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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

Over the past two years we’ve seen great advances in ISO capability and noise reduction. Models like the Nikon D3 and Canon EOS 5D Mark II led to models like the new Nikon D3S and Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, which can shoot at a remarkable ISO 102,400! We expect the trend to continue opening up even greater opportunities for pros.
Beyond Street Photography
Even photographers who aren’t documenting life after dark have embraced the aesthetic shift. Jared McMillen, a location sports portrait specialist, says he’s no longer limited by light.

“Back in the day, I was shooting film rated at ISO 200 and below,” he says, “mostly shooting Velvia 50. Shooting that kind of film, you had to work around the light and time of day. Now that cameras can produce such high-quality, clean, high ISOs, we can pretty much shoot in any situation no matter the time of day and no matter the quality of light. Sure, good light is good light, but now with digital, we can tweak bad light pretty far to make it good.

The Digital Look
Adjusting digital files in the computer has led to the other major aesthetic shift in contemporary photography. Most notably, the process of HDR—or high-dynamic-range imaging—didn’t exist before digital. And nothing in print looks quite like it.

HDR is based on the principle that the human eye can see detail in a wider tonal range, from deep shadow to bright highlight, than a single photographic image is capable of reproducing. So HDR overcomes this limited dynamic range—which was particularly noticeable in film—by combining multiple digital captures. Each capture already preserves more detail in the extremes of shadow and brightness, and when combined, they can deliver a scene with more detail across the brightness spectrum than even the human eye is used to.

Even without processing an image as entirely HDR, many commercial advertising and editorial photographers hint at the approach by post-processing images for “hyperreal” or overly detailed, overly sharp effects. The style is often employed to create a specific mood, delivering a grittiness, an edginess or a simple “wow” factor in many advertising and editorial images. Even if these images aren’t truly HDR, the look comes from the same aesthetic device: harnessing the wider dynamic range of digital captures and postprocessing to create a whole new effect—what Jared McMillen calls “the digital look.”

“The digital look,” he says, “is punchy, textured and just has a different overall feel. This is a close reflection of what digital has done for us. We now pull a lot more detail out of the shadows, tweak colors and place a punch on our images with layers in Photoshop.”

Some photographers object to the overly in-your-face look—or the use of HDR processing in general—precisely because it’s so “unphotographic.” Photographs have never looked like that before. What further proof is needed that there are new aesthetics in digital photography?

If this generation’s photographers have learned anything, it’s that it is practically impossible to overestimate the power of technological advancement—not only because of the amazing ways it transforms how we work, but also because of what it can do to the very images we create.


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