Thursday, April 14, 2011

Something to Try

I've been playing with digital cameras from nearly the first day they appeared on the market. The early models had a resolution comparable to the old VGA video monitor standard, of 640 by 480 pixels. Enlarged to over snapshot size, the images looked terrible, full of "jaggies" and JPEG artifacts, which were distortions inherent in the process of compressing photos to sizes compatible with the amount of computer memory available at the time.

Those early cameras did have one odd advantage, which was the fact that their image sensors were tiny and focusing an image on them required very short focal-length lenses. Due to the physics of the situation, this meant that the cameras possessed huge depth-of-field, much like a pinhole camera. In other words, the lens would bring any object from a few inches away to infinity into focus simultaneously. This made it possible to shoot interesting photos that would be difficult to capture with a conventional 35mm film camera.

One of the illuminating aspects of my switch to digital was that, with no film to buy, I could experiment freely in order to understand better how a camera sees, and how to make use of the unique qualities of a particular type of camera. Of course the computer and camera cost money, but unless I made prints it cost nothing extra to shoot as many images as I desired. With digital cameras the possibilities of what a camera can record are considerably beyond what was possible with film cameras. In the process of playing with digital images I learned some lessons, as I did with depth-of-field, above, that have not only expanded my repertoire of possible imagery, but have encouraged me to create images that would have been difficult or impossible to attain with film.

Here's an example of a technique I've tried with my digital camera that often brings interesting and surprising results, while educating my eyes to see subtleties that were previously not apparent.

In the first example, I shot pictures of intriguing marks left on a concrete breakwater by the wooden forms in which they were poured. The concrete was dull grey and the resulting image hardly interesting to look at. I loaded the picture into my image processing program and greatly enhanced its contrast until it began to bring out colors and textures that were nearly invisible in the object or the original photograph of it. There were hidden blues, browns, reds, and shades of texture you'd hardly notice if you glanced casually at the original surface.

 After I'd experimented with this technique for awhile, I began to see all sorts of possibilities for creating striking images from subject matter I previously would have ignored. Such transformed imagery reminds me of my pottery-making days and the excitement of opening a kiln after a firing, then inspecting the surfaces of ware after their colorful transformation by heat.

If you try this, it's best to choose low-contrast, minimally colored subjects. However look for any patterns and textures that might not be apparent due to the low contrast inherent in the scene. Boulders, rocks, and geological formations are good possibilities to investigate. The soft light of a cloudy sky makes for the right sort of illumination. It's color neutral and just the opposite of the sort of lighting you might conventionally wish for such subjects. When you increase the contrast of the image, you may have to tone down the brightness in order for the highlights not to "burn out," that is go completely white.

After playing with this or other means of digital transformation you might ponder this question: What do you think are the advantages and liabilities of digital photographic process compared to the old days of film and chemistry, and how do you feel about digitally modified images as an art form? These are ideas I still contemplate quite a lot and will probably discuss in future postings, along with a few other ideas for modifying digital images. Meantime, have fun experimenting.

Kevin Jones

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