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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Digital Decisive Moment

We’re entering an era of new possibilities, where low-noise and high-ISO digital capture is defining new aesthetics. And it’s not just about low-light shooting.


This Article Features Photo Zoom




Gerd Ludwig’s “Moscow Never Sleeps” project shows how the aesthetics of digital photography are changing with new high-ISO technology. Instead of needing a flash to blow out a scene, Ludwig is able to use his strobes as more creative tools.
For years, photographers have marveled at the ways in which technology has revolutionized how we work. From digital capture through the digital darkroom to final digital output, the focus has remained largely on the new ways in which photographers create images—often easier, faster and better. Still, for a long while the results in question remained comparable to those of film. For all of their incredible technology, DSLRs essentially were doing almost exactly what we had been doing with film, albeit in a more versatile package.

Photography in 2010 is most aesthetically different because of two technological marvels: high-ISO, low-noise digital capture and high-dynamic-range (HDR) processing. They have combined to create a uniquely digital decisive moment. Not only is the process of taking pictures all new, but, in many instances, the end result is entirely different, too. Advancing digital technology has resulted in a whole new photographic aesthetic. This is the first time that digital cameras have substantially departed from film cameras in terms of being able to get a wholly new kind of image. This is the stepping-off point where digital photography breaks free from the legacy of film.

The Origin Of The Decisive Moment
Photographs are different because of technology, though this is not a new phenomenon. Changes in equipment always have led to changes in aesthetics. The first portraits required subjects to remain motionless for minutes at a time—until emulsion sensitivity improved to allow for shorter exposures that tolerated movement. Spontaneity and Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” weren’t introduced until cameras became both portable and functionally efficient. Capturing the decisive moment was possible because of a combination of film sensitivity and the small form factor and fast working speed of a new generation of cameras.


Using artificial light more subtly, Ludwig creates images with depth. The viewer gets a much more complete sense of the whole scene. In this nightclub image, motion, color and atmosphere are all apparent.
“Historically,” says documentary photographer Gerd Ludwig, “technological advances have always led to new ways of seeing. A novel approach to photojournalism began to emerge after the invention of the 35mm camera: while there were a few instances beforehand, capturing the decisive moment now became an important objective for photographers.”

High ISO, Low Noise
It wasn’t long ago that the revolution in high-ISO photography meant photographers could shoot at ISO 1600 without fear of excessive noise rendering an image unusable. The most recent round of cameras, however, has delivered ISOs as high as 100,000. While they aren’t yet more than “emergency” settings for most photographers, these astronomical numbers are now in play, with ISOs upwards of 6,400 largely considered usable.

Canon produces a camera with a default ISO range to 12,800—the newly announced EOS-1D Mark IV. Canon Technical Advisor Chuck Westfall says a wide range of individual technical advancements are responsible for the improvements in high-ISO image quality, “but it all boils down to the evolution of our CMOS image sensors and DIGIC 4 image processors.”

 

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