Thoughts On Image Quality III

In the last installment I talked about flare, and lighting ratio, and fill, and the realities of rendering the world onto a screen or piece of paper. It might have seemed a bit random in the ongoing conversation which is far more philosophical than it is technical at it's core. I showed some shots with what could be considered adverse circumstances – large areas of flare – handled in various ways. Worked into the feel of the images to one degree or another. I showed some that were not so adverse with some context of the setup and how the scene varied within just a couple of feet. That was sort of all just setup for this section. Take the image at the top left from that same scene that I snuck in.

Simple setup with two 4ft x 8ft white flat reflectors and a space to shoot in between. Two giant windows on either side of where Mika is standing. Easy light to shoot people in. Some photographers make a career out of just this look or minor variations of it. Sure makes female skin look fantastic. Obviously this was a candid with no direction of the subject. Just a quick grab of Mika getting ready to go down to the deep dark recesses of the new Atomic Canary space with whatever look the photographer who was there wanted.

Challenging to any camera's IQ capabilities? Nope. Heck this wouldn't challenge the IQ of a cheap cell phone sensor. Everything fits easily. If I wanted to I could jack contrast through the roof. Shot at f/2, ISO 200, 1/250s like falling off a log. I actually added fake grain in post to give it a hint of dirt so it didn't look so smooth. This is a bit extreme but here's the question, is this the rendering you want for every scene. Some sort of switch or setting that puts shadow and highlight so close no matter what's going on. No motion blur, no flare, crazy sharp with detail everywhere but in a way that doesn't show flaws? Super smooooooth no matter what the conditions? Now you might say no but if I put up a different picture that was your notion of ideal from whatever point of view that comes from you might just say yes.

I propose that would make for a super boring world. Everyone's creativity would go completely to shit if it hasn't already. I certainly see a trend towards some generic committee determined aesthetic based on popular notions of image quality. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying at all that pristine clarity, etc, etc is to be avoided just for the hell of it but I am saying it's definitely not the only way to render images. Conversely screwing up the pillars of quality doesn't make much sense either without context and intent – yes there is that school of thought. Image sucks, just mess it up more or shoot on polaroid… ooooohhh now it's good. Both thought processes don't really amount to much in and of themselves divorced from subject, scene, context, feel, and the rest of it all. You know the important stuff.

Fast forward, the photographer wanted to try out some of our grittier shooting spaces. What could be considered horrid shooting conditions by a number of measurements. I did an impromptu one-on-one coaching session with some ideas on using the space, mixing his speedlights with the ambient, and what turned into a few thoughts on subject direction. The image above is one of maybe 10 shots I made where I was directing Mika while explaining thought process to the photographer. I wasn't using any speedlights, reflectors, or any gear but the camera, just what was there.

Truth is I would have not used this wardrobe had I known this was the feel he was going for but that's a completely different can of worms and a post for another day. I did attempt to make the best out of it in two minutes. What do we have… A bunch of overhead fluorescents with what appears to be a completely random mix of types and colors. A really really dark space at the end where I'm shooting from and to camera left. And not much light from an overall intensity perspective. Lowest ISO that would work at all was 3200 so my shots both directing, and BTS were all 3200 and 6400. All shot wide open at f/1.4. Shutter speeds ranged from 1/30 to a whopping 1/125 depending on the way I wanted to render the scene. Certainly not the kind of thing anyone would want in the pursuit of the all consuming iamge quality quest. Especially hand-held shooting a moving subject.

Compared to that particular cameras ISO 400 and below and f/4, and a higher shutter speed image quality is absolute dog shit. Dynamic range is far below what it could be, resolution suffers, sharpness suffers, tonal differentiation is compromised, there isn't one single thing from the IQ committee that is acceptable; or is it?

I added a ton of fake grain in post, I jacked up the contrast into the neighborhood of what I would expect from pushed TRI-X, TMAX 3200P, or Neopan 1600… they all are sharp, not much detail, and tons of grain in 35mmm. I actually loved the way the one florescent fixture in the frame looks with the halation and acting as a separation light around Mika. I like a lot of things about it. The lack of clarity and other IQ parameters seems to fit with the scene, the mood I was directing, and the overall feel.

So does lack of image quality really affect the qualities of these images adversely? Would the be arbitrarily better shot closer to the specs with all the attendant wonderfulness of the image at the top of the post? Would bringing in a bunch of power and some V-flats to make sure I have detail everywhere make everything more better? They would certainly be different. What if I made them that way or the camera was so much better that it just did it because of it's definition of what a picture should look like quality wise. Would I be willing to trade-off expression gesture or any of the other reasons I like these at all? Certainly not. I already mentioned that I love the halation going on with the florescent fixture in these. A negative check mark according to the image quality committee but from my view an enhancement to the quality of the image.

One last thought for this installment just because I happen to do a few variations in the two minutes I was directing Mika. In any given circumstance, scene, or set of lighting conditions there are definitely a multitude of images that can be made. Even from an exposure and subject positioning point of view. I urge you explore variations in rebellion to quality shit that gets pounded into your head via the interwebs. They may not all work out but exposure and use of any scene or lighting setup is not a fixed entity. All of it is up to you in terms of creative options.

I'll leave you with one extreme variation at the low point of image quality characteristics. At least according to mob-think. The absolute highest ISO my camera will go… ISO 6400. A super slow hand held 1/40 second. Details that have left the building in the highlights. Something no sane person would do; taking Mika and having her face the darkness on purpose while overexposing the living hell out of it.

I kind of like this too. I did variations in feel from A to Z. this is the other extreme. Completely different picture, a variation of the feel for sure. No light fixture included but a similar use of the space. What's the most important part here, obviously the subject, but even in the dark, even rendered small, even being a tiny area in the frame all of these depend on gesture and expression. What's more is the gesture and expression I've shown in the last picture actually fit the light and exposure treatment in a different way than the previous illustrations.

In my mind these kinds of decisions and how you choose to use a scene and render it – inclusive of the obstacles and adversity – are the essence of the photographic art. Why would anyone want to be absolved of those responsibilities as a photographer. Of course if you are an event photographer there are occasions that might fit the bill but even then these kinds of decisions are sometimes a make or break in a photograph. They are certainly not some universal set of image quality parameters that the committee comes up with.

More later.

RB

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