lack detail if you are right on top of them but they are by far better than 400 ISO film at normal viewing distances.

That brings us to noise. I know the D2H was "noisy' at anything at 800 and beyond. Compared to a D3 the D2H is strait out of the Flintstones with respect to noise. Heck the D3 is a better camera in every sense let alone image quality. At the time the way I looked at it and still do is that the D2H was fantastic up to ISO 400 (it started at 200) far better than 400 films with respect to color and noise. At 800 it started looking like higher speed film (as in 400 speed film) and got "worse" from there. I guess I was brought up on photojournalistic images - fantastic images - that were shot on 35mm film and published in the Geographic. A lot of the images were shot on K200 (PKL or something like that). You could see the "noise" anywhere there should be a smooth tone from a mile away but the images were fantastic. I have never been a fan of color film noise. K200 had big noise but the colors of it tended towards darkness and subtle tones rather than bright green spots in the middle of a neutral tone. The D2H noise at higher ISO had similar characteristics, not identical, but similar to K200 or pushed K200.

I guess I grew up on National Geographic photojounalism and the look of K200 film. K200 as in ISO 200. In 2003 I had a camera that blew the living crap out of any camera that came before it in terms of a picture taking machine and looked like K200 when used at ISO 800. Amazing, totally amazing. A little over 5 years later the thing is a dinosaur. It still takes the same images it ever did and will still blow the crap out of low end DSLR's as a camera goes but it doesn't even touch the D3 series. Are  we as a community making better images 5 years later. Maybe, maybe not. Heck I still pull out the D2H when I do workshops here and there as a demonstration about what is important and what is not when making a photograph.

That brings us back to National Geographic. It's been a long time since that first article was shot on a D1X and just about everything is shot on digital. Over the last few years it's happened and I have noticed a trend in the look of the Geographic images. On occasion I have said to myself that I cannot believe the amount of sharpening applied to the images in this story or that story. Help it's making my eyes bleed. See that is the horrifying part. It started as an article here and there but now the entire body of images in almost every issue gives me the same sence. It's not as shocking as it was because I have become visually used to it, or maybe visually numb to it.

Are we as a society developing a new visual aestetic where every single image has to have a massive degree of "sharpness", saturation, and "smoothness" to pay it any attention? To make it real? Is there no variation in image characteristics that is acceptable? I swear 99.999% of images published in print and on the web here today in 2009 are "sharper" as in effect than any image published anywhere in the analog days. They are not necessarily more detailed just insanely "sharp". Don't get me wrong I love properly focused images with great detail, I am just surprised that this is now the default for just about every image that we are presented with. This is an amazing jump in a short number of years in terms of our collective visual sensibilities. The thing that brought this to the front of my mind today happens to be an article that I read this morning in the Geographic. The subject was Shangri La China. The opening image has "noise". It's a two and one half page spread but it has noise so do a few of the other images in the story.

What the hell is going on here, this is 2009. Given that the magazine is a n'th generation copy with boatloads of processes inbetween the original image and what I am looking at I have no idea what was used to capture the images. Is it a printing defect, did they forget the noise reduction, was it shot on K200, a D2h. I have no idea but it stood out. I am sure that there are other images in recent publication but this happend to be the first one that I have seen in a while. The image is great, in fact it sticks out due to the "noise". It looks a whole lot like images shot with K200 and NGM's printing technology of 10 years ago or longer. Is this the new retro trend? If it is I can save a bunch of money on camera bodies if it starts to take hold and sticks around for a year or three.I'll just haul out the old D2H bodies and sell of my new gear. Nah I'll keep it for now.

If you have the time take a look at this month's Geographic and tell me what you think. I maybe strange but I actually found some comfort in the fact that a photojounalistic image published in 2009 looks like this. I wonder if anyone else will find it as shooking as I did.

RB

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